Above: Austro-Marxist leader and Theoretician, Otto Bauer
Does (and should) 'Revolutionary' mean anything anymore to the Democratic Socialist Left?
Should it mean anything anymore within the ALP Socialist Left?
Dr Tristan Ewins
A comrade in the 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".
This was my response:
"When we speak of 'revolutionary' aims not everyone is talking of the same thing. Personally I'm NOT talking about an insurrection ; armed or otherwise. 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 as 'slow revolution' or 'revolutionary reforms'.
What would be a 'revolutionary reform'? Well the Meidner Plan held that promise for a start. (ie: an economic plan which would have rewarded 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 comprised a kind of 'democratic and political revolution' which only became possible in many countries following the end of World War I - and the fear of Bolshevism.
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?
When I talk about a democratic economic revolution I'm talking about democratic collective capital formation ; restoring a robust mixed economy ; supporting co-operatives (producers' and consumers') with state aid. I'm also talking about decisive state support for the voluntary and domestic sectors. I'm talking about going down that road to the point where 'the democratic sector' becomes dominant. And hence a pivotal shift in the balance of class forces.
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 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 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.
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. Also there’s the problem of ‘workers exploiting themselves’. 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) Hence my support for democratic collective capital formation as policy. At this point it’s a good outcome. But it also creates complexities which would be hard to resolve. So importantly I'm talking about a process - in this country and globally - which spans decades - and maybe more. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a kind of revolution - which took maybe a couple of centuries. 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 Liberal will take the word "revolutionary" out of context ; and depict us all as terrorists 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?
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. 'Economic citizenship' would be a revolution to democratise the economy. '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. And it's not necessarily finished yet either. So what's really so objectionable about all this at the end of the day?"
Finally and interestingly: the ‘Austro-Marxists’ (arguably one of the theoretically-most-significant tendencies in 20th Century European Marxism) talked about "slow revolution" ; especially during the interwar period ; Which they meant in a very similar 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?')
The idea of 'revolution via democracy' is not new or unprecedented. And Yes - if Bill Shorten started talking about it at this point then it would confuse people. I doubt it reflects his world-view in any case. But here on the relative margins we can discuss it ; and 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. 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.