Saturday, February 16, 2013

Reflections on the democratic Marxism of Karl Kautsky

above:  A lithograph of the 'Red Pope' Karl Kautsky

What follows is an essay which attempts to identify the defensible and valuable legacy that the democratic Marxist Karl Kautsky provided for the Left during the pre-1914 period.  It is largely based upon a reading of his seminal ‘The Road to Power’. (1909)

The author further attempts to discern what ramifications Kautsky’s works during this period might have also for the current day – around 100 years later.

The following essay also compromises a brief, edited segment (in-progress) of the author (Tristan Ewins’)  (as yet uncompleted) PhD thesis on Third Roads and Third Ways on the Left 1848-1948.  

Debate is very welcome!!!

Work-in-Progress;  Tristan Ewins Feb 2013 

There are many themes addressed in Kautsky’s work that provide the basis for a defensible legacy; and others that are perhaps less defensible.  This brief essay is mainly derived fro a reading of Kautksy’s  1909 work ‘The Road to Power’, with some consideration of ‘The Erfurt Program’ (The Class Struggle), as well as ‘On the Morrow of the Social Revolution’, and “The Social Revolution’. (1903)  However we do not draw here upon Kautksy’s seminal debate with Lenin which occurred following the 1917 October Bolshevik Revolution.  (including Kautsky’s ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat’; and Lenin’s “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’)

In Kautksy’s favour it is to be noted that Materialism and determinism are still widely considered respectable philosophical positions: and Kautsky is quite radical and unyielding in his adherence to such a perspective.  And yet intuitively that position remains problematic – as how could consciousness and will arise out of a purely material (ie: mechanical) process?  Herbert Marcuse had dared to posit a ‘great refusal’ of the most marginal and oppressed as creating a new historic agent for revolution.  The idea that such minorities could lead a revolution is suggestive of a radical voluntarism. And yet liberal capitalism has – to a significant degree - again ‘adapted’, co-opted and neutralised these elements.

It is probably fair to argue that (from a Marxist perspective) ‘something went wrong’  in the evolution of capitalism -  such that the system evolved in a way which neutralised the very critical elements it had given rise to: the enlightened and revolutionary working class who – according to Marx and Kautsky - were supposed to be the system’s ‘gravediggers’.  The question, here, is whether Kautskyan determinism and materialism are helps or hindrances under such circumstances.  Critical theorist Theodore Adorno would have it that a capitalist ‘culture industry’ lulls and deceives us into passivity; and decades since he made such observations psychological manipulation via mass culture appears more pervasive and powerful than ever.  In addition to that, the decline of mass factory labour – the phenomenon of ‘post-industrialism’ – also contributes to the demobilisation of the working class, and the decline of a distinct class consciousness.

A Kautskyan (pure materialist) outlook might hold the position to hopeless.  Again: this might begin to look like “a bad totality with no way out”. (Beilharz)  And yet again: perhaps the new information technology provides the material basis for ‘levelling the playing field’ somewhat in the contest of ideas.  And a moderate voluntarism – which accepts our grounding based on experience, but holds some prospect for the human imagination and for collective free human will, might suppose these provide a ‘potential way out’.  Kautsky would reject suppositions of free will and unbound human imagination. But perhaps he would appreciate the new technology as a ‘material grounding’ for hope; and for ‘asymmetrical political struggle’. 

And it is also notable that relative abundance creates ‘new’ (ie: relative) needs.  While Kautsky foresaw limits to social education in his own time, today there are the material means to provide education not only for the labour market, but for active and critical citizenship, and for well-rounded human beings.  The question of whether workers and citizens can be mobilised around the defence of ‘newer’ established rights (pensions, leave, education, health); or even inspired to fight for new social conquests (eg: a standard 32 hour week) is an open one.  Perhaps there is no guarantee of success as much as there is no guarantee of failure.  Kautsky found it difficult wrestling with the prospect of uncertainty in response to Revisionism.  But today radicals face the imperative of fostering hope even without the old teleological certainties of the old Marxism.

