David Laibman on reform, revolution, and socialism
Source Julio Huato
Date 13/09/14/01:25

AS THIS IS being written (March 2010), news arrives that the U. S.
House of Representatives has just (barely) passed the Health Care bill
without a public option. The Left Forum has just concluded its
annual conference, the largest ever, in New York, and running through
many sessions and conversations there was the question: what position
should socialists take on this legislation? The breakdown into yeas
and nays seems to be based on random distributions of personality
types, and personal preference. Is the victory over Republican
intransigence ­­ which threatens to blossom into a de facto coup
d’etat ­­ more important than registering opposition to the failure of
the Democrats to uphold even their own limited recognition of the
increasingly desperate plight of working people (both poor and
near-poor)? Everyone in this debate ­­ on the left, at any rate ­­
agrees that we are at the very begin¬ning of a long road to health
security in the United States; the difference lies in what choices at
present best position us for the struggles to come.

And, into this mix comes announcement of this year’s Daniel Singer
Prize competition. A $2500 annual prize is awarded for the best essay
on a theme announced by the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize Foundation,
and the Foundation asks us to popularize this announcement. (Daniel
Singer, who died in December 2000, was an outstanding French writer
and lecturer, and a major presence in the Left Forum’s predecessor
organization, the Socialist Scholars Conference.) Unfortunately, and
as happens often when people ask Science & Society to publicize
forthcoming events, the event threatens to pre¬cede the announcement.
The deadline for submissions to the essay competi¬tion was July 31,
2010; you may be reading this in October, after the deadline but at
least before the announcement of this year’s winner in December. For
future reference, check out, which asks us to
encourage people, especially younger folks, to participate and submit
essays (up to 5000 words) for consideration.

What does all this have to do with health care? Well, this year’s
essay question is:

Given the devastating effects of the present crisis on working people,
what proposals for radical reform can be raised which are both
practical to the vast majority while moving us towards the goal of

This is the long-standing “reform/revolution” problematic. Despite
the spectre of déjà vu, it may be worthwhile revisiting it, using the
prize competition question as our basis. On close reading, it opens
multiple conceptual cans of worms.

“Given the devastating effects ... on working people...” Do we detect
a hint here of the idea that devastation as such is
consciousness-raising? In the case of revolutionary transitions in
which one exploiting class takes power from another, the challenging
class can mobilize the devastation-induced rage of the subaltern
masses as a weapon against the ancien regime. When revolutionary
agency resides with the exploited masses themselves, however, things
are different: the struggle must empower the working-class majority,
prepare that majority to shoulder the immense burdens of running the
institutions and structures of society, while simultaneously
transforming those institutions and structures. If this is right,
then we must conclude that it is the response to devastation, not the
devastation itself, that matters. The response is much more
empowering in action ­­ and therefore much more consciousness-raising
than the crisis that provoked it.

“...practical to the vast majority ...” What seems “practical” at any
moment in time is what is bounded by existing paradigms! So the
“public option” was “impractical”: it was placed out of bounds by the
ideological guardians of the status quo. This is an aspect of
hegemony, in Gramsci’s sense: the limits to action decreed by the
agencies of the ruling class are made to seem inevitable, natural. It
is precisely the practice of the vast majority that can ­­ potentially
alter what seems practical to that majority. The task of struggle
for “temporary improvement” (see the testimony of Marx, quoted below)
is to expand the horizon of the “possible” ­­ to overthrow the
constraints on what appears as “practical.”

“...moving us toward the goal of socialism...” Again, an (admittedly
very close) reading suggests a conception of socialism as an exterior
projection, a “system” that replaces capitalism from the outside, and
is therefore formed in consciousness as a “goal.” Now communism (as
the generic term for the mode of production that transcends
capitalism, along with all class-antagonistic modes of production)
does take shape as a vision, or goal; this is the moment within
Marxist theory that draws upon the treasure-trove of utopian thought.
The dominant moment, however, is the one that establishes the
socialist-communist tradition associated with Marx and Engels as
scientific ­­ in an appropriate non-scientistic sense of that term.
This is the insight that socialism is the culmination of forces
developing within capitalism; in the present case, most essentially
the capacities, experiences, struggles and evolving consciousness of
the working class, emerging as part of the system of class relations
that defines capitalism. If this (too) is right, then socialism is
the social-economic democracy that arises in the practice and
consciousness of the working-class struggle and is, simultaneously,
part of the laws of motion of capitalism. The goal is not a timeless
abstraction; it is itself shaped and reconfigured and fleshed out
within the movement of the exploited. This movement is revolutionary,
because it can only realize itself in the ultimate overthrow of
capitalism, creating the historic moment in time at which
socialism­communism emerges as a unique, transcendent stage in social

“...radical reform ...” The problem, as we begin to see, is not so
much with “radical” as with “reform.” “Reform” takes an object: it is
reform of a system. What is our conception of this system? If the
utopian moment becomes overextended, the system appears as something
exterior to the working-class struggle itself: it is “their” system,
and we (presumably) “want no part of it.” But, in the light of the
scientific moment, we are part of it. The system is the unresolvable
antagonism between classes, and its core state is the balance of class
forces: the entire complex of relations ­­ economic, political,
cultural, ideological ­­ that constitute the power of the capitalist
class to extract surplus value, and the power of the working class to
resist and moderate that extraction. We think of efforts on the part
of the working class to alter the balance of forces in its favor as
“reforms.” How should we relate to those efforts? That, of course,
is what the debate is about. Marx, it seems, was unequivocal on this

...the very development of modern industry must progressively turn the
scale in favour of the capitalist against the working man.... Such
being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the
working class ought to renounce their resistance against the
encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the
best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If
they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches
past salvation.... By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict
with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the
initiating of any larger movement.

