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Daniel Bensaïd and the “Return of Strategy”

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Luke Cooper reviews Daniel Bensaïds article A new debate is opening; the Return of Strategy International Viewpoint, No. 386, February 2007, (read online)
All quotes below are from this article unless otherwise stated.

In his recent article “A new debate is opening; the Return of Strategy” Daniel Bensaïd, a leading theorist of the Fourth International (FI) continues the discussion over the strategy to be adopted by the movements of resistance to neoliberalism, which has taken place within the Fourth International and also attracted contributions from the International Socialist Tendency (IST), notably Alex Callinicos. The debate has necessarily raised fundamental issues concerning the fight for political power, the characterisation of state institutions and the application of the transitional programme in the 21st century. In his contribution, Bensaïd argues that, in certain conditions, it can be principled for revolutionaries to enter bourgeois governments.

The question of participation in bourgeois governments was first posed as a practical issue as a result of the growth of the mass, socialist parties of the Second International at the turn of the last century. The debate between the left and right wings of the Second International establish the principle that revolutionaries could not under any conditions enter a bourgeois government which was, by definition, a government committed to the defence of capital and private property. A century later, the question of political power and the state is again a live one as a result of the rise of the anticapitalist movement.

Bensaïd points to the rise of Hugo Chavez, the general trend to left populism in Latin America and the prospect of building alternative parties in Europe, for example, the Linkspartei/WASG in Germany, as the backdrop for a new debate around strategy in the anticapitalist movement.

Such a debate is certainly needed on an international level. However, I don't agree with Bensaïd's core thesis that there can be circumstances in which it is legitimate for revolutionaries to participate in capitalist governments. Below I want to challenge this position and show how the logic of it leads Bensaid to to make a series of mistaken revisions of Marxist principles including the conception of the state, the transitional programme, permanent revolution, independent working class politics and the revolutionary party.

Having said that, Bensaïd clearly sees himself as correcting what he believes to be too rightist a perspective acted on by parts of the Fourth International. In particular, he makes a retrospective criticism of the participation of its (later to be expelled) Brazilian section in the government of Lula in 2002 and the position held by Francis Sitel, of the French section - the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR). Despite this critique of the right, however, Bensaïd’s own position is effectively nothing more than a demand for somewhat stricter criteria for participation in such governments.

Bensaïd accuses Sitel of being too keen to “create something new” without considering the past, going as far to argue that many of today’s “novelties” are just “recycled old utopian themes from the 19th century and the workers’ movement in its infancy”.

Absolutely. The entire Revisionist Controversy in Germany, France and the whole Second International at the turn of the Twentieth Century, springs to mind. However, in attempting to demonstrate the revolutionary continuity of his own position, Bensaïd is necessarily forced to misrepresent the history of the communist movement. Although he decorates his article with a series of references to Trotsky, Lenin and the Communist International, these are nothing but camouflage to disguise the fact that what he proposes is fundamentally at odds with the principles and programme for which they fought.

A 20th century with “two revolutionary hypotheses”?

An example of this can be seen in Bensaïd's conception of permanent revolution. To assert his Trotskyist credentials, he argues that Trotsky was right to attack Stalin’ s notion of “socialism in one country” and propose instead the strategy of permanent revolution. However, he presents the difference only about whether a workers’ government should actively try to inspire revolution abroad and the impossibility of achieving socialism in one country.

These were obviously important differences, but this is an appallingly insufficient analysis of what Trotsky meant by Permanent Revolution. For him, the strategy of Permanent Revolution proposed that the working class must come to the head of democratic or anti-imperialist struggles and lead them on to working class power and the establishment of a workers state.i

Why Bensaïd has to give such an insufficient explanation of permanent revolution only becomes clear as he develops his own analysis of history, an analysis that is entirely at odds with Trotsky’s position. He argues that the 20th century saw “two strategic hypotheses” for the overthrow of capitalism. These are what he calls the “insurrectionary general strike” and the “extended popular war”:

“Our starting point lies in the great revolutionary experiences of the 20th century - the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the German Revolution, the popular fronts, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnamese war of liberation, May 1968, Portugal, Chile. We have used them to distinguish between two major hypotheses, or scenarios: that of the insurrectional general strike and that of the extended popular war. They encapsulate two types of crisis, two forms of dual power, two ways of resolving the crisis.”

