Reform and Revolution

‘Towards a Socialist Strategy of Reforms’, André Gorz makes the case for a strategy of reforms that specifically attack the logic of capital accumulation.

December 4, 2018 · 20 min read
A protester addresses a crowd in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Viewminder (Flickr).

In his 1968 article, ‘Towards a Socialist Strategy of Reforms’, André Gorz makes the case for a strategy of reforms that specifically attack the logic of capital accumulation

The working class will neither unite politically, nor man the barricades, for a 10 percent rise in wages or 50,000 more council flats. In the foreseeable future there will be no crisis of European capitalism so dramatic as to drive the mass of workers to revolutionary general strikes or armed insurrection in defense of their vital interests. But the bourgeoisie will never surrender its power without struggle, without being forced to do so by the revolutionary action of the masses.

It follows that the principal problem of a socialist strategy is to create the objective and subjective conditions which will make mass revolutionary action and engagement in a successful trial of strength with the bourgeoisie possible.

There may be disagreement with the terms in which I have posed the problem; some may think socialism unnecessary for the liberation and fulfillment of men. But vast numbers of those working with hands or brains think or feel in some confused way that capitalism is no more acceptable today than it was yesterday as a type of economic and social development; as a mode of life; as a system of relations of men with each other, with their work, with nature, and with the peoples of the rest of the world; in the use it makes—or does not make—of its technical and scientific resources, of the potential or actual creative capacities of each individual. If this feeling or decision leads one to opt for socialism, these are the terms in which the problem of its realization must be posed.

This realization can never be the result of a gradual reform of the capitalist system, designed to rationalize its operation and to institutionalize class antagonisms; nor of its crises and irrationalities: capitalism can eliminate neither their causes nor their consequences, but it has now learned how to prevent their becoming explosively acute. Nor will socialism be achieved as a result of a spontaneous rising of the discontented or by the annihilation of social traitors and revisionists by means of anathema and quotations. Socialism can only come about through long-term and conscious action, which starts with the gradual application of a coherent program of reforms, but which can only proceed by way of a succession of more or less violent, sometimes successful, sometimes unsuccessful, trials of strength; and which will as a whole contribute to the formation and organization of the socialist will and consciousness of the working classes. In this way, the struggle will advance, on condition that within the capitalist system each battle reinforces the positions of strength, the weapons, and also the reasons that workers have for repel- ling the attacks of the conservative forces, and for preventing capitalism from regaining lost positions.

There is not and cannot be an imperceptible “gradual transition” from capitalism to socialism. The economic and political power of the bourgeoisie will not be whittled away by a slow process of erosion, nor destroyed by a succession of partial reforms, each one apparently innocuous and acceptable to capitalism, but which cumulatively would amount to a discreet siege of the enemy by a secret and masked socialist army, advancing soundlessly, under cover of night, until one fine morning it would find itself in power.

This cannot be the real issue. What can and must be gradual and cumulative in a socialist strategy is the preparatory phase that sets in motion a process leading to the edge of the crisis and the final trial of strength. The choice of this road, incorrectly called “the peaceful road to socialism,” is not the consequence of an a priori option for gradualism; nor of an a priori refusal of violent revolution or armed insurrection. It is a consequence of the latter’s actual impossibility in the European context. It is a consequence of the necessity to create the objective and subjective conditions, to prepare the social and political positions of strength, on the basis of which a working-class conquest of political power will become possible.

It may perhaps be objected that there can be no reforms of a socialist character as long as power remains in fact in the hands of the bourgeoisie, as long as the capitalist state continues to exist. This is true. A socialist strategy of progressive reforms does not mean the installation of islands of socialism in a capitalist ocean. But it does mean the conquest of popular and working-class powers; the creation of centres of social control and direct democracy (notably in great industrial enterprises and production cooperatives); the conquest of positions of strength in representative assemblies; and the abstraction from the domination of the market of goods and services answering to collective needs, with the inevitable consequence of an intensification and deepening of the antagonism between the logic of social production according to the needs and aspirations of men, and the logic of capitalist accumulation and the power of management.

It is essential that this antagonism should never be institutionalized, as it usually is in neocapitalist and social-democratic regimes, by the integration of working-class organizations in the state and their subordination to it, by compulsory negotiation and arbitration. The autonomy of trade union and political organizations must bring the antagonisms into the open and allow them to develop freely, and then bring the existing organization of power into question and into crisis, and upset the balance of social forces and of the capitalist economy—a balance which tends to reconstitute itself at a higher level after every initiation of partial reforms, a point which will be taken up presently.