The question of ‘economism’ versus ‘political socialism’ is also interesting to approach in light of Kautsky’s work. Kautsky is often accused of ‘economism’ for his insistence – following Engels – that the ‘economic base’ determines the cultural and political ‘superstructure’ ‘in the last instance’ – but with ‘relative autonomy’ during the interim.  Indeed, Marxism itself is often more broadly accused of ‘economism’ by comparison with ‘political socialism’.  Perhaps it is this important qualification (re: relative autonomy) which makes the Kautskyan position more nuanced than is commonly supposed.  Interestingly, Kautsky maintains the distinction between trade union and social democratic consciousness precisely because the struggle over wages and conditions alone is not enough to resolve capitalist contradictions.  Insofar as the State provides an obstacle, the precondition for transforming the economy is the political transformation of the State – and hence the economic and the political struggle are necessarily intertwined.   But undoubtedly Kautsky does underplay the importance of political, religious and cultural motives driving great struggles, and largely reduces those struggles to the context of the class struggle and evolving mode of production.

In a world today where the very idea of class struggle faces stigmatisation Kautsky is adamant that not only that the working class must struggle; but that the antagonisms between it and the bourgeoisie cannot be resolved except for revolution.  Antagonism is a recurring theme for Kautsky in the context of a presumption of class struggle: placing him in stark relief as against modern social democratic ideologies that seek social peace based upon social amelioration.  Again: here revolution for Kautsky did not mean ‘violence’, ‘chaos’, ‘insurrection’ – But simply qualitative change; the achievement of a new constitution one way of another (preferably through non-violent class struggle) with the consequence of a democratic state, and a democratic economy.  Kautsky allows for the possibility of gradualism in the social revolution as also supposed by the reformists, but stands firm on the qualitative nature of the change he is pursuing for the State and the economy.  And given his assumption of the State’s class nature, he sees political revolution (ie: the proletariat achieving a dominant position within the State) as the necessary prerequisite for such qualitative change.  Though we might suppose that the very process of the working class ‘achieving a dominant position in the State’ could also comprise a struggle lasting decades.  (or in a fashion contrary to Kautsky’s optimism, indeed we may now question whether we will ever reach that goal)

Modern ‘Third Ways’ dispute the need for ‘revolution’; indeed the bulk of third way theorists and practitioners today would consider the very idea ‘absurd.’  Indeed they largely abandon any radical redistributive agenda – arguing for social and economic ‘inclusion’ as the means of conciliation.  In practice this means amelioration for the most marginal and oppressed.  And indeed the corresponding policies matter a great deal to the excluded, the impoverished, and the marginalised themselves.

But the logic of capitalism is generally towards greater intensity of exploitation, and conciliation must also mean lasting peace (ie: an end to Imperialist war) if it is to be substantial.  Rather Kautsky looks towards a socialist future where there is universal conciliation and social peace – not on the basis of a compromise settlement – but on the grounds of the elimination of the antagonisms caused by exploitation, capitalist contradictions and Imperialism. 

But Kautsky’s confidence  for the future seems to have been misplaced in retrospect.  And Bernstein’s endeavour for partial conciliation based on universal citizenship, and social as well as liberal rights - could form a bulwark against violent ideologies.  (eg: fascism)  Yet citizenship does not end the class struggle.  Rather it establishes a framework and a foothold for that struggle – which can prevent an escalation into ever greater violence and repression – and hence the corruption of the very emancipatory ambitions which drive socialist movements. 

But this does not exclude great struggles between great social forces.  It has been argued that the corporatist structures that ultimately developed in Sweden are notable as they effectively transposed the class struggle to a different (institutional) level.  This has been theorised at length by Swedish sociologist, Walter Korpi in his ‘Power Resources’ approach. 

Here, though, Kautsky’s vision of such great struggles seems well adaptable to a Gramscian vision of ‘wars of position’ – waged over the course of decades through the various strongholds of civil society.  Although the promise of social peace has great appeal for many; and can provide the vehicle for reform agendas – albeit agendas which do not involve the definitive resolution of capitalist contradictions.  Provisional ‘settlements’, here, are important in the context of such organised class struggle spanning decades.  But in a world where the ‘teleological guarantees’ of the old Marxism appear discredited a ‘historic compromise’ which provides dignity and security, and environmental sustainability – would certainly be a step forwards.