Marx is addressing the issue in the context of trade union policy, but
we may, I think, see it more broadly, in the contestation between
classes that takes place at various social and political sites,
including but not limited to the workplace.

Would genuine health-care security ­­ reliable access to medical
treatment for all workers and their families, in all stages of life,
without regard to capacity to pay, citizenship status, pre-existing
conditions ­­ have an impact on the balance of class forces? Is it
(or its absence) part of that balance? In light of the foregoing,
this is of course a silly question. The answer is shown by the clear
class understanding among the Republican Party in the United States:
dominant circles within the ruling class (perhaps not the ruling class
in its entirety; there are always enlightened outliers) will go to the
mat on this issue, not merely because they don’t want to pay for
health-care reform, but because they understand its positive impact on
the general social condition of the working population and the
consequences of that condition for ongoing and future challenges to
their power/wealth/privilege, in all spheres. When the right (both
the “respectable” Republicans and “crazies” such as Rush Limbaugh and
Glenn Beck; the two camps are organically linked) sees health-care
“reform” as a threat to “freedom” and Obama as a “Marxist,” they mean
their (ruling-class) freedom, and “Marxist” in an ultimate sense, and
guess what? ­­ they are correct!

In trade union contract negotiations, a distinction is drawn between
“money items” and “non-money items”; the latter are issues such as the
right of the union to post notices within workplaces, requirements on
management to consult with the union concerning workplace conditions,
and so forth. From the standpoint of the overall balance of class
forces within the work-place (a component of the larger balance), we
must aver: there is no such thing as a non-money item: anything that
matters affects the overall outcome, the rate of surplus value
extraction. Now, in the context of the larger issue of “reform” ­­
changing the balance in favor of working people ­­ I suggest a
controversial extension of this principle: There is no such thing as a
non-radical reform.

This does not mean that reforms ­­ from installing a traffic light at
a corner where children cross on the way to school, to an increase in
the minimum wage, guaranteed employment, or a public option extending
health care services to 32 million people now completely excluded from
them ­­ are inherently or necessarily revolutionizing. It does mean
that every reform has implications for the class balance of forces,
and must and will be combated by the ruling class (yes, even the
traffic light); that every reform must therefore be defended, and
extended, and linked with other reforms, and with the movements
backing other reforms. This process provides the working class with
political and organizational experience, with the opportunity and
necessity to overcome divisions and separations ­­ in a word, with an
ongoing laboratory for developing the skills and capacities needed to
eventually take over the reins entirely. This, in turn, is the real
foundation for advances in consciousness. It is the ultimate school
for socialism. Note that this perspective does not say:
“Unfortunately, workers are only ready for reforms; they are not (yet)
ready for revolution.” Instead, it says: “workers need and desire
reforms, and this is a good thing, because unless we/they build the
struggles and movements for reforms, they/we will never be ready for

But should we make distinctions between “radical” reforms and
(presumably) “non-radical” ones? Are we to pick and choose among the
needs and demands that arise spontaneously in workplaces and in
working-class communities? Who is to be told that their needs don’t
meet our test? The worst we could do is succumb to the ultimate
arrogance of trying to fool people, by advancing “reform” proposals
that (we somehow think) the “system” cannot deliver. Talk about
“disqualify(ing our)selves for the initiating of any larger movement”!
If we have learned anything from the negative lessons of the 20th
century, it is that the left must, as a matter of central principle,
occupy the moral high ground, and this depends clearly on our not
cherry-picking “strategically” selected projects to “teach” people ­­
about a “system” of which they are not seen as a part.

It must be said: those who fear reforms and reform movements on the
grounds that people might become distracted from the “real” path of
revolution, or that they might be “co-opted” into the “system,” are
essentially saying that they do not believe that class interests
within capitalism are irreconcilable! Put another way, these fearful
folk actually think capitalism can solve the day-to-day problems of
existence of the working class, and therefore want to keep that from

If we do give principled support to all reform movements and currents,
we still have the task of doing this in a revolutionary way, and there
is no simply formula that can guarantee that. The health care
legislation provides examples of the challenges; I cite here only the
insidious tax on so-called “Cadillac” union plans, clearly designed to
divide the working-class and frustrate further progress toward
universal coverage and quality of health care. Working-class
empowerment, as long as capitalist production relations are dominant,
and indeed for some time after, is inseparable from class struggle,
and those who share that perspective are in a position to identify the
pressure points in the current stage of the struggle and mobilize the
most broad-based campaigns to address them in the next round.

“What proposals ...can be raised ...” (quoting one last time from the
Singer Prize question). Instead, let’s become part of the various
real currents from which all proposals originate, and work with those
currents to find ways of winning, deepening, extending, building. Out
of that experience, revolutionary leadership will arise. It most
likely will not be who we expect it to be! In the words of the wise
old spiritual song: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout Heaven ain’t goin’

David Laibman

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