He then proceeds to list a few examples of the “insurrectionary general strike” hypothesis before proceeding to present a much longer digression on the “extended popular war”. In particular, he makes a long analysis of the Sandinistas who formed a popular front government in Nicaragua in the 1980s following a successful peasant war. What is remarkable about this extract is that he fails to point out the, not unimportant facts, that the working class did not come to power in Nicaragua at this time and capitalist property relations were not over-turned.

To make matters worse, Bensaïd completely ignores one of the great, the truly great, lessons of the 20th century; namely, that in Russia, in 1917, the working class took power by coming to the head of the popular struggle against Tsarist absolutisim, imperialist war and semi-feudal landownership, precisely by implementing the strategy of permanent revolution. Despite not making any analysis of the Russian Revolution, or any strategic criticisms of what he calls the “insurrectionary general strike”, Bensaïd then proceeds to dump it as a “revolutionary hypotheses” for today:

“The guideline for our strategic hypothesis in the 1970s was the insurrectional general strike, which, for the most part, bore no resemblance to the variants of acclimatised Maoism and its imaginary interpretations of the Cultural Revolution. It is this hypothesis of which we are now the ‘orphans’, according to Antoine Artous. What might have had a certain ‘functionality’ yesterday is lost today.”

It is with good reason that Trotsky argued that the working class must stand at the head of the revolution, as they are the force that can expropriate and democratically socialise capitalist property and hand over the land to the peasants, so that production may be harnessed for need, not profit. This is why it is always vital to fight for the working class to create its own organisations that can not only lead the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state but become themselves the machinery of the future workers’ state. By contrast, Bensaïd calls for the working class to establish its own democratic councils in the factories but these coexist alongside the institutions of the bourgeois state.

Class, the State and Marxism

Bensaïd draws on the work of LCR member Antoine Artous to argue that it is an “oversimplification” to believe that “dual power may be situated outside existing institutions” and be made to “suddenly spring from nothing in the form of a pyramid of soviets or councils.” He continues -

“… clearly one cannot imagine a revolutionary process other than as a transfer of legitimacy which gives preponderance to “socialism from below” but which interacts with forms of representation, particularly in countries with parliamentary traditions going back over more than a century, and where the principle of universal suffrage is firmly established.”

Thus, for Bensaïd, there may indeed be a parliamentary road to socialism in conjunction with a movement of factory council type bodies. This position, of course, is not new but has long been held by left reformists and centrists. It was associated in particular with the German USPD when it opposed the resolution of the dual power created by the November Revolution in 1918, thereby allowing the German state to reorganise its forces in preparation for the suppression of the workers’ councils. Variations on this theme have surfaced wherever the workers’ movement has begun to outgrow the limitations imposed upon it by the state. It was mercilessly criticised by Lenin and Trotsky as confusing the organisations of i) proletarian (soviet) and ii) bourgeois democracy (parliaments) and ignoring the “host” for such hybrid schemas - the capitalist state.

What is remarkable is that Bensaïd does not even mention the elementary Marxist criticism of this position. Namely, that power does not reside in parliament but with the unelected police, army, judiciary and top civil servants, whose armed power will be used against any mass movement which challenges the property rights of capital. Indeed, Marxists have always understood the state to be an instrument of class rule that exists as a means for one class to oppress another. As Lenin put it in State and Revolution, it is “bodies of armed men” in the defence of capital and expresses the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms.”ii

Marxists have typically pointed to the military coup in Chile in 1973 as an expression of the willingness of the state forces to ruthlessly put down democratic regimes, which undertake reforms that challenge the wealth and power of the capitalists. A less well know example, is the Indonesian military coup and huge massacre of 1965 against the popular anti-imperialist figure Sukarno, who was supported by a huge communist party that was literally wiped out in one of the 20th century’s most appalling atrocities.iii More recently, we may point to the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002.

You would have thought, given the power of the Marxist argument, Bensaïd would at least engage with this critique - however, he simply ignores it as if it never existed.

Working Class Politics

The meaning of Bensaïd’s long digression on the “popular war” becomes clearer once he has established his revisionist position on the state. Bensaïd clearly thinks the “popular war” was trying to address the problem of, what he calls, establishing the “general will”. He argues:

“The problem we face is not in reality that of the relationship between territorial democracy and workplace democracy (the Paris Commune, the soviets and the Setubal popular assembly of Portugal in 1975 were territorial structures), nor even that of the relationship between direct and representative democracy (all democracy is partially representative). The real problem is how the general will is formed.”