But this brings us to the theme of imiseration and class bifurcation.  Here Bernstein appears to have been largely vindicated.  Exploitation – in the sense of surplus extraction - has become more and more intense – but technological and productive advances have created relative abundance even amidst gross and unnecessary waste.  The issue of environmental sustainability throws this state of affairs into question, but nonetheless there is now the scenario of relative prosperity even amidst more and more intense exploitation.  (although shifts in the world economic order may change this so far as the West is concerned) Yet class bifurcation does remain a  tendency; a tendency which operates alongside different tendencies towards social differentiation, and the re-emergence of ‘middle’ or ‘intermediatory’ classes in different forms as capitalism revolutionises and modernises itself constantly.

In retrospect the very idea of a Marxist theoretical orthodoxy suggests a position which is closed to adaptation in response to evolving circumstances.  Though Kautsky himself would probably point to the materialist conception of history: and argue that in that theoretical approach there already existed the framework and means necessary for adaptation.  Kautsky’s supposition of ever greater economic crises appeared to have been vindicated with the Great Depression; and yet he also failed to predict the rise of fascism – emerging from the same crises he had presumed would usher in socialism.  This raises the question:  was there a problem with the materialist conception of history, or was it merely the way it was applied by socialist theorists?   Various theorists (Steger, Berman etc) have argued that Kautsky’s materialist determinism was a recipe for passivity with its assumptions of ‘inevitable’ change.  As we have already considered, therefore, perhaps a position between radical determinism/materialism and radical voluntarism is most appropriate – recognising limits to the individual will; but holding out hope for human agency, and the motivating assumption that “yes, we can make a difference”  Or in other words, following Berman ‘structure and agency condition each other’.

And yet if ‘orthodoxy’ means fidelity to enduring principles and concepts, Kautsky has left a defensible legacy in his own defence of the insights of Karl Marx.   Tendencies towards monopoly, intensified exploitation, alienation, crises of overproduction and the correspondingly desperate attempts to expand the world market, class struggle, falling rates of profit,– all remain with us today as by-products of modern capitalism.  And the ‘secret’ of surplus value – identified by Marx and popularised by Kautsky – still implies in its functioning a devastating moral critique of capitalism; while also comprising the means of capitalist systemic reproduction. 

If ‘revisionism’ takes not the form of necessary adjustment to changing circumstances, but rather abandoning crucial insights for the sake of ‘intellectual fashion’, then perhaps there is something to be said for ‘orthodoxy’.  Kautsky’s championing of enduring Marxist concepts and categories therefore remains a defensible legacy even today.  Though nonetheless it would be fair to suggest that the Marxists of Kautsky’s time could not possibly predict the future trajectories of modern capitalism’s development.  Some basic, vital systemic dynamics – as identified by Marx and promoted by Kautsky – remain. (as we have just observed above) But in other ways capitalism keeps evolving, adapting, mutating – surviving where Marxists assumed socialist transition was necessary, ‘inevitable’; for Kautsky “the only thing possible”..

Writing in opposition to “the violence of Austrian anarchists” (we observe, here, the philosophy of ‘the propaganda of the deed’, the policy of assassinations etc)  Kautsky once wrote;

“Social Democracy is a Party of human love, and it must always remain conscious of its character even in the midst of the most frenzied political fights”. (Kautksy in Steenson, p 80)

In his biography of Kautsky, Steenson depicts a man “very sensitive to human suffering”; the kind of man who fought for the rights of unwed mothers and their children and condemned the hypocrisy of those who separated them, institutionalising the children. Kautsky’s concern for human suffering was not merely abstract.  Steenson relates that this disposition of Kautsky’s was later to “cause him to baulk in the face of  the apparent necessity for revolutionary violence.”  (Steenson, p 80)

Kautsky’s position on violence was especially important given  the era of ‘War and Revolution’ which was to follow the publication of his seminal ‘The Road to Power’.

