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Reform, Revolution And Challenges To Austerity Today

Peter Hogarth

July 26, 2012

The rise of new left parties across Europe has generated much excitement about the possibility of an electoral challenge to neoliberalism and austerity. Syriza in Greece, Front de Gauche in France, the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark, and George Galloway’s victory for the Respect party in Bradford, England are just a few examples of this trend.

These new (and not-so-new) parties of the radical left are giving electoral expression to the growing resistance to crisis and austerity. These are positive developments in the battle over who will pay for the crisis, but they are contradictory. We have already seen the unease with which reformist parties walk the line between the workers who support them and the ruling class that opposes them. Many on the left have debated the significance of an open letter to the Financial Times by Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras, in which he promises to keep Greece in the European Union and not act unilaterally to abolish the debt. This reveals the contradictions of the reformist strategy: on the one hand, Syriza rose to prominence based on its harsh rejection of the austerity memorandum. On the other, its leadership is assuring the bankers of Europe that it will stabilize Greece and fix the EU.

This is not a new problem, but rather a return of the politics of radical reformism, which brings up a classic debate in Marxist history: reform versus revolution.

Evolutionary socialism?

Rosa Luxemburg took on the argument against reformism in her fight for the soul of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). She waged a theoretical battle against Eduard Bernstein, who argued that the SPD should drop Marxism in favour of something he called “evolutionary socialism.”

At the heart of Bernstein’s argument was his attempt to revise Marx’s theory of capitalist crisis. He asserted that the economy had developed out of its history of crisis and recession and that in the 20th century the economy would evolve gradually—through the expansion of credit, the growth of monopolies, and the process of globalization—towards increasing regulation and public control. Therefore, Bernstein argued, the combination of trade union organization and parliamentary influence would be enough to secure a more just and fair society. Bernstein’s conclusion was that the SPD should drop Marxism, with its emphasis on economic crisis and class struggle, and admit it was a reformist party. “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing, the movement is everything,” Bernstein proclaimed.

Bernstein argued that socialists should direct their daily activity not to the conquest of political power, but toward the betterment of the condition of the working class within the existing order. Workers must not expect to institute socialism by means of political and social revolution, but through the gradual application of the principle of cooperation.

By 1900, shortly after Bernstein’s dismissal of Marxism, a new round of economic crisis broke out. Luxemburg systematically dismantled Bernstein’s arguments, asserting that the extension of credit would not lead to a never-ending expansion of the system, but rather to more volatility and crisis. She refuted his vision of a gradual transition to socialism in which the state would regulate capitalism, protect labour and pass socialist reforms. She countered that the state was fashioned in the interests of the dominant class and could not be usurped gradually by piecemeal reforms.

Socialism from above

Bernstein’s vision of socialism confined workers to the sidelines: trade unions would fight on their behalf for better wages and labour rights, while enlightened socialists in parliament would fight on their behalf for political reforms. This approach embodies “socialism from above.” Hal Draper, who identified this phenomenon in his work The Two Souls of Socialism, writes that “what unites the many different forms of socialism from above is the conception that socialism or a reasonable facsimile thereof must be handed down to the grateful masses from a ruling elite that is not subject to their control.”

By contrast, Luxemburg’s approach embodies the ethos of socialism from below. As Draper writes: “the heart of socialism from below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses from below, in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors not merely subjects on the stage of world history. Luxemburg insists on the conquest of political power by a great, conscious popular mass. Not as a minority act on behalf of the working classes.”


A quick survey of the world today reveals that many reforms of the last 100 years remain illusory for most workers: the eight-hour day, an end to piece-work, and two days of rest per week. Similarly, the history of left reformism, even radical reformism, shows that the objective of social democratic parties is to improve the terms of exploitation of workers, not end it altogether. Social democracy tries to make capitalism more humane; it does not attempt to abolish it.

In this sense, reformist parties act as the last bastion of capitalism. While they try to make the system better, they end up preserving its structure—and all the inequality that results from an economy based on profit, not human needs. Social democrats may be committed to raising the standard of living for ordinary workers, but they must always return the system to profitability before they can grant any reforms. In other words, the needs of capitalism must always come first.


This is what happened in Chile between 1970 and 1973, when a newly elected left government faced bosses’ strikes and other ruling-class attacks meant to bring it down. The attacks were met with incredible resistance by ordinary workers, who opened stores, resumed production and distribution, and formed workers’ councils to keep society running—all in an attempt to defend President Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government.

Despite this kind of rank-and-file activity, Allende and his Socialist Party did everything they could do contain workers’ struggle and appease the ruling class. Allende refused to arm the workers’ councils or support striking workers; instead, he put faith in the army and invited three generals, including Augusto Pinochet, to join his cabinet. This paved the way for a bloody coup that saw thousands of leftists and workers murdered and decades of terror under a dictatorship led by Pinochet. The Chilean experience in the 1970s shows the limits of reformism and the parliamentary road to socialism.

Reformism today

Without a doubt, the current resurgence of left reformism is heartening for all those who want to resist austerity, the neoliberal agenda, and the parties that try to impose it. As a result, mainstream social democratic parties such as PASOK in Greece and Labour in the UK are facing serious challenges by parties with much more radical platforms, such as Syriza and Respect.

Socialists should welcome the challenge these kinds of parties can bring to ruling-class ideas, and must find a way to connect to the millions of ordinary people who are turning to radical reformism. However, supporting an electoral challenge to austerity is never a substitute for revolutionary organization. In fact, socialists must continue to build a revolutionary alternative at the same time as they participate in electoral struggles. One builds the other, and can make it stronger and more effective.

Workers’ resistance

Syriza’s radical program represents a threat to the ruling classes of Europe—and around the world. Take, for example, Stephen Harper’s response to the possibility of a Syriza-led government in Greece. He said that the interests of the global economy should always come before the outcome of a Greek election. However, it is not simply Syriza itself—a radical reformist party—that causes so much fear in ruling-class circles; it is the heroic resistance of Greek workers, including their 17 general strikes, that makes Syriza’s demands possible and that helped give the party prominence in the first place.

We cannot forget who the real agent of change is. Parliament should be seen as a place where radical politicians can give voice to the struggle for a better world, but not as the locus of change. These parties are a response to the problem; by themselves, they are not a solution. The implementation of any radical reforms requires the strength of an organized workers’ movement to confront the massive opposition of the ruling class. Greece shows just a glimpse of what the ruling class will do to stop radical reforms. Chile shows how far the ruling class will go to defend its interests. Socialists must build the confidence of rank-and-file workers to implement and defend the radical reforms of parties like Syriza, at the same time as fighting to go beyond the limits of reformism.

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