Bensaïd's use of the terms “territorial” and “workplace”iv here is clearly taken to mean liberal democratic and soviet democracy respectively. He suggests that soviets express the interests of only one part of society, the working class (true) and, for him, this is a problem for proponents of radical change because more interests must be expressed to establish a “general will”.

This is, again, a wild revision of Marxism, undertaken, again, with absolutely no recognition of the obligation to account for such a rejection of past programmatic positions. For Marxists, it is the exploitation of the working class and their ability to seize control of capitalist production, which gives it both the interest and the ability to undertake a transition to socialism. It was because other classes, such as the middle class or the peasants, were not wage slaves to industrial production that Marx argued in the Communist Manifesto:

“Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.”

Marx continues -

“The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property. All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.”v

By contrast, Bensaïd is effectively calling for a new populism, a new politics based on the establishment of a “general will” rather than working class interest. This follows organically from his proposal for Marxists to undertake a rapprochement with the liberal democratic state, as this is a state, which, of course, claims to embody the will of society at large, rather than any single class component of it. Since Bensaïd clearly does not view this claim as fraudulent, it follows that he must effectively renounce class politics.

The Transitional Programme

What is emerging is a conception of political strategy that is essentially reformist, based on a parliamentary road to socialism. To make this move complete, Bensaïd proceeds to bowdlerize the revolutionary transitional programme.

This is clearly expressed when he supports the criticism Antoin Ardous has made of Callinicos’ AntiCapitalist Manifesto:

“… Alex’ s transitional approach halts at the threshold of the question of power. This would be left to be resolved by some unconvincing deus ex machina, supposedly by a spontaneous tidal wave of the masses and a generalised outburst of soviet democracy. Though defence of civil liberties figures prominently in Alex’ s programme, he would appear to make no demands of an institutional nature (for example, the demand for proportional representation, a constituent assembly or single chamber, or radical democratisation).”

“Deus ex machina” is a Latin phrase, which means a “god from a machine”, which, as International Viewpoint’s explanatory note points out, should be taken to mean a “sudden emergence of a solution from nowhere”. One cannot help feeling bewildered that someone who claims to be a revolutionary Marxist can talk with such cynicism at the prospect of a revolution.

While Bensaïd may criticise the AntiCapitalist Manifesto for being too revolutionary, he actually shares the same false conception of transitional demands as Callinicos. We have argued in the League that the AntiCapitalist manifesto simply brings forward a series of radical reforms, rather than transitional

For Trotsky, transitional demands were engineered to maximise the power of the working class in capitalist society, e.g. the call for workers’ control of industry challenged the bosses’ right to manage and the call for a workers’ militia challenged the monopoly on armed power held by the capitalist state.

Both can be shown to be essential to the class struggle when it rises to a certain level of generalisation within capitalist society. Indeed, there are many examples of workers who were not revolutionary communists creating significant embryos of just such bodies, coordinations, mass strike pickets, factory occupations, etc. These forms of organisation need significant class levels of class struggle to be fully realised and they are very unstable, because they are so threatening to capital that the proletariat must either proceed to power, or be left vulnerable to a capitalist offensive, which would threaten to resolve the dual power by the destruction of the workers’ organisations and, thereby, resolve the underlying social crisis in the interests of capital.vii

By contrast, Bensaïd has a false and pragmatic conception of the Transitional programme, as he makes clear in an essay titled the “Baggage on Exodus”:

“It was a question [in 1917] of moving beyond abstract discussion of the intrinsic virtue of the claims, whether reformist by nature (because compatible with the established order) or revolutionary by nature (because incompatible with this order). The appropriateness of the demands depends on the concrete situation, on their educational virtue for those who entered the struggle.”viii

Here, Bensaïd fails entirely to describe what was new about the transitional programme. His error is summed up in his presentation of demands as either reformist/compatible with capitalism or revolutionary/incompatible with capitalism. This leaves out of account the crucial dimension of the class struggle; what might be “compatible” with capitalism in some periods may be completely “incompatible” in others. To give a concrete example, for decades, French capital was content to recognise equal rights at work to people under the age of 25, last year the fight to defend those rights using the methods of mass mobilisation, direct action and led by the network of coordinations, created a pre-revolutionary situation!