But that would involve a deeper assessment - beyond the frame of this short excerpt from my developing PhD thesis. It is enough for now to note a complexity in Kautsky that is often unrecognised in works condemning his “passivity” – stemming from his philosophical materialism. ‘Fatalism’ was sometimes a consequence of Kautsky’s interpretation of historical materialism.  But in practice no man did more than Kautsky to popularise Marxism in the pre-1917 period.  Rather than ‘writing Kautsky off’, perhaps it is better to let  him speak for himself.   And while we have not quoted him at length in this excerpt, it is to be hoped I have provided an accurate impression of his work, and that work’s relevance – especially those works of the pre-1917 period.   (though his later works were of equal historical imporantance…)



Kautsky, Karl  “The Class Struggle” (Erfurt Program),  The Norton Library, Toronto, 1971

Kautsky, Karl “On the Morrow of the Social Revolution”, The Twentieth Century Press, Clerkenwell, 1903

Kautksy, Karl, “The Road to Power – Political Reflections on Growing into the Revolution,  Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1992 

Kautsky, Karl  “The Social Revolution”, The Twentieth Century Press, Clerkenwell, 1903


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sheri Berman on ‘Democratic Revisionism’ and interwar Social Democracy


 above:  Sheri Berman's 'The Primacy of Politics'

The following is an engagement with Sheri Berman's book on European Social Democracy and what she calls 'democratic revisionism'.  The question of relative independance of the political sphere from the economic base is considered in depth; including the 'mututal conditioning of structure and agency upon each other'.  There are implications for Australia as well: notably the potential for progressive parties to mobilise against the 'veto' of capitalists on public policy. But at the same time - even while acknowledging the potential of democratic socialism,  the reviewer (Tristan Ewins) argues that the power of this 'veto' should not be understated.

Tristan Ewins

Jan 3rd 2013
In her work “The Primacy of Politics”, political scientist Sheri Berman compares what she refers to as “orthodox Marxism” with “democratic revisionism”, starting with Eduard Bernstein, but ultimately finding expression with Western social democracy.  Swedish social democracy is seen to have been the most successful instance; enjoying a hegemonic period spanning decades and a legacy that remains vital today. 

Berman’s book deals with a number of opposing and mediating themes.  Marxian  historical materialist determinism (with its alleged implication of political and economic ‘passivity’) is contrasted with what Berman sees as an economically activist and politically voluntarist disposition on the part of ‘democratic revisionism’.  Radical and revolutionary negation emerging from the logic and spirit of class struggle – and based on the interwar “Marxist orthodoxy” -  is opposed to reformist agendas based on class collaboration and conciliation.  Working class internationalism is contrasted against the promotion of ‘national community’ and ‘national solidarity’. Swedish social democracy in particular is praised for making that ground – of national community and solidarity – their own – effectively denying it as a rallying point for the Swedish far right. 

Here, ‘orthodox Marxism’ is held by Berman to be consistent with the perspectives of those such as Kautksy, Rudolf Hilferding, Otto Bauer and other Social Democratic politicians during the interwar period. (for instance, Leon Blum)  Emerging with Kautsky’s popularisation of Marxism in the late 19th century, this perspective remained influential for many European social democratic parties through the immediate post-WWII period. 

Again: according to Berman, the ‘orthodox Marxist’ viewpoint was marked by belief in class struggle; a fatalistic and passively-inclined materialist and economistic determinism; and hence the downplaying of the potential for political action to shape economic outcomes.  Hence Berman notes how Leon Blum in particular distinguished between “the ‘exercise’ and the ‘conquest’ of power”; (Berman; Pp 100- 101)  Apparently this is meant to be another example of orthodox Marxian ‘passivity’.  And we have observed in earlier chapters how there is at times some substance to this charge – eg: in the Kautskyan notion of social democrats being history’s ‘midwives’ rather than history’s makers.  (ie:  revolutionary; but not revolution-making) 

And yet perhaps Blum’s distinction is useful after all.  Berman pretty much rules out widespread economic socialisation – depicting it as ideological and of little practical value.  But perhaps the reality, here, is self-containment on the basis of a presumed effective ‘capitalist veto’ on the economic policies of social democratic governments. 

