I would like to make two points in response to Ed Rooksby's article on realignment of the left (Feature, Socialist Review, May 2013).
First, having experienced the rise and fall of both Respect in England and the United Left Alliance in Ireland, it is clear that the process of creating a "united" left, though desirable, is by no means simple. This is particularly the case since, of necessity, the project involves people with different political perspectives, notably left reformists and revolutionaries, working together. If, in either instance, the SWP had dissolved its organisation, as it is suggested they should do by some on the left, it would have been not just a tactical error but a strategic disaster.
The second is that the way Rooksby proposes transcending the division between reformism and revolutionary Marxism in favour of "revolutionary reformism" is in no way new. It is what Lenin and Trotsky, as far back as 1919, called "centrism" and vigorously polemicised against.
Rooksby counterposes "the reformist approach" of "smooth, piecemeal change" to "the defining feature of revolutionary socialism...that socialists must remain strictly independent of the capitalist state rather than seek to work within it". This is a mistaken formulation. Revolutionaries do not, and cannot, operate strictly independent of the capitalist state; we work within it, including taking part in elections, but in order to smash it. Left reformists aim to take over and use the capitalist state for socialist purposes. This distinction was the central theme of Lenin's great work The State and Revolution.
Rooksby refers to Boris Kagarlitsky's strategy of reforms being based on the demands at the end of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 but this misses the crucial amendment made to the Manifesto by Marx on the basis of the Paris Commune of 1871, namely that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'. This quotation is a cornerstone of The State and Revolution.
Significantly, Rooksby fails to deal with the state, referring only to "the intense hostility of capital". The capitalist state, with its "bodies of armed men", its armed forces and police, its secret services, judges and top bureaucrats, will not sit idly by and permit a "left" government to roll out its revolutionary reforms in Britain, Greece or anywhere else.
It remains only to add that history provides many examples of "left governments" (France and Spain in 1936, Chile in 1970-73, Labour in 1945 and many others) but not one has opened the way to socialism. The only exception is the "left government" in Russia in 1917 (headed by the "socialist" Kerensky) which was overthrown from the left with the aid of a revolutionary party.
I don't remember the 1963 action by Bristol students against racism on the buses (SR, May 2013) but I do remember what we did about it in Tottenham, north London. At the time we had regular meetings where we would act out various situations that might arise on the shop floor. One question was: "What would you do if you worked in a factory where the workers were going on strike against the employment of black workers"?
Another question I remember was: "What would you do if there is a picket line and one of the pickets is an NF member and scabs are trying to cross?" Funnily enough this did happen to me in the mid-1980s, so there was I acting out what we had been taught all those years earlier. The point is, could we apply the same tactic now to explain the nature of the class struggle to new members joining a revolutionary organisation? We might need to!
Yes we Keynes
Thank you to Michael Roberts for his concise and timely critique of Keynesian alternatives to austerity (Feature, Socialist Review, April 2013). It's a good reminder that the health (or otherwise) of capitalist economies rests on productivity and profitability, rather than any particular fiscal policy.
But I do think we need to recognise why Keynes has an enduring (and, since the crash, renewed) appeal. As Michael rightly notes, "Keynesian-style...programmes can alleviate some of the pain for labour and...create new jobs." Yes, they can, and that's no small deal.
While in the long run, such policies are unlikely to fix the underlying profitability problem, in the short run they're a whole lot easier for workers to live with than austerity. Hence many trade unionists in particular call for a Keynesian approach in the hope of less pain for their members and class, here and now.
There may even be the possibility, if Keynesian policies happen to coincide with a period of recovering profitability, of an extended run of "good times for all" as in the post Second World War long boom.
Ultimately Keynes' s project boils down to an attempt to prop up capitalism by making it a bit "kinder and gentler". But for most workers, faced with sustained high unemployment and a Tory government making savage cuts in public services and welfare, "kinder and gentler" sounds pretty good.