‘It’s Time’ to rethink’ what we mean by ‘social revolution’ on the modern Left.
What if any meaning does ‘revolution’ have for today?
A comrade in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) Socialist Left recently rebuked me for discussing “revolutionary” politics; and said that “thankfully” the vast majority in the ALP SL are NOT revolutionaries and that that’s “the beginning and the end of the discussion thankfully”.
Another comrade responded to my arguments in favour of ‘slow revolution’ that I was an “idealist”. That is: specifically in response to my use of that word (ie: revolution).
So apparently some people are arguing my positions are ‘idealist’ and ‘extreme’.
This is my response:
When we speak of ‘revolutionary’ aims not everyone is talking about the same thing. Personally, I’m NOT talking about an insurrection; armed or otherwise.
I’m NOT talking about ‘the masses storming parliament’ in some deluded attempt to replicate the ‘storming of the Winter Palace’ in Russia 1917!
What I am talking about is qualitative change; preferably through democratic channels; though being prepared for whatever resistance may arise against said qualitative change through democratic channels when push comes to shove.
So I’m talking about what various Leftists have described historically as ‘slow revolution’ or ‘revolutionary reforms’.
But what does that mean? What would be a ‘revolutionary reform’?
Well, the Meidner Plan held that promise for a start. (ie: an economic plan which would have rewarded Swedish workers with collective capital share in return for wage restraint; with the consequence workers collectively would over time become the dominant force in the Swedish economy)
Going back further: free, universal and equal suffrage itself comprised a kind of ‘democratic and political revolution’. A change that in much of the world only became possible following the end of World War I – and the fear of Bolshevism.
Non-Marxist socialists like Ferdinand Lassalle and Orthodox Marxists like Karl Kautsky were clear that universal suffrage was a kind of political revolution. Were we around in the 19th Century – or in the 1917-19 period, would we have fought for the suffrage; or would we have rejected ‘revolutionary’ changes of all sorts as a matter of policy so as not to rock the boat?
And further: what are the big ‘revolutionary reforms’ we ought to pursue today? (something of the significance of universal suffrage, but for today)
When I talk about a democratic economic revolution I’m talking about democratic collective capital formation; restoring a robust mixed economy; supporting producers’ and consumers’ co-operatives with state aid.
I’m also talking about decisive state support for the voluntary and domestic sectors. I mean to suggest, also, extending and improving the social wage and welfare state.
I’m talking about going down that road – probably over several decades – to the point where ‘the democratic sector’ becomes dominant, and hence a pivotal shift in the balance of class forces.
A ‘transitional demand’ could be improving the tax to GDP ratio to the OECD average. That is, raising tax by $80 billion/year in today’s terms – maybe over three terms of Labor government. (to get that in perspective an increase in tax by well over $300 billion would be necessary to meet Swedish levels)
That could pay for reforms like a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme ; programs to reduce mortality rates for the mentally ill ; a big expansion in public and social housing ; implement active labour market and industry policies along Danish lines ; implement a guaranteed minimum income and or radically improve welfare provisions ; implement a co-operative incentive scheme ; and strategically re-socialise areas of the economy. (eg: re-establish a bank along the lines of the former Commonwealth Bank; Finish the NBN and the Snowy River extension; as well as East Coast rail – and keep all of these public) Media diversification policies, and policies to ensure ‘public space for public use’ could also be crucial.
I’m also talking about a ‘democratic cultural and political revolution’: driven by an exponential increase in political participation and consciousness. Where there is a qualitative change (a revolution) in our democracy which takes the form of said improvements in consciousness and participation.
For Marxists the final aim is to replace wage labour with economic democracy; and then to transition to stateless communism. I’m not a full-blown communist. To begin, this is because I tend to believe human nature is not perfectible; and therefore I think some kind of state power (albeit democratised) will be necessary for a long time to come.
Further; I think the suppression of wage labour (ie: typified by the exploitation of labour by capital) can be taken so far. But at a point, you run into very serious resistance from the transnational corporations; and often by their state-facilitators. Look what happened to Gough; and look what happened under Rudd re the Mining Tax. And preferably we want to take the reform process significantly further over the long-run.
Also, there’s the problem of ‘workers exploiting themselves’. (where workers hold shares in capitalist enterprises; so in a way, they are ‘exploiting one another’) But collective capital formation (workers – and hopefully citizens – holding what collectively is a significant share in capital) is a potentially democratising force. I specify ‘citizens’ as well so as not to exclude non-capitalist citizens who for whatever reason are outside of the workforce; eg: pensioners.
Again, hence my support for democratic collective capital formation as policy. At this point, it’s a good outcome. But as suggested: it also creates complexities (re ‘technical’ exploitation’) which would be hard to resolve. So importantly I’m talking about a process – in this country and globally – which spans decades. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a kind of revolution – which took maybe a couple of centuries. So why not be a ‘revolutionary’ over the long run?