Hence there is more to the ‘conquest of power’ that an electoral majority.  There remains the challenge of overcoming resistance to democracy embedded in the state apparatus of force; of the cultural “fortresses and casemates” spoke of by Gramsci; and the power of global capital – with the threat of capital strike, economic destabilisation etc.  In modern capitalist liberal democracy there has even developed a kind of “double-think” – an Ideology of democracy existing alongside open recognition of the effective ‘veto of capital’.   (although the Nordics certainly show that even in this context there is room to move if labour organisation is strong enough)

By comparison with the ‘orthodoxy’, however, Berman posits a specific and unique social democratic ideology – what she calls “democratic revisionism” – based on economic and political activism: rooted in “the primacy of the political”.  For Berman modern social democracy is synonymous with this “democratic revisionism”, and not with the Marxist orthodoxy which was ultimately outflanked on both sides – by revisionism on the Right and radically voluntaristic Bolshevism on the Left.

For Berman the Marxist orthodoxy failed at the crucial moment; that is, the interwar period, including the Depression and the rise of fascism.  Berman depicts ostensibly Marxist Socialist parties – in the tradition of the pre-WWI International - resigned to the inevitable ‘working through’ of capitalist contradictions to the point of revolution; as opposed to a struggle to significantly ameliorate human suffering within the framework of capitalism itself. 

Berman provides a host of examples to illustrate her point, but here we will mainly concern ourselves further with the experience of Swedish social democracy in the inter-war and immediate post-war period.

Berman depicts Socialist parties – in the interwar and immediate post-war period – as imposing upon themselves an “ideological purity” for which practical action for the sake of their constituencies were forsaken.  In defence of those ‘orthodox’ elements, however,  it is worth noting that it was in their efforts to avoid opportunism, and hence the disillusionment of their working class base,  that social democratic parties in the ‘orthodox’ tradition tended to avoid cross-class collaboration and compromise. Especially, for this reason they avoided taking part in coalition governments with bourgeois parties. This practical consideration was at least as powerful as any yearning for “ideological purity” – and critiques of Marxist social democracy need to allow for such motives.

Yet it is true that in his time Kautsky himself adopted a quasi-“mechanistic” Marxism which, while recognising “willing” human beings (but not ‘free will’), nonetheless discerned a nexus between universal suffrage and the rise to dominance of the industrial working class. Indeed, this was a nexus which – it was assumed – rendered socialism inevitable – assuming the prerequisite of a democratic political revolution.  Yet Kautsky’s very emphasis on the necessity of political revolution dispels Berman’s (any many others’) effective accusation of bland and undiluted economism, even though the ‘orthodox’ did suppose the primacy of the economy ‘in the last instance’.

And yet in the crucial interwar period Berman has a point that economistic fatalism could only play into the hands of the fascist enemy.  Where liberals and socialists ought have compromised with practical economic action in the face of Depression, ‘political stalemate’ saw desperate and bitter Germans turn instead to so-called ‘National Socialism’. As Berman argues, in Germany and Italy it was fascism that took up the mantle of economic activism, as well as ‘class-transcending’ and collectivist visions and rhetoric of national community.  But by contrast when Swedish Social Democrats took the ground of “national community”, cross class solidarity and economic activism, it was they and not the fascists who emerged triumphant.

As we will see, Berman appreciates the role of Ernst Wigforss – the Swedish politician, self-taught economist and political scientist, in ‘anticipating Keynesianism before Keynes.’   Berman further looks to Wladimir S Woytinsky and the German unions during interwar/Depression period – who also independently (ie: before Keynes) came up with a plan to stimulate the German economy; creating “socially useful” work with “competitive wages”.  Berman contrasts Woytinsky’s plan for “deficit financing” and economic stimulus with the “full-fledged ‘socialist’ strategy adopted by the SPD Left – in the form of a plan devised by the Austro-Marxist Rudolf Hilferding.  (Berman, p 112)

As Berman observes; Hilferding’s plan rested on moves towards economic planning and socialisation; including “nationalisation of banks, insurance…, key industries, [with] state control of monopolies, the expropriation of large estates; a shortened work-week; work sharing; and a limited work-creation program financed through increased taxes and a forced loan.” (Berman; p 112) 