The innovation, first fully codified in the transitional programme, but already present in the struggles of the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary Comintern, was the raising of demands, and methods of fighting for them, that empowered the working class in the day-to-day struggles vis a vis the bourgeoisie. This overcame the potential gulf between the demands of the “minimum programme”, which did not, in themselves, require the overthrow of capitalism, and the demands of the “maximum programme” which identified the principal measures to be taken after the revolution. In other words, it linked the fight for all demands, even immediate and partial demands, into the fight for working class power. Bensaïd is guilty of retreating from this conception back to the to the non-transitional framework of reformist demands (i.e. compatible with capitalism), and revolutionary demands (i.e. incompatible) of the Second International.

What was significant about the programme of transitional demands was not their formal, or static, compatibility or incompatibility with the laws of capitalism but that they identified the key objectives which, if won, would represent strategic defeats for the bourgeoisie and its state and linked the fight for them to the creation of working class organisations that could dispute bourgeois rule.

As we (Workers Power) said in 1983 -

“Even where such [reformist] demands have a progressive content (which is not always the case) it is the duty of revolutionaries to link the struggle for them to the historic mission of the proletariat, the conquest of state power. Such a linking is only possible through the use of transitional demands, demands that meet the real and central needs of the workers and that clash with the attempts of the capitalists and their state to make the workers pay the cost of the crisis. The system of transitional demands advanced by communists, raising as it does the struggle for workers’ control exercised through organs of struggle such as soviets and factory committees, organises the working class for, and leads it towards, the struggle for the conquest of state power.”ix

It is Bensaïd’s erroneous conception of programme that leads him to make the following dishonest and eclectic summation of the discussion between the LCR and Callinicos on programme:

“Cédric Durand, on the other hand, would seem to conceive of institutions as mere intermediaries for autonomous protest strategies. This, in practice, might boil down to a compromise between “below” and “above”- in other words, crude lobbying by the former of the latter, which is left intact. In reality all sides in the controversy agree on the fundamental points inspired by The Coming Catastrophe (Lenin’s pamphlet of the summer of 1917) and the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International (inspired by Trotsky in 1937): the need for transitional demands, the politics of alliances (the united front [19] the logic of hegemony and on the dialectic (not antinomy) between reform and revolution. We are therefore against the idea of separating an (“anti-neoliberal”) minimum programme and an (anti-capitalist) “maximum” programme. We remain convinced that a consistent anti-neoliberalism leads to anti-capitalism and that the two are interlinked by the dynamic of struggle.”

Here, Bensaïd makes several startling summaries of his wrong approach -

i) Bensaid implies that he gives support to the argument that the liberal democratic state is a “mere intermediary for social movements” rather than a disguised expression of class rule.
ii) He makes the entirely dishonest claim that all sides in the discussion, including himself, hold a view compatible with that of the Bolsheviks and the pre-war Fourth International.

In addition, and critically, because Bensaïd has a false understanding of transitional demands he collapses the minimum (anti-neoliberal) and maximum (anti-capitalist) programmes into one another. That is, because he does not link them concretely with demands, which “organise the class for, and lead it towards, the struggle for power”, he is left to ask the objective process, or what he calls the “dynamic of struggle”, to do the job for him.

In doing so, he crowns his revisionism off by developing an erroneous conception of the revolutionary party. For Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks, the revolutionary party’s role was to fight for the programme and, therefore, to lead the working class in the struggle for power. Thus, they recognised that the subjective element, the party with its programme, was critical in transforming the objective situation. By contrast, despite claiming not to hold to a “spontaneous” view of revolutionary development, Bensaïd falls into just this method.

Workers’ Government?

Bensaïd refers to the debate in the Comintern on the question in the 1920s, in which they discussed how the call for a workers’ government flowed from the united front with social democracy and what constituted a bourgeois government.x

Bensaïd quotes Smeral who raised the problematic issue that the call for a workers’ government must not be seen to be a call for the government of social democracy and also Zetkin’s ultra left criticism that the call equated to the liquidation of the party. For Marxists, the key question in determining whether a government had a working class character was whether it expressed the interests of the working class and, therefore, had a programme for arming the class and expropriating the bourgeoisie.xi However, Bensaïd refers to the whole debate as confused:

“In fact, what Zinoviev defined as the ‘elementary objective of the workers’ government’ was the arming of the proletariat, workers’ control over production, a tax revolution ... One could go on and quote other contributions. The resulting impression would be of enormous confusion.”