A socialist strategy of gradual reforms can neither be conceived as a simple electoral conquest of a majority, nor as the promulgation of a series of reforms by a chance coalition of social democrats and socialists. The electoral struggle, even when it is ultimately victorious, has never enabled the working classes to forge a collective will or real political power. As Marx and Engels wrote, su rage gives the right, not the power to govern.3 It makes possible an assessment of a multiplicity of individual wishes, expressed in the secrecy of the polling booth, of men and women whose convergence of demands does not yet make at all possible their organization and uni cation for the purpose of common action.

This is one of the mystifications of bourgeois democracy. Its institutions are so conceived as to perpetuate the separation of individuals and their molecular dispersion, to deny them all collective power over the organization of society, leaving them merely with the possibility, as a substitute for popular power, of a permanent delegation of power every four or ve years to representatives with no direct relations with the masses, to parties which are only considered “acceptable partners” on condition that they represent vis-à-vis their electors the superior interests of the capitalist state, rather than the interests of their electors vis-à-vis the capitalist state.

In short, electoral victory does not give power: electoral victory acquired on the basis of a program of reforms, however timid, does not give the power to initiate these reforms. This is one of the profound reasons for the persistence of conservative majorities except in periods of grave crisis and con ict, and for the regular reelection of the government in office, whatever its policies. For in their general tendency, if not in detail, these policies reflect the existing relation of forces in the given situation.

However eloquently it may be advocated by the opposition, a different policy will neither convince nor appear possible unless there has already been a virtual demonstration of the power of promulgating it, unless the relation of social forces has been modi ed by direct mass action which, organized and led by the working class parties, has created a crisis for the policies of the government in office. In other words, the power to initiate a policy of reforms is not conquered in Parliament, but by the previous demonstration of a capacity to mobilize the work- ing classes against current policies; and this capacity of mobilization can itself only be durable and fruitful if the forces of opposition can not only effectively challenge current policies, but also resolve the ensuing crisis; not only attack these policies, but also define other policies that correspond to the new balance of forces, or rather—since a relation of forces is never a static thing—to the new dynamic of struggle that this new relation of forces makes possible.

Without a change in the balance of forces between classes, with- out a shift in the economic and social balance of the system through the struggle of the masses for their demands, there is a fatal tendency for electoral logic to play into the hands of those political leaders for whom the role of the “left” is reduced to carrying out “better than the right” the same policies as the right; and for whom inter-party competition reduces itself, in Lelio Basso’s words, “to the competition between cliques of political leaders who present their credentials for a more efficient administration of power within the framework of a common political choice.”5 If, on the other hand, mass struggles succeed in up- setting the balance of the system and in precipitating a crisis without being accompanied at the party level by the definition of a really new economic policy capable of resolving the crisis to the political and material advantage of the working classes (as has happened in the recent past in most of the countries of Western Europe), then the situation rapidly decays and, despite their victories, the working classes are soon thrown back by the bourgeoisie to their starting point. Famous precedents for this are France (1937, 1947, and 1957), Belgium (1961), Italy (1962–1964), etc.

At the present time there is a danger that this same process of decay of a situation favorable to the working class will be reproduced every time a coalition coming to power on a program of reforms is a heterogeneous alliance of neocapitalist reformists and socialists. This touches on the strictly political conditions of a socialist strategy of reforms.

Such a strategy, it is worth repeating, cannot, in present-day Europe, aim at the immediate installation of socialism. Neither can it aim at the immediate realization of anticapitalist reforms that are directly incompatible with the survival of the system, such as the nationalization of all important industrial enterprises or of all sectors with monopolistic or oligopolistic structures. Such reforms, included within a short-term program, would not constitute the setting in motion of a revolutionary process during which class antagonisms would steadily intensify to the point of a decisive trial of strength. They would constitute directly the destruction of capitalist structures and would already demand sufficient maturity of the working class for the immediate revolutionary con- quest of political power. If the socialist revolution is not immediately possible, neither is the realization of reforms immediately destructive of capitalism. Those who reject any other kind of reforms in fact reject the very possibility of a strategy of transition and a process of transition to socialism.