But for Berman apparently Hilderding’s approach comprised an example of the ‘orthodox viewpoint’ of class struggle and economic socialisation – a vision which failed to address peoples fears or “stir their imagination”.  (Berman, pp 114-115)

Yet Berman’s characterisation could just as well be turned in the other direction: that the non-socialist parties would not compromise and actually deal with the Depression in a rational and necessarily socialist manner.  The visions of Wigforss and Woytinsky, here, resonate with our relatively vivid historic political memory of the social-democratic Keynesian ‘golden age’.  But the democratic socialism of Hilferding was never given a chance.  We will never know, now, what its outcome in Germany would have been.

Despite this, however, Berman tellingly observes an “orthodox” Marxian social democratic mainstream ‘caught off guard’ in Germany by the rise of fascism in response to the Depression. Crisis they had anticipated: but fascism they had not anticipated. As expected, class struggle intensified with the Depression.  But the lure of Nazism proved more powerful than the appeal of both the SPD and of the Communists; and in 1933 the Nazi vote had risen to almost 44 per cent.  ( Pp 109-111) and see:,_March_1933

Either Hilferding’s approach or Woytinsky’s approach may have significantly ameliorated the life experiences of impoverished and fearful Germans. But Berman effectively argues that it was Hitler’s playing upon humiliation, bitterness and desperation in the context of an appeal to national community, ‘belonging’ and solidarity that proved decisive.

The lesson suggested by Berman is as with the title of her book: “the primacy of politics”; of the power of the political imagination; of political mobilisation, strategy and action – as compared with what she calls ‘fatalistic doctrines’. (ie: specifically, the Marxist “orthodoxy”)   Hence the difference between Germany’s turn to fascism and Sweden’s turn to social democracy was to a significant degree a matter of subjective Swedish social democratic strategy and tactics. 

Berman is a voluntarist: but a democratic one – unwilling to embrace what Steger has referred to as “the extremes ends and means calculations” embraced by the Bolsheviks.

And yet Berman’s voluntarism is not unqualified.  As she concedes towards the end of ‘The Primacy of Politics”:

“Those who study Ideology tend to focus on either agency or structure.”  

Yet in reality

“structure and agency work together to shape the development of ideologies….”   (Berman: pp 201-203) 

As individuals we have free will: including the potential to come together collectively; to organise politically to reshape national economies – and ultimately the global economy. Indeed, this was the hope of Marxist Social Democracy,  and of Berman’s ‘distinct’ and ‘political’ Social Democracy. (ie: of post-war Western European and Nordic Social Democracy)  But this is no mean feat.  Capitalism as a supra-individual, supra-national phenomena develops its own logic – much of which was identified by the Marxists who Berman rejects.  Structure and agency condition each other.

Again we return to the arch-revisionist Bernstein who Berman herself sees as the originator of “democratic revisionism.”  Hence we reproduce this crucial quote from Bernstein again:

“The fall of the profit rate is a fact, the advent of over-production and crises is a fact, periodic diminution of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, the increase of the rate of surplus value is a fact.”   (Bernstein, Pp 41-42)   

These phenomena – observed by Bernstein – remain in the logic of capitalism and the processes of its ongoing systemic reproduction. Social Democratic counter-cyclical demand management helps ‘iron out’ the business cycle; and where they remain robust welfare states protect the vulnerable from the ravages of capitalism in the context of relative abundance even amidst great waste.  And yet capitalism remains wasteful, unstable, undemocratic and unjust.

Berman observes of modern social democracy: that it started with Bernstein and other like-minds - who claimed to revise Marxism – but ultimately “Social Democracy represented the final and full severing of socialism from Marxism.”  (my emphasis) (Berman, P 200)

This ‘severing’ is presented as some great victory; some triumph; a “liberation”(!)  But perhaps the rejection of Marxism has become just too fashionable. 

