Thursday, June 11, 2009

Some thoughts on social transformation

Below are some excerpts from a debate I’ve had at John Passant’s ‘En Passant’ blog…  We’ve been considering holding an exchange on the old debate “Reform versus Revolution”  The material is not a well-planned essay – but hopefully the points we make will spur debate.

Sincerely, Tristan

Liberal consensus, the power of wealth, counter-hegemony and strategic compromise…

In the course of struggling for change liberal consensus gives us some room to move… Participatory and democratic media are also important. In the future, possibilities will arise through revolutionised communications technology   But even despite this - the power of concentrated wealth is appalling.


What bothers me, though, is that some people internalise the ‘wisdom’ that radical reform must lead to disaster - as a consequence of retaliation by wealth - and the servants of wealth in various national governments.  The problem is that people can accept this – without questioning the legitimacy of the broader social and economic system…  This should appal every liberal and democratic bone in our bodies!!!


Swedish style social democratic corporatist compromise is not my "perfect and final ideal".  Ultimately, I hope for a more expansive program of economic democracy than has been sustained even there…  But to build an alternative based on the Swedish welfare state would compromise a victory of epic proportions!!!  Still - the struggle for justice is a long and difficult task. It is a task through which we must confront ingrained elements of conservatism deep within the working class itself. And aside from that we face a cultural sphere deeply influenced by Ideology...

Outwardly there is liberty... But with the domination of the cultural sphere by wealth - as Chomsky says - there is a manufacturing [of] consent...

The point here is that we face what Gramsci would call a long "war of position" - a cultural war for the hearts and minds of the working class; of all oppressed groups; and of all those moved to stand for justice...

In this struggle, though, there are 'peaks' and 'troughs'... And even were a majority of workers and citizens to realise the case for change: even then progressive forces may not be in a position to implement a socialist program...   

By ‘socialist program’, it is important to note that I do not refer to the authoritarian command economies of the former USSR and Eastern Bloc…  Rather I work for a liberal democratic socialism: based of a democratic mixed economy; with strategic natural monopoly, and democratic yet competitive markets.   This would include Government Business Enterprises, mutual societies and co-operatives, collective capital formation (eg: pension or wage earner funds) and social infrastructure.

In the process of working for such a program, though, we would deal not only with the resistance of the local bourgeoisie - but of world capitalism... Isolation can swiftly degenerate into Stalinism - and is not preferable...


Also of note: It should not be underestimated - the dimensions of the task of building a constituency for socialism... Most are (understandably) deeply immersed in the present - in everyday life – and day to day issues: mortgages, groceries, working hours and wages - dominate peoples' consciousness...  Such everyday issues are critically important.  But to challenge the "Common sense" of capitalism requires a more long-term cultural struggle…

Anyway - this is a convoluted way of putting it - but the struggle we are talking about might be such as to span decades... In the meantime it is reasonable to suppose outbursts of struggle will be met with strategic compromise... The point is to be strong enough for such compromise to be agreed to on as favourable terms as possible.

Restoring the 'mixed economy' is a good place to start... And over the course of the years we ought also fight for democratisation – as suggested before, through co-operative enterprise, public infrastructure, Government Business Enterprise, collective capital formation and the like...   

Importantly: the so-called 'final objective' is not the 'be all and end all'.... Here and now we can fight for the needs of workers, oppressed minorities. We can demand the very liberties that go to the heart of the system's very legitimation...

Contesting the dominant ideology - which legitimises the rule of concentrated private wealth - is a long term project - a multi-faceted struggle of interlocking social movements... In this process - if there are outbursts of struggle - judgements will need to be made - re: support within the state apparatus; whether those within the apparatus of force and coercion intervene on one side of another, or allow the struggle to play its course...

And of course –again - there is the spectre of global retaliation if foreign interests are expropriated without what they deem to be acceptable reimbursement... And through all this, we cannot just 'project' our agendas onto the working class and social movements... It is reasonable to suppose social movements might support a radical compromise... but maybe not as absolute a transformation as some seek...

This all being the case there will need to be periodic compromise at intervals over the decades - through the course of progressive struggles... And in this we need to contend with power in its many varied forms... Like Billy Bragg says "You can borrow ideas but you can't borrow situations..."


  1. Some Comments from Leonie from 'En Passant':

    Very Gramscian… I think Gramsci with his war of manoeuvre and war of position had an interesting approach, but don’t see the necessary logic of these distinctions.

    Indeed the danger is that they mirror and are another expression of Kautsky’s ideas of strategy of overthrow and strategy of attrition.

    So the problem for me is that Gramsci’s ideas can fit into a world vision where reform becomes the end in itself. That is Kautskian, and there is a danger of overlapping and eventually devouring the revolutionary content of Gramsci with the dull reformism of Kautsky.

    Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony - the manufacturing of consent - I can agree with as does, as you say, Chomsky.

    But I’ll give a more considered response in a day or two.

    And another thing.

    The point would be whether this approach can be used in a labour party context or a revolutionary party one.

    If the former then all the more danger of a collapse into Kautskyism.

  2. Tristan

    I am unsure about the idea of a war of position. Workers in France in May 68 challenged capital's rule from seeming nothing, and certainly not with any support from the established left. In fact the French Communist party condemned the upsurge to begin with.

    It seems to me missing from May 68 was a genuinely mass revolutionary party which could have helped workers extend the revolution, not end it. Or at least put those arguments about the way forward.

    This is not a 'spontaneity leads to trade union consciousness only' argument I am putting, which is in fact a mischaracterization of Lenin's position in What Is To Be Done?. It is to recognise that the relationship between party and class in the first instance needs the existence of a revolutionary working class party as part of the class becoming a class for itself.

    I look at the ALP today and ask why be in a party that continues most of Howard's policies in one form or another - wars, attacks on workers, destruction of the environment etc - and in which the left either has capitulated or has little influence? Why support a party that doesn't reflect the interests of working people? The argument is more complex since I would say this is not a modern phenomenon. It is rooted in the very nature of the reformist project.

    So entryism or mass recruitment of the revolutionary left (very generously all few thousand of us!) is not going to change the ALP, it will change us.

    Further your arguments seem to presuppose using the capitalist state to somehow abolish capitalism. In other words the war of position becomes one for the capture of the state, not for the overthrow of wage slavery.

    I'll try to write a post later tonight after Socialist Alternative's meeting in Canberra tonight (6 pm in Room G 39 Copland Building ANU) on why Rudd is heating up the planet.

  3. Based on the numbers the entry of five hundred organised radicals into the Victorian branch of the ALP would fundamentally change the entire organisation.

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