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Alasdair MacIntyre

Rejoinder to left reformism

(Autumn 1961)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961, pp.20-23.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Alasdair MacIntyre teaches philosophy and has experience of the Communist Party, the Socialist Labour League, the New Left and the Labour Party; believes that if none of these can disillusion one with socialism, then nothing can. He is co-editor of International Socialism.

It was important that the discussion on reformism should be reopened and that it should be done as well as Henry Collins has done it. Collins puts the case for contemporary Left reformism with all the lucidity with which Bernstein put the case for Left reformism (and we forget too easily that Bernstein was a Left reformist) in his own time. This continuing reformist argument matters for at least two reasons. First, reformism is not just a set of arguments held by political opponents; it is the ideological air we breathe. We take in the concepts of reformism in all the transactions of daily life. To combat it is to combat a tendency which constantly arises inside us as well as in our opponents. Secondly, would-be Marxist thinking on this topic is dominated by a stereotype which constantly deadens the discussion. This stereotype consists of a mock battle between an inaccurate version of Bernstein and a misleadingly selective version of Lenin. The chosen battlefield is usually ‘the nature of the state’ or ‘the role of the party’ I shall return to this mock battle at the end of the argument in order to contrast and oppose the revolution which is the concern of Marxist theory with the ‘revolution’ which figures in this mock-battle. But for the moment I am concerned to quarrel more with what the reformism of the stereotype has in common with the revolutionism of the stereotype than with what separates them, that is with the economic basis from which they start. For this is reproduced in Collins’ argument.

What is Collins’ theoretical structure? Since he never states it, it has to be deduced from his arguments on particular issues and I shall risk being unfair. But unless it is stated clearly, what is at stake will remain obscure. I want to pick out five features of his argument, which together suggest a general theory of contemporary society. First, the premisses of his argument are economic. The basic diagram with which he analyses capitalism is one in which political activity may modify or check the workings of an economic system which is a law to itself unless so checked. This economic system is described in partial abstraction from the activity of and the effects upon the people whose social relations are capitalism. In particular, beliefs about the system are not pictured as playing a role inside the system. (One would never guess from Collins that Marx’s starting-point was the critique of bourgeois political economy or that Marx’s revolutionary standpoint was advanced before the specific economic analyses of Capital were elaborated.)

When beliefs enter Collins’ picture, whether the beliefs of capitalists about capitalism or those of Collins or those of Marxists, they appear as external to the system described. So it was with Bernstein too. The basic difference from Marx is about the relation of beliefs to social systems. Because beliefs are external to the system, the politics which impinge on the economy also appears as external to the economy, for the social link between economic activity and political action can never be brought into the picture. For Collins Marxism is an economics and a politics, not – what it really is – a sociology of a peculiarly philosophical bent.

Secondly, in the economic diagram a key idea which Collins takes over from the Lenin v. Bernstein stereotype is that of ‘the limit’. This is the notion that capitalism can survive so long as it can expand; and that it can expand so long as it can find markets. But markets are limited and when the limit is reached, capitalism must become crisis-ridden to the point of extinction. The question which reformists continually put is whether in fact Marx was not profoundly mistaken as to where the limits of capitalist expansion lie. Monopolistic foresight and control, imperialism, technological expansion, the permanent war economy: some or all of these have at different times been offered as temporary panaceas for capitalism, means of pushing the limit back. But in fact this whole concept of ‘the limit’ is thoroughly misleading. The limitations of capitalist production are built into the system from the outset; they are not something which is only reached at a certain point. How those limitations appear differs with different stages of expansion. But there is no particular point fixed in advance at which capitalism must break down. This is why Marx both maintains the existence of long-term trends in capitalism and yet refuses to have iron laws or iron theories about slumps. The slump as the ‘limit’ of capitalism is not a concept known to Marx. This is one reason (among many others) for the quite different emphasis in the economics of Marx and the economics of Varga.