Indeed the Guaranteed Minimum Income that some of my critics support (and I support as well) itself has revolutionary potential – by getting rid of workers’ dependence on selling their labour power to capital in order to survive. Perhaps critics are just worried some Conservative will take the word “revolutionary” out of context; and depict us as if we are ‘terrorists’, ‘extremists’ or the like? But where do you draw the line then? Do we stop talking about socialism as well? Do we stop talking about ‘capitalism’ as anything less than ‘an eternal absolute’? A truly ‘closed system’; which cannot be relativised or criticised; and with no way out?
There has to be a space in ‘mainstream’ Left politics (including the ALP Socialist Left and in the Greens) for such criticism and relativisation of capitalism. The rapid rise of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – inspired by Bernie Sanders – shows the situation can change rapidly. Do we dismiss Sanders, also, as ‘extreme’ or ‘idealistic’? Or on the broad Left do we strive to retrieve our political identity; and the radical concepts that have guided the modern Left since the French Revolution; and the rise of socialism? (including but definitely not limited to the Marxist tradition)
I’m a ‘revolutionary’ in the sense I support not only political citizenship; but also social citizenship and economic citizenship. That’s how some Swedish radicals viewed the question interestingly enough.
Here, ‘Economic citizenship’ would be a revolution to democratise the economy: including extension of the public sector; but also of the co-operative and mutualist sectors; and other democratic reforms like democratic collective capital formation and co-determination.
Social Citizenship’ involves the extension of social rights; including those delivered via the welfare state, regulated labour market and social wage.
‘Political citizenship’ WAS the political and liberal revolution. (including universal suffrage) But it’s not necessarily finished yet either. (ie: we need to radically improve political consciousness, participatory and pluralistic media, and active citizenship)
So what’s really so objectionable about all this at the end of the day?”
Interestingly: the ‘Austro-Marxists’ (arguably one of the theoretically and practically-most-significant tendencies in 20th Century European Marxism) talked about “slow revolution” ; especially during the interwar period. They meant this in a very similar way to the way in which I use the word. They were also amongst the first to theorise ‘multi-culturalism’ – in the context of the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian Empire. (ie: ‘what would replace the Empire?’) They occupied a ‘middle position’ in between Right-Wing Social Democracy and Bolshevism. The following sums their achievements up well; and is reproduced from my PhD thesis:
“The Austro-Marxist strategy included the development of social and cultural societies, associations and institutions, including extensive public-housing projects. Steeply progressive taxes within Vienna specifically provided for education services, childcare, libraries, health care, playgrounds, gymnasia, swimming and wading pools, meeting halls, youth facilities, carpentry shops, post offices, cafes, lectures, music programmes, symphony orchestras, choral societies and more. Furthermore, this institutional strategy facilitated “an atmosphere of co-operation and solidarity” among the Viennese working class (Ewins, p 183)”
Keep in mind this was during the 1918 to 1934 period; and the extent of the reforms and counterculture was pretty-well unprecedented for its time. With today’s technology – including information technology – what could we achieve now if we really tried?
The idea of ‘revolution via democracy’ is not new or unprecedented. And Yes – if Bill Shorten started talking about ‘revolution’ at this point then it could confuse some people. I doubt it reflects his world-view in any case. But here on the relative margins – and on the ‘Left-proper’ we can discuss it.
Speaking from my own position: maybe we should discuss it within the ALP Socialist Left (internally) as well; as part of a process of working out what the ALP Socialist Left really stands for these days.
Actually discussing these matters could also be central to revivifying the Australian Labor Party’s ‘Socialist Objective’. That has long been a ‘bone of contention’ along ‘factional/tribal’ lines. But the CONTENT of the debate has been emptied out to the point of becoming almost meaningless. If the ALP Socialist Left will not have that debate internally for itself then the broader internal Party debate is rendered utterly moot. Indeed, the ALP Socialist Left is arguably struggling to maintain its own (internal) socialist identity, perspective and culture before we even begin to consider the ALP Platform.
But in addition to the response of the ALP Socialist Left, perhaps organisations like the Australian Fabians could also play a role in popularising a broad understanding of democratic socialism across factional lines? There is a long history, here: including in Australian Labor and British Labour.
It’s a long struggle to rehabilitate the language and substance of democratic revolution from shallow understandings. (ie: that ‘revolution’ means ‘violence’.) But I think it’s worth it in the long run. And it is crucial that people see we’re NOT suggesting a ‘revolution against democracy’; but rather “a gradual, democratic (and hopefully peaceful) revolution FROM WITHIN democracy – to EXTEND democracy.
As opposed to ‘hopeless idealism’ or ‘extremism’ – that’s something for the modern Left to believe in; and something worth fighting for – for today.
Dr Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, PhD graduate, qualified teacher, blogger, social commentator and ALP Socialist Left activist of over 20 years. He has written for The Canberra Times and several online publications – most prolifically at ON LINE Opinion. He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.
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