There is an objective need for a distinctive social democratic ideology. Distinct, that is, from revolutionary Marxism; occupying the relative ‘Centre-Left’ – of well-intentioned social reformers; armed with what Berman called a “democratic revisionist” critique of capitalism; of those willing and able to reform capitalism and ameliorate the suffering of the oppressed in the here and now.   And contra Berman’s apparent dismissal of the strategy of socialisation, historic social democratic mixed economies provide an object lesson in how a ‘hybrid economy’ can meaningfully aspire to – and to some degree achieve – ‘the best of both worlds’. 

Also a more radical and modern variant on this theme this could potentially provide the benefits of a mix of co-operation and planning; of competition and ‘free markets’; including the role of natural monopolies and the place of a democratic mixed economy in righting market failure (including the current European Depression and European/American debt crisis),  alleviating alienation and injecting democracy into otherwise plutocratic economic regimes. Crucially, there is a need to break out of a neo-liberal capitalist paradigm for which systemic imperatives of growth and profit-maximisation have been decoupled from questions of the ‘Life-world’ (Habermas)   Hence, for instance, the capitalist drive to raise retirement ages even in the midst of relative abundance.

And yet mainstream Social Democracy has widely become so technocratic and opportunistic that it can no longer inspire or mobilise.  There is talk of a ‘Centre-Left’: but what does that mean today?  There are appeals to class reconciliation – yet while this can provide a powerful rationale for a universalistic welfare state (eg: Sweden) so often this is but a veil behind which follows the disenfranchisement of workers and the oppressed. 

In the past (For instance in Australia with the ‘Accord’ process) there has been a kind of corporatism – which originally had potential, but ultimately included the organised working class only during its period of decline; containing and co-opting it during the crucial period of neo-liberal transformation . There is deregulation of labour markets in the sense of protections: but intensification of regulation in the sense of denying industrial liberties and rights.  The welfare state and progressive and corporate taxation are wound back and the vulnerable stigmatised and vilified. All these can be construed as a kind of ‘corporate welfare’ - assisting in the process of intensifying the rate and intensity of exploitation to restore profits.  And again these developments are consistent structural imperatives in capitalism – enforced globally with the complicity of the great existing and emerging world powers.

In response to these developments it must be observed, therefore, that there remain criticisms of capitalism arising from the Marxist tradition - suggested by Bernstein himself many decades ago – which remain as accurate as ever – but which are widely considered ‘unspeakable’ because of the power of dominant Ideologies and their sweeping dismissal of that Marxist tradition in all its great diversity. 

Berman is right that structure and agency interpenetrate however.  A social democracy which borrows from Marxism in both its moral and structural critique of capitalism; but which maintains a voluntarist sense of the potential for political strategy and political will – is also necessary today.  Indeed – the political and economic demands of the modern day require a plurality of social democracies; and in this vision there remains a place for the insights of the broad Marxist tradition as well as distinct positions on today’s strategic and relative ‘Centre-Left’.  Certainly ‘Marxism’ does not hold all the answers – let alone the “revolutionary Centrism” of about a century ago.  But the Marxist tradition in all its great plurality deserves a rigorous and critical reassessment – discerning those insights which hold weight today despite the verdict of the dominant Ideologies. 

Rehabilitating the outlook of class struggle is one crucial imperative.   And all the more so because overwhelmingly the corporate world embraces the neo-liberal Ideology; and is not interested in robust social democratic corporatism. And so the poor and the working class can only depend on that which they strive for through their own efforts – through industrial and civic organisation and activism.  The prospect of civic peace and reconciliation is alluring and powerful: but given the logic of capitalism; and the interests and Ideology of the capitalist class – it is often chimerical.

Because structure and agency interpenetrate and co-determine each other, the old Marxist Orthodoxy has its limits; and the potential of so-called ‘political socialism’ or ‘democratic revisionism’ needs to be taken into account. And yet despite the potential of these trends considered by Berman, she does not sufficiently consider the implications of the effective ‘veto’ exercised by monopoly capital.  She supposes a rigorous voluntarism, and ‘manyfold possibilities’ for reformist social democracy.  But she does not tackle the question of how the ‘capitalist veto’ on policy is to be overcome.   But that is the question we MUST address if we are to establish a genuine democracy in the place of default ‘dictatorship of capital.’

Berman, Sheri, ‘The Primacy of Politics – Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century’,

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