Thirdly, the state in Collins’ argument is essentially the state as it appeared in the stereotype, an executive and legislative power distinct from, even if controlled by the capitalist class. So Collins can see the working class as able to exert pressure on a state which so controls the economy that the capitalists cease to dominate. Thus he is in the odd position of allowing for fundamental changes in the economic structure of capitalism (for his economic argument requires this just as much as mine does), but refusing to allow for corresponding political changes. Yet if the role of the state in the economy is even no more extensive than Collins concedes, it needs to be argued and not just asserted that this type of state is amenable to pressure from the working-class and is able to control the economy.

Fourthly, there is nothing in Collins’ argument about who will make socialism or about why they will make it. Trotsky’s emphasis that socialism can only be built consciously and Lenin’s that it cannot be built by a minority, a party, together entail that a pre-condition of socialism is a mass socialist consciousness. In Collins we find references to ‘working class pressure’ and to ‘constant labour and democratic pressure’. Even if we overlook the imprecision of the word ‘pressure’ questions about the source of these pressures remain. Where are they to come from? How is the socialist consciousness behind them to be created? This void in Collins’ argument is a counterpart to his silence about what he means by ‘socialism’. For the question of how socialism could come about cannot be derived from the question of what it is to be. And the revolutionary case is in part that nothing worth calling socialism could come into being by reformist methods.

The structure of Collins’ argument is then simply this. The capitalist economy in Britain can survive all purely economic strains; the bourgeois state can survive many political strains. But the pressure from without of the Communist world and from within of the labour movement will gradually ease Britain into an undefined socialism. This brings us to the fifth feature of Collins’ theoretical outlook. The CP states are for him imperfect socialist states; about this I shall want to quarrel. But much more important is not what he says about their character, but what he does not say about their external international relationships. The whole interlocking frame of world power politics with the H-bomb at the centre is replaced once more by a curious vagueness. The challenge of Communism gives ex-colonial powers (nothing about their nature either) freedom of manoeuvre and in the end the ruling class will ‘have lost its grip’.

So much for my polemical summary of Collins. What I must next do is to set out by contrast the Marxist case against reformism.


Reformism is not just a set of theories about society. Reformist theories are themselves part of the social life which they attempt to describe. Of what kind of social life are they typically part? They arise within a capitalism which has learnt some degree of rationalization and of control. They represent a would-be readjustment of socialist theory to social realities. The stage before reformism is the stage of capitalist expansion in which the working-class movement may preserve an outward semblance of revolutionary aims and theory, but becomes in fact directed towards the goal of securing the maximum benefits for the working-class within capitalism. This is the stage which German social democracy reached by the eighteen-nineties: Bebel was its political tactician and Kautsky its theorist. This stage cannot continue for long before someone suggests that theory should be brought into line with practice. The actual involvement with capitalist success should be linked with a confidence in capitalism’s powers of self-regulation rather than unrealistic prophecies of doom. Kautsky gives way to Bernstein.

Thus reformist theories both express and reinforce an abandonment of revolutionary aims. They provide the justification for an adjustment to trade union goals and to bourgeois party politics. The outcome is necessarily a disintegration of the working-class movement in two directions. The leadership becomes assimilated to the parliamentary and administrative structure of the bourgeois state. The mass membership becomes sectionalized, acquires the aspirations of bourgeois society, disintegrates as a movement. The institutions of the labour movement partly become institutions of bourgeois society and partly become part of private rather than of public life.

The acceptance of gradualism is the acceptance of the viability of bourgeois institutions. The acceptance of such institutions is the acceptance – at best – of a mode of life in which reforms are offered to workers rather than won by them. The reformist’s mode is one in which the self-activity of the working-class is necessarily minimized. The self-activity of the working-class is revolutionary for it marks a total break with both the economic and the political systems of capitalism which rely upon the passive acceptance of their alienated role by the workers. And socialism is self-activity as a total form of life. This is in the briefest possible compass why the expression ‘revolutionary socialism’ is tautologous. To accept Left reformist theories into the labour movement is to assist in turning the labour movement away from socialism itself. Reformist tactics are the most effective enemy of revolutionary strategy.

