Reformist Reforms, Revolutionary Reforms and Capitalism
I read this from Douglas Edwards (@SebastosPublius) and it triggered some thinking on the problem of reform versus revolution:
“What’s really needed is a grand unified theory of non-reformist reforms, how they’re supposed to lead to real change…”
I thought One interesting aspect of Peter Frase’s essay on UBI was his brief discussion of reform versus revolution. There is, according to some activists “reformist-reforms” and “revolutionary reforms”. For instance, there is probably common agreement that universal basic income or a jobs guarantee are reform. The question we are asked to consider is whether these reforms are reformist or revolutionary. There even appears to be a third category of certain reforms that not quite “revolutionary”, but are “utopian”.
Frase recounts how a dispute arose over whether UBI is “utopian” enough. One of the parties to the dispute defines utopian as a measure that “proposes to dramatically overhaul society into an entirely unprecedented structure that will usher in a nearly perfect world.” As might be obvious to our “Revolutionary Left”, this sort of debate happens on the pink fringes of communism, where people “think globally, act locally” and mostly “vote Democrat.”
But it is also expressed in its obverse form in communism proper as an anathema — we revolutionaries don’t want reforms, but demand revolution. The line between communism proper and its pink fringe is held to be precisely the line between revolution versus reform. Communists stand for “revolution not reform”; sudden and possibly violent uprising, not gradualism. In short, communists want to “overhaul society into an entirely unprecedented structure that will usher in a nearly perfect world.”
Oh, sorry. That is not communist revolution, that is what Matt Bruenig defines as “utopian”.
It turns out that, on closer inspection, it is harder to actually separate reform from revolution than communism and its pink fringe suggest. In fact, communists advocate all sorts of reforms, despite their credentials as card-carrying revolutionists. It is likely most communists would be hard pressed to name a single social reform proposed by Democrats they have ever opposed. Put a communist on a rack and turn the screws and most likely he would still be unable to explain the difference between a revolutionary measure and a reformist one.
Between screams, of course.
The reason for this difficulty is not hard to explain: Capital itself is a revolutionary mode of production; it is the most profoundly revolutionary mode of production to have ever swept the planet. It is so revolutionary, in fact, that the staunchest communist parties have undertaken decades of revolutionary transformation of their nations only to arrive at mere fascist capitalist states in the end. For all their revolutionary bluster, in the end the Soviet Union of Lenin, the People’s Republic of China of Mao, and the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh are now just markets to which capital exports its superfluous capital; and they, in turn, supply this capitalist center with iPhones, oil and natural gas and other such shit.
Ask yourself what it means to undertake reform of a mode of production that is itself already revolutionary. The question of whether the measures themselves are reformist or revolutionary has no significance whatsoever if the mode itself is already revolutionary. All that matter is whether these measures accelerate the already revolutionary character of a process already underway.
Marx spent quite a bit of the Communist Manifesto describing the revolutionary significance of the capitalist mode of production; and a lot of communists treat this description as a sort of flattery one gives to an opponent before announcing a “but …”. As in:
Capital is a revolutionary mode of production, “but”…
But, nothing actually.
Capitalism is a revolutionary mode of production and the proletariat organized as a ruling class will seek only to do what capitalism is already doing half-heartedly: develop the productive forces. Capital does this half-heartedly, because development of the productive forces is not its aim; the proletariat will do it more rapidly, because it aims at this result, not production for profit — which is to say, the proletariat explicitly aims to abolish labor. Production for profit suffers the defect that no matter how it develops the productive forces, it cannot directly aim at abolition of labor for the obvious reason that labor is the source of profit.
Try as it might to abolish labor, capital can do no more than abolish paid labor — i.e., the wages of the working class. However, since wage labor is the premise of the production of surplus value, it runs into a barrier in this effort. Thus, in Capital, volume 3, Marx explains:
“Capitalist production seeks continually to overcome these immanent barriers, but overcomes them only by means which again place these barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale.
The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself. It is that capital and its self-expansion appear as the starting and the closing point, the motive and the purpose of production; that production is only production for capital and not vice versa, the means of production are not mere means for a constant expansion of the living process of the society of producers.”
Any action that the working class takes within the mode of production is only aimed at overcoming this barrier.
Since Marxists are mostly a collection of dullards and pseudo-revolutionaries, Marx had to reiterate this to them directly in the form of a critique of their program of 1875. He stated:
“The bourgeoisie is [in the Manifesto] conceived as a revolutionary class — as the bearer of large-scale industry
So here is a pop quiz for Marxists — just to make sure you morons were paying attention: What then is the barrier capital can never overcome?
Capital cannot overcome labor itself, because labor is the premise of its existence; labor is the premise of a mode of production in which the expansion of labor is the starting and closing point of its own self-expansion. Self-expansion of capital is nothing more than the expansion of wage slavery, which must expand no matter that capital seeks to eliminate it. Capital can abolish all other classes in society, but it must continually produce more proletarians; if it cannot produce more proletarians, capital must die.
This suggests the strategic vulnerability of capitalism is the expansion of labor, not the distribution of the results of labor. Labor is the oxygen of the mode of production and it can be suffocated by the same process that improves the productivity of labor. It can also be suffocated by the process that puts an end to labor itself. Here we have two potential strategies for putting an end to capital: first, forcing the development of the productive forces, which reduces labor; and, second, putting an end to the fragmentation of the conditions of labor, which must itself put an end to labor.
Moreover, these tow can be treduced to a single common action by the proletariat: association. The fragmentation of the conditions of labor can only be overcome by association of the social producers and the improvement in the productivity of labor can only be forced by reducing the quantity of labor available to capital. Since association has the effect of overcoming the fragmentation of the conditions of labor, and since this fragmentation is the condition for labor itself, association is of the utmost priority for the proletarians.
It really does not matter what the demands of this association are, since it is the association itself, not its demands, that matter. The advocates of pure and simple “reformism”, “revolutionary reformism” and “revolution” all share the same defect that they ignore the need for association. The measures advocated on behalf of each, and the justification made for each measure, is a complete distraction from the real problem. Since the capitalist mode of production is already revolutionary in its own right, your pitiful measures are meaningless; you cannot be more revolutionary than the crisis capital is already going through right now, no matter how hard you try. So you need to put aside all of your silly reform measures and concentrate on what can actually accelerate the process.
Or, perhaps, if it helps you to think beyond the problem of everyday national politics to a post-capitalist society, you can advocate whatever concrete demands floats your boat as long as you see to it the association of producers constantly expands.