Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today
Date Written: 2013-07-04
Publisher: International Socialism
Year Published: 2017
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX21558
The recent calls for the British left either to “reclaim Labour” (Len McCluskey) or to build a new party capable of emulating Syriza’s successes in Greece (Ken Loach) demand serious consideration on these pages. At their core these proposals reflect a widespread desire, shared by members of the Socialist Workers Party, to fight the cuts, alongside revulsion at the Labour Party’s failure to do so. They also reflect a genuine excitement across the left about the prospects for new left formations such as Syriza and France’s similar Front de Gauche.
Syriza’s recent attempt to present an increasingly moderate face to the Greek electorate under pressure to act as a responsible government in waiting is an example of the consequences of this failure to break with the logic of reformism.9 This approach isn’t primarily a function of the individual failings of Syriza’s leadership. Rather it is an entirely predictable effect of its left reformist politics. The problem with left reformist currents is that in practice they fail to extricate themselves from the limitations of more mainstream forms of reformism. This is dangerous because social democratic type parties have become what they have become for structural reasons, and any attempt to forge left unity that inadequately addresses the causes of this process will tend to repeat past mistakes. Indeed, there is a danger in this situation that more radical currents within these coalitions will get pulled to the right by a leadership whose politics is essentially electoral. So while revolutionaries welcome these new left reformist currents, it is important that our orientation towards them is informed by an analysis of their limitations as well as of their strengths. In particular, fundamental questions need to be asked about the possible use of the state to advance socialism.
In Syriza’s case, there is a tension between the very positive and highly welcome political critique of austerity and their orientation towards capturing the existing state machine through parliamentary elections. It is their parliamentary statism, however mediated, that tends to trap left reformist parties like Syriza within capitalist relations in ways that pressure them to come into conflict with and, unless successfully challenged from the left, eventually undermine the radicalism of their own base. So while it is of the first importance that revolutionaries welcome and work alongside these coalitions, it is also imperative that we maintain our political independence from them so that we are better able to struggle for an alternative beyond the limitations of their politics. This perspective demands a clear analysis of the nature of reformism.