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The relationship of reforms and revolution

July 20, 2007 | Page 13

PAUL D'AMATO explains that reformist ideas are the starting point for more radical ones to develop.

I WAS at a meeting a few weeks ago on the question of the future of the left, and a member of a small socialist group stood up and said the following: "The speaker spoke about the collapse of all the old organizations of the [left] in the 1980s and 1990s--the mass trade unions, the social democratic parties, the Stalinist parties and so forth.

"It seems to me that this is the most advantageous situation possible, because, in fact, all of these organizations, in one way or another, rejected socialism and told the working class that the way forward was through reforms. They collapsed, and good riddance. It seems to me that this creates the best conditions to call for the building of a genuinely revolutionary socialist party."

It would be easy to dismiss this comment as sectarian stupidity. Can someone really believe that socialists have a better chance of reaching a bigger audience when there are fewer mass trade unions and fewer radical organizations--that is, when the organization and traditions of trade unions and left politics is weaker?

Is it not absurd to argue that the weakening of the broad left (a sign of the decline and defeat of the mass movements of the 1960 and of the trade union movement) creates the best conditions for spreading socialist ideas?
On the other hand, it is true that reformist socialist and trade union leaders historically have played the role of opposing and holding back revolutionary struggles. Such was the case in the Russian Revolution, when the reformist socialists (Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries) supported the Provisional Government of the capitalists and opposed transferring political power to the councils of workers' and soldiers' delegates--the soviets.

Such was the case in the U.S. when the Communist Party in the 1930s (deformed and corrupted by Stalinism) drew in the best working-class militants and called on them to offer their political support to Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party.

Ergo, the weaker the hold of reformism, the less likely that reformists can stand in the way when struggle heats up, right?

This is altogether the wrong way to approach the issue. The question can only be answered by looking at things in their specifics.

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MASS CONSCIOUSNESS shifts to the left in periods of radicalization, in particular, in periods of heightened struggle, and especially in a revolution. But it shifts at different rates among different individuals and sectors of the working class.

By no means do workers simply move from demonstrating and striking to wanting to overthrow capitalism. There is a process in which the experience of struggle wins wider layers to these conclusions.

As Trotsky writes in his masterful History of the Russian Revolution, commenting on the period leading up to the February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar:

The consciousness of the masses is far behind their action. The terrible pressure of war and the national ruin is accelerating the process of struggle to such a degree that broad masses of the workers, right up to the very revolution, have not freed themselves from many opinions and prejudices of the past.

As a result, even after the Tsar's fall, many workers were still not ready to accept the idea that they should have all the power. At the very least, they persisted for a time in the illusion that the reformist socialists would bring about soviet power. Only the latter's support for the war, and backing of the provisional government convinced the majority of workers' to support the revolutionary strategy of the Bolsheviks.

Leaving revolution aside, in a period of "ordinary" radicalization (that is, of growing movements, strikes and other struggles) the first political fruits are the growth of a reformist consciousness--first of all, a desire for social and economic reform, and a sense not that workers' should run society, but that someone better should run it.

Socialists welcome this development because it is the starting point for winning over wider layers to a more left-wing perspective, and setting the conditions for workers' to grope toward self-emancipation.

In other words, it's the growth of reformist consciousness (i.e., that it is possible to fight for and win reforms) that is the basis for further radicalization.

In these conditions, of course, reformist organizations--trade unions, left political parties and other mass organizations that are themselves not committed to the overthrow of capitalism--grow. This is a positive development that revolutionaries welcome because it is the only basis on which a revolutionary movement can develop.

Of course, the conditions for the ultimate success of socialist revolution are that the mass of the population actively rejects the limiting role of reformism and opts consciously to move beyond it.

However, the condition that makes this change possible involves a willingness by revolutionaries to make common cause--united fronts for the purposes of immediate struggle--with reformist organizations that are not themselves revolutionary, in order to win over in struggle the ranks of those organizations.

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