The labour movement, under the influence of reformist theories, and, more importantly, under the influence of the social order which such theories express, becomes subject to the social pattern of capitalism. It responds to the pressures of economic and political life; it is no longer itself an effective agent of change. So that there is nowhere for the ‘pressures’ which Left Reformist speak of to come from. When movements of revolt are generated inside capitalism, the labour movement in its reformist aspects is forced to reject them as decisively as any other part of the bourgeois order. It is not because the theories held by the Labour Party leaders are Right rather than Left reformism that such a leadership rejects CND. It is because the whole party, Left and Right, is adapted to a reformist mode of activity (or inactivity). So it is also with the youth revolt. The goals of those adolescents whose vitality feeds Young Socialist branches are incompatible with the goals of the society to which the Labour Party is so well adapted. Thus the labour movement is debilitated by reformism into playing not even a reformist role. It expresses no revolt of its own and it cannot accommodate other revolts.

If there is a touchstone in contemporary political life it is the question of the H-Bomb. This is because the politics of the Bomb are not just one more issue; the politics of the Bomb are the politics of our kind of society. That Collins can discuss contemporary politics without mentioning the Bomb is itself an indictment of his reformism. There is an illusion abroad, and not only among reformists, that one can characterise a contemporary state in isolation from its world situation – and then later on discuss its foreign policy and its military policy as mere appendages. In fact any state which embarks on certain types of policy is bound to have a corresponding type of internal structure. Consider any policy which leans on the massive deterrence of the Bomb. To implement such a policy there must be an immense and largely secret technological and military organization. This is bound to become at least semi-autonomous, determining how surplus value is disposed of in large part. It is bound to evade democratic control. It is thus deeply incompatible with any sort of socialist order. No state with the Bomb can be a workers’ state. One could only suppose otherwise if the questions of who disposes of surplus value and to whom they are answerable are regarded as irrelevant to the characterisation of socialism. For no classical socialist thinker could these questions have been regarded as irrelevant; but for those who wish to treat the CP states as socialist states they must be so regarded.

Collins asserts that the ‘solidifying interest of private ownership’ is a necessary precondition for ‘the high income and privileged groups in communist societies’ to congeal into a class. I do not understand the warrant for this assertion. Feudal ownership was often corporate not private. Collins offers no arguments to show that capitalist ownership could not also be corporate. What matters is whether the relationship of exploitation holds between groups in a society. Collins admits that the actual CP states have had to practise what Preobrazhensky called ‘primitive socialist accumulation’. What he never raises is the key Marxist question: how could, under the objective conditions of anything worth calling primitive accumulation, non-capitalist forms of society arise? Either the answer is ‘In no way at all’, or not only are the closing sections of Vol.I of Capital nonsense, but historical materialism itself is falsified. What property in the means of production consists in is control over the disposal of surplus value. To separate labour from any share in this creates the social precondition of capitalism. And this is what the process of industrialization does. Industrialization belongs to the realm of necessity, to the formation of a social order under objective conditions which no idealism can transcend.

Thus the onus of proof should be on those who wish to maintain that the Russian and kindred bureaucracies are not a class. But since all the trappings of class privilege appear in their society there is hardly room for argument. The sole remaining props of belief in the non-exploiting nature of the bureaucracy are three-fold: nationalization; ideology; and the bureaucracy’s achievements. But nationalized property is only workers’ property when the workers own the state; Soviet Marxism has all the features of a class ideology; and the achievements of the bureaucracy are typical capitalist achievements. When Collins speaks of the rate of growth of the Soviet economy, he ignores with a piece of loose rhetoric all the relevant capitalist parallels from the nineteenth century to the Common Market. One might as well conclude that because the Americans have solved the problems of rate of growth in the agricultural sector (as Russia has not) the Americans are thereby socialist. Equally it is ludicrous to see symptoms of socialism in the liberalizing tendencies of the bureaucracy. It is worth protesting here at the absurdly low standards of liberality which apologists for the Soviet Union display.

The spectacle of Western scholars who could not study or publish in the Soviet Union praising its liberalism over against that of the capitalist West is a nauseating one. When in the Soviet Union scholars enjoy the freedom of enquiry that Marx enjoyed in Victorian England it will become clear that the Soviet Union is being praised for its likeness to bourgeois society and not for its differences. And those who praise it unconsciously render tribute to the state-capitalist nature of Soviet society.

