Chain Reaction

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Watching the televised congress of Italy's biggest far left party, Rifondazione Comunista, last month brought to mind a statement by its general secretary, Bertinotti, when he spoke at the SWP's Marxism two years ago.

The old debate between reform and revolution, he said, is no longer relevant at a time when reformists cannot deliver reforms and revolutionaries cannot bring about revolution.

It is an argument frequently heard in the global movement of the last five years. We can all see that neoliberalism and war are causing immense damage, it is argued, and we have to forget our differences in order to oppose them.

However this fails to grasp why the debate over reform and revolution was so important when it was first raised 110 years ago by the Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in opposition to Eduard Bernstein - and why it still has relevance now. Luxemburg's point was not that socialists should abandon struggling for positive reforms. Nor was she calling for instant revolution. It was that the debate had implications for how you operated in struggles in the here and now.

If you believed you could produce a permanent improvement in things by relying on pressure on the existing state, the logic was to direct the attention of the workers' movement upwards, towards finding allies with influence over that state. By contrast, if you held that at some point in the future, even if in the distant future, the movement would have to confront the ruling class and its state in revolutionary combat, then stress had to be put on building from below and breaking people from deference to the powers that be.

The first practical expression of different approaches came in 1899, when the leading French socialist, Jaur├Ęs, backed the entry of a colleague into a French government led by a bourgeois politician. Bernstein was an enthusiast for this approach. Luxemburg denounced it vehemently. The government would deliver little in the way of reforms to workers, she insisted - but the governmental socialists would hold back workers' struggles so as to maintain the stability of the government.

The second great practical expression was as revolution swept the old monarchs from power across Europe at the end of the First World War. Bernstein did not like the war, but did not believe revolution was necessary to defeat it. So he argued that left socialist opponents of the war should work with right wing socialists who had supported the war to establish parliamentary capitalist regimes.

Luxemburg, by contrast, was insistent that the only way to prevent a repetition of war was to turn the political revolutions which had ousted the monarchs into socialist revolutions, based upon workers' councils and an assault on capitalist control of production. Her agitation for these demands led to right wing army officers murdering her.

Antonio Gramsci explained the logic of the reformist approach a few years later. The left reformists, he said, looked for support to the right reformists, the right reformists looked to the supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie and this wing of the bourgeoisie looked to the main section of the bourgeoisie who, in turn, were prepared if necessary to use fascist methods to defend their class position. In this a 'chain' was formed binding workers to the worst elements of the existing system.

Bertinotti began his speech at Rifondazione's congress by endorsing Rosa Luxemburg's views that the choice facing the world is between socialism and barbarism. He provided a very good account of how capitalism is producing wars internationally and economic precariousness domestically that is driving millions to despair. But his conclusion was that Rifondazione should join with the centre-left in an electoral coalition whose aim would be a government led by the former head of the European Union, Prodi, with some Rifondazione ministers. This strategy would 'open the way' to serious reforms.

How did Bertinotti come to adopt this position? It cannot be put down to crude 'betrayal'. He did, after all, lead a strong fight within Rifondazione at the time of Genoa in 2001 to get the party to throw its weight behind the anti-capitalist movement. Many younger congress delegates voted for his strategy because they believed it was more 'dynamic' than the passive resistance to change of some of his opponents.

The idea that you can change society for the better by working through existing parliamentary institutions is part of what Gramsci called 'common sense' - one of the ideas hammered into everyone's head by the educational system and the media. Its influence is particularly strong when you have big movements which are still too weak to transform society from below by their own actions. It is all too easy then for people to believe the only 'practical' way forward is to look for 'saviours from on high to deliver'. The clever parliamentary manoeuvre becomes the substitute for working to build strength from the bottom upwards.

You find activists are easily pulled in two directions - either towards the belief that isolated 'autonomous' sectional movements are the solution, or when this proves inadequate, to putting their faith in working through existing institutions. What begins as anti-capitalism from below then ends up as reformism from above.

Yet reformism from above can only end up producing disappointment and bitterness in the conditions of capitalism today. Rifondazione ministers in a Prodi government would come under immense pressure from its parliamentary allies to sacrifice the aims of its supporters so as to placate Italian capitalism. And in the months ahead there will be those who claim the party should not be too militant in case it frightens its allies and their voters.

So the old debate retains all its relevance. Revolutionaries do not have to turn their backs on those who believe in reform. The easiest way to win a political argument with someone is to pursue it patiently while struggling alongside them for aims you both agree on. People have to use the powerful indictment of capitalist barbarity made by left leaders like Bertinotti (or Tony Benn in Britain) to prove the futility of their reformist methods.