Later, as we see below, Bensaïd outright rejects this position when he establishes new criteria for giving a government class characteristics. Far from being the property of Zinoviev, this position was in fact endorsed by the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. It is an integral part of the Theses on Comintern Tactics. It describes the conditions for its application as ones:

“where the balance of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution”.

Its conditions are as follows:

“The most elementary tasks of a workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, bringing control over production, shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.”

He goes on to say:

“Such a workers’ government is possible only if it is born out of the struggle of the masses and is supported by combative workers’ organisations formed by the most oppressed sections of workers at grassroots level. However, even a workers’ government that comes about through an alignment of parliamentary forces, i.e., a government of purely parliamentary origin, can give rise to an upsurge of the revolutionary workers’ movement.

“It is obvious that the formation of a genuine workers’ government, and the continued existence of any such government committed to revolutionary politics, must lead to a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie or even to civil war. The mere attempt by the proletariat to form such a workers’ government will from its very first days come up against extremely strong resistance from the bourgeoisie. The slogan of a workers’ government therefore has the potential to rally the proletarians and unleash revolutionary struggle.”

For the revolutionary Third International the critical question is whose armed power and property is the workers’ government engaged in destroying and creating - the bosses’ or the workers’? If it arms the workers and disarms the bourgeoisie, if it expropriates the capitalists and puts production under workers’ management then, and only then, is it a workers’ government. All other governments, even if they are made up of workers’ parties or appointed by fiery “socialist” presidents, are fake ones; they are bourgeois governments disguised as workers’ governments.

Bensaïd, by rejecting these formulations of the revolutionary Communist International, which directly posed the question of seizing armed power, and replacing them with India rubber formulations that can be applied to a situation where the bourgeois state forces remain armed and the working class disarmed, is opening the road to a Chile 1973 situation.

Bensaïd: On the left wing of the Fourth International?

We have shown that Bensaïd, without any accounting, has fundamentally revised the Marxist conception of the state, the working class, permanent revolution, the transitional programme and, finally, the revolutionary party. The fact that he is on the left of the Fourth International tells us a great deal about the politics of that organisation. Nonetheless, as we will now demonstrate in the last part of this article, Bensaïd can only make inconsistent and partial critiques of the Fourth International’s right wing, because his own revisionism has led him to essentially the same method.

Although Bensaïd retrospectively criticises the decision of the Fourth International’s Brazilian grouping to enter Lula’s government in 2002, he bases his criticism on the wrong conclusions that he has drawn from his discussion of the workers’ government slogan, we have outlined. In effect, he tries to establish new criteria for whether a government is a working class government or not - criteria that are certainly not based on class or power.

Of course, this should come as no surprise given that Bensaïd has renounced the Marxist conception of the state as an instrument for class rule. He then proceeds to establish, entirely arbitrarily, three conditions by which a government can be judged to be a workers’ government, which revolutionaries may join. These are:

“a) The question of participation arises in a situation of crisis or at least of a significant upsurge in social mobilisation, and not from a vacuum;

b) The government in question is committed to initiating a dynamic of rupture with the established order. For example - and more modestly than the arming of the workers demanded by Zinoviev - radical agrarian reform, “despotic incursions” into the domain of private property, the abolition of tax privileges, a break with institutions like those of the Fifth Republic in France, European treaties, military pacts, etc;

c) Finally, the balance of forces allows revolutionaries to ensure that even if they cannot guarantee that the non-revolutionaries in the government keep to their commitments, they have to pay a high price for failure to do so.”

Although Bensaïd does not say so, it is likely his criteria would make it legitimate for revolutionaries to participate in the government of Hugo Chavez. It is worth looking at precisely this example, to demonstrate how dangerously wrong his criteria are.

Chavez’s government has certainly not developed “out of a vacuum” but as a result of large mobilisations since the 2002 coup attempt and it has made limited “incursions” into the domain of private property. These two factors, as we demonstrate in the latest Fifth International, do not at all make Chavez’s reforms anti-capitalist nor give his government a working class character. In Venezuela, the state forces, the police, army and judiciary, have sought to thwart Chavez’s reforms and will be prepared to fight should he make more serious moves against private property.

In Venezuela, the task of revolutionaries must be to fight for working class independence, workers’ democracy and the struggle for power by raising demands that “organise and prepare the class”. This strategy means saying from the outset that Chavez is a populist politician who stands at the head of a state that retains a capitalist character.