What is missing from Collins then is both any appreciation of the kind of human consciousness which might build socialism and any criteria of the objective conditions, both social and economic, which are necessary. There is missing also any clear definition of what has to be overcome, the opposition to socialism. But the contemporary ruling class and the contemporary bourgeois state both stand in crying need of analysis. Sometimes the extension of state activity into economic and social life is treated as though this were an absorption of economic and social life into a monolithic political structure. In fact it is as much a dissipation of the old unitary state into a multifarious network of institutions. The decline of the role of parliament in the British state is one sign of this; the relation between the planning agencies of M. Monnet, the traditional French administrative bodies, and private French capitalism is another example. The result of this is that the state becomes continually less accessible to traditional forms of political activity. Within the present structure traditional methods of political attack, such as nationalization, become more and more irrelevant. We find in every large industrialized state, whatever its official political forms, a bureaucracy whose decision-making is carried out by a series of boards which represent the conflicting interests inside the corporate structure. The room for manoeuvre left to politically appointed and elected bodies is negligible. The question thus arises for the reformist: what is he going to reform? The social pattern will more and more be that of negotiation between labour and capital within an organized framework in which the political setting is minimal. Insofar as it does become possible for reformists to acquire state power, all the old Leninist arguments about the bourgeois state still apply anyway; but the changed character of state power itself is probably more important.

I have argued against Collins that reformism offers no hope of keeping in being or creating a labour movement that could in fact bring socialism about; that reformism must see the H-Bomb as just one more issue; that in so doing as well as for other reasons it misconceives the nature of the contemporary state; and that above all it does not understand the type of coincidence between objective conditions and socialist consciousness which is necessary for the transition to socialism. To this last point I must now turn in more detail, because it is here that Collins’ accusation of ‘apocalyptic Marxism’ must be met.


The transition to socialism will be political in that it will be concerned with the arrangements of power. How does the prospect of such a transition arise? It arises because of the dual character of working-class life under capitalism. To the worker the prospect of overcoming his unfreedom is presented by the very society which also keeps him unfree. The essence of working-class enslavement is not impoverishment. It is that ‘be his wages high or low’ the worker leads an existence which is enforced upon him. The germ of his liberation lies in the twin facts that capitalism cannot prevent him from recognizing that he is unfree and from combining with other workers to free himself. Indeed by its forms of work and social life it up to a point promotes such recognition and such combination.

Against the worker and against the socialist theorist capitalism has three lines of defence. The first is its objective capacity to ride the economic, social and political crises which it continually and inevitably engenders. Its capacity to do this is by no means independent of its ability to disable working-class consciousness, and to evacuate that consciousness of political content. To do this it falls back on its second line of defence, the institutionalization of working-class demands within the framework of bourgeois political and social life. This domestication of the working-class is intensified by its third bulwark, the promotion of middle-class and of sectional attitudes in working-class people. The attrition of consciousness by private ambition, by education in half-truths, by bread and circuses, this is too familiar to need emphasizing. In this capitalist perspective, reformism is absurd. The Left reformist perforce acts as an unwilling liberal; he would do much better to become a conscious and aware liberal. Between revolutionary socialism and liberalism there is no third way. Yet if these are the resources of capitalism, is not revolutionary socialism absurd too? Certainly the idea of the impoverished proletariat led by the elitist party cannot be introduced upon this stage without a comic opera effect. Those who identify Leninism with this do terrible injustice to Lenin’s keen sense of the politically ridiculous. And it is this which enables the Bernstein v. Lenin mock battle to continue: those who accept this false revolutionism as the alternative to reformism do as much as anybody to propagate reformism.

What then is the true revolutionary perspective? It seeks to bring together three elements in our social life. The first is the deep and incurable dissatisfaction with social life which capitalism breeds. The second is the recurrent state of objective crises in capitalist social order. The third is socialist theory. Without the third the first does not necessarily come into relation with the second at all, or only in the most fortuitous way. With the third, dissatisfaction can become creative in that it is presented with a radical alternative to the present social order. But unless that alternative is radical, is the prospect of a whole new way of life, working-class consciousness is left victim to particular reformist aims. This is not apocalyptic: it is a statement of the minimum required for socialist consciousness.

To have reached this point is to have stated in the barest and most meagre outline the case against Left Reformism. The case for revolution begins at this point.

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