We should not conclude from the impossibility, failing a pre-revolutionary situation, of passing directly to reforms destructive of the system, that a socialist strategy of reforms can or must be limited to isolated or partial reforms, called “democratic” because they have not only no socialist content, but no socialist perspective or revolutionary dynamic. In practice, what distinguishes a socialist strategy of reforms from a neocapitalist reformism of a social-democratic type is less each of the reforms proposed and each programmatic objective than: 1) the presence or absence of organic ties between the various reforms; 2) the rhythm and modalities of their initiation; 3) the presence or absence of a will to pro t by the collapse in the balance provoked by the first reforming actions for new disruptive action.6

The fact that social-democratic leaders and socialist forces may find themselves in agreement on the necessity of certain reforms must never be allowed to confuse the basic difference between their respective goals and perspectives. If a socialist strategy of reforms is to be possible, this basic difference must not be masked, nor dismissed to a lower level by tactical agreements at the summit. On the contrary, it must be placed at the center of political debate. If not, the socialist movement, by seeming to give a totally unmerited “socialist” warrant to the social-democratic leaders through tactical agreements at the summit, will have prepared the rout in ideological and political confusion of the whole of the work- ing class movement and particularly of its avant-garde.

These remarks are particularly applicable to the present European situation, in which the precarious economic balance no longer allows, as it did in other periods, the financing of social programs and public intervention. It follows from this situation that a program with a “social” character—concerning the raising of low wages; the development of social construction and backward regions; the improvement of education and public services, etc.—must either use a coherent set of reforms to attack the logic and the core of capitalist accumulation, or retreat precipitately before the lightning response of capitalist forces whose interests are threatened or adversely affected.

If it is proposed that a popular front coalition should be brought to power on the basis of an agreement as to a minimum common program, entailing several partial reforms, and excluding by the very terms of the alliance reforming actions going beyond the limits of the program, then the fate of the coalition and its government is virtually sealed in advance.

In fact, the very essence of a minimum program is that, unlike a program of transition or a strategy of reforms, it debars the socialist forces, on pain of breaking the pact, from pro ting by the dynamic of the process set in motion by the initial measures, and even from responding by counter-offensive to the offensive of the capitalist forces.

The nature of this offensive is now well known, as it always follows the pattern of France in 1936. The bourgeoisie reacts to the actions that threaten its prerogatives and powers by a fight of capital, an investment strike, and selective dismissals, aimed first of all at trade union militants; in short, by unleashing an economic crisis whose effects penalize the working classes. This crisis—which is not merely the result of a deliberate and concerted action by the bourgeoisie, but also of the objective impossibility of making capitalism work while attacking its internal resources— finally allows the bourgeoisie to negotiate from a position of strength the revision of the government program and the postponement in time (i.e., in practice, indefinitely) of its objectives. The bourgeoisie is the more insistent the more negotiation brings out the internal division of the coalition between partisans of intransigence and partisans of com- promise. As the weeks pass and the economic and monetary crisis deepens, the former inevitably lose ground to the latter. For from this moment on the situation has already changed. The original minimum program has already become inapplicable. To apply it would now demand draconian measures which did not figure in the original common minimum program—e.g. exchange, controls, price ceilings, import quotas, nationalization of financial or industrial monopolies—and which could only be attempted by a government “striking while the iron is hot,” at the moment of maximum popular support and mobilization.

But the weeks that have passed in sterile bargaining, the economic crisis, and the dissensions within the coalition produce a reflux of combativity in the working classes. The partisans of intransigence are already fighting a rearguard action. Confusion ensues, and the capitalist forces, conscious that time is on their side, harden their stand. The his- tory of the coalition thus becomes that of a long retreating struggle. To regain the con dence of capital it multiplies concessions. When finally it is succeeded by a moderate government, better suited to appease the bourgeoisie and “cure” the economy, the popular front coalition has to its credit only the measures and partial reforms carried out in its first weeks of power, and which have been distorted, deprived of all real significance and even put to the service of the capitalist system.

The repetition of a similar process—which occurred in France after 1936 and 1945, in Great Britain after 1945 and 1964, in Italy after 1947 and 1963—can only be prevented if the coalition is sufficiently homogeneous and conscious of the trials awaiting it to respond to the offensive of the capitalist forces by a lightning reaction in the country of the working masses, and by governmental measures prepared preventively in advance, well before the victory. But an effective reaction from the working class movement pre- supposes that the reforming action is not conceived as an action centralized in the state, in support of which the coalition demands of the masses a permanent and disciplined delegation of powers; rather it pre- supposes that the promulgation of the economic program goes hand in hand from the beginning with democratic reforms allowing the development in factories, cooperatives, regions and local councils of centres of popular power and initiatives adapted to local circumstances.

On the other hand, preventative measures against the offensive of the capitalist forces presupposes that from the start the coalition had no illusions about the possibility of appeasing the bourgeoisie and reconciling it with a loyal collaboration with the new state.8 But social- democratic leaders are supporters of a popular front. According to them, initially there should be a sincere attempt at a policy resting on indirect controls and freely accepted managerial prerogatives. It would be in- correct to reject this method of approach a priori if its supporters were conscious from the start that it cannot constitute a lasting policy, but must inevitably lead to an acute conflict which must be prepared for. In other words, a policy of indirect public control of the mechanisms of accumulation and circulation of capital should not necessarily be rejected, on condition that it must only be conceived as a transition towards the policy of direct control, which it will inevitably demand as its logical continuation under pain of a blockage in the system and retaliations on the part of the economic forces.

To believe that the state can in the long term contain, orient and regulate the activity of the economic forces without encroaching on the regime of private property is in fact to abstract from the political and psychological dynamic of capitalism. No doubt it is technically true that a selective policy in fiscal, price, and credit matters can imprint qualitative social and geographical orientations on production, differentiating the growth of its sectors, services, and regions according to social criteria and a global economic rationality. But what is technically possible is not for long politically possible.9

The public desire to reduce the cost of growth; to eliminate waste (in the form of artificially expanded costs of marketing, management, advertizing, display and so on); to prevent the use of the resources of enterprises for private purposes; to prevent investment in new instal- lations and new models that contribute neither to technical progress nor to the improvement of products, but are rather aimed primarily at justifying the rates of amortization allowed by the Inland Reve- nue, all this is rigorously technically possible through the tightening of controls and the establishment of strict administrative rules: e.g., the limitation of advertizing costs accepted by the Inland Revenue; the determination by sectors, or single cases (where monopolies are concerned), of an acceptable rate of profit, of the use which may be made of pro t, of the direction and nature of investments which can be made, etc., under pain of stiff tax penalties.

But the promulgation of such public directives quickly comes up against the logic of capitalist activity and destroys its dynamic.10 In fact, it amounts to the destruction of managerial authority, to the factual socialization of the activity of the entrepreneur, and to indirect pub- lic direction of rms. It would include as a sanction the confiscation (or very severe taxation) of supranormal profits. It would thus remove any reason why a private company should seek a rationalization or innovation which would increase its profits beyond the rate reckoned as normal, thereby destroying one of the major incentives to technical progress. In short, by controlling management, by weighing it down at the top with bureaucracy, by attacking the pro t motive, the state would be attacking the very dynamic of the capitalist system, and would encourage its paralysis or sclerosis.

There is no sense in attacking the mechanisms and dynamic of the capitalist system unless one intends to abolish it, not conserve it. To attack the consequences of the system’s logic is necessarily to attack this logic itself and to threaten the system. If this crisis is not to turn against those who provoked it, it must be resolved by the transfer of centers of accumulation under public control. In default of more extreme measures of socialization following initial reforms and tending to remove those very obstacles raised by the promulgation of the program, the reform- ing coalition will be the victim of a war of attrition and of the process of decay we have just described.

If intermediate reforms (in the sense that they do not reveal their anticapitalist logic directly) must certainly not be rejected in the perspective of a socialist strategy, this is only on the basic condition that they must be conceived as means, not as ends, as dynamic phases in a process of struggle, not as resting stages. Their function is to educate and unite the actually or potentially anticapitalist social forces by the struggle for undeniable social and economic objectives—above all, for a new direction for social and economic development—by initially adopting the method of peaceful and democratic reforms. But this method must be adopted not because it is viable or intrinsically preferable, but on the contrary because the resistance, the limits, and the impossibilities that it will inevitably come up against after a short while are suitable simply for the demonstration of the necessity of socialist transformation to social forces not yet ready for it.

This is an extract from ‘Class, Party and Revolution: The 2018 Socialist Register’. Published by Haymarket Books.

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