It is essential, as it was for the Bolsheviks in relation to the provisional government in 1917, that revolutionaries give no support to any government of capital but rather make demands on it and organise the class to fight for them. It is a utopia to think the so-called “revolutionaries” in such a government would be able to make it “pay a high price for its failure” to deliver on its promises - when they themselves would be tainted by the failure of “their government”. Indeed, it would simply throw the working class into confusion and disorientation.

It is these flawed and reformist criteria that are the basis for Bensaïd’s critique of the entry of the Brazilian Fourth International into Lula’s government in 2002. While it is true that Lula’s government did not meet these new “criteria”, the critique is one based on assessment of how far that government could be expected to go, rather than on principle or revolutionary strategy.

This theme continues in Bensaïd’s critique of LCR member Francis Sitel. He quotes Sitel making various philistine statements that pour scorn on discussions of revolutionary strategy and programme, and arguing that it is necessary to enter capitalist governments to offset the worst neoliberal attacks, and openly calling for “broad parties” with “reformist goals”.

Bensaïd”s critique of this position simply slips into the most purblind pragmatism:

“Francis Sitel hazards the prediction that a “broad party will be defined as a party of reforms”. That’s as maybe. But it’s an idea that is speculative and sets up a norm in advance. And that certainly is not our problem. We don’t have to put the cart before the horse and invent among ourselves a minimum programme (of reforms) for a hypothetical “broad party”. We have to define our project and our programme. It is from that starting point that, in concrete situations and with tangible allies, we shall weigh up what compromises are possible, even if it means accepting some loss in clarity, in exchange for greater social spread, experience and dynamism. This is not new. We participated in the creation of the PT. Our comrades are active as a current in Rifondazione. They play a decisive part in the Left Bloc in Portugal. But these are all specific configurations and should not be brought together under some all-inclusive category of “broad party”.

Bensaïd continues by pointing to the instability and fragmentation in the working class and social movements; the uneven success of struggles; and the difficulties this poses in building a radical alternative to neoliberalism - all of which is undoubtedly correct.

He then argues, that questions of strategy and programme remain to the fore and this is his central critique of Sitel:

“… In every case, reference to a common programmatic background, far from being something that obstructs future reconstruction, is on the contrary its precondition. Strategic and tactical questions can then be prioritised so that we are not torn apart because of this or that electoral outcome. We can distinguish the political base on which organising open theoretical debate makes sense. We can assess which compromises allow us to forge ahead and which pull us back. We can adjust to forms of organisational existence (whether to be a tendency in a shared party, part of a front, etc.), depending on our allies and how their dynamic fluctuates (from right to left or left to right).”

The reader is left feeling a little bit bamboozled. On the one hand, Bensaïd has asserted the primacy of programme, on the other, he gives that programme purely a pragmatic (and opportunistic) content. The difference between Sitel and Bensaïd can thus be seen as one of quantity, not quality, given that Bensaïd has advanced a methodology that explicitly asserts the liberal democratic state may be an instrument for revolutionary change and poured scorn on the revolutionary communist alternative. His objection seems to be that Lula’s government didn’t do enough in the way of reforms to warrant sacrificing ones principles for. The point, however, is that if such a government actually did do enough to alarm and outrage the bourgeoisie, whilst still not arming and preparing the working class for civil war, then, to be inside such a government would be to tie the workers to it as the counterrevolution prepared itself to strike. In other words, Bensaïd is advocating the line of the Mensheviks in 1917, the Stalinists in 1936 and the Chilean Socialists and Stalinists in 1970-73.


In the Second International, at the beginning of the 20th century, a great “revisionist controversy” broke out when Eduard Bernstein proposed that capitalism would lead peacefully to socialism, through a series of parliamentary reforms. In her famous pamphlet, Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxembourg demolished the arguments of Bernstein. The issues she raised were strikingly similar to those outlined in this polemic with Bensaïd, that is, “capitalism and the state”, the working class and “the conquest of political power.”xii

In one of her most memorable arguments, Rosa Luxemburg showed that a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism was no road to socialism:

“That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of, and in contradistinction to, the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society, they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.”

Today, these issues are assuming a huge importance; from the participation of Rifondazione in Prodi’s government, to the “Bolivarian Revolution” of Chavez, the question of state power and its class character reverberates across the anticapitalist movement. On this, Bensaïd is quite right but the programme he proposes deserves the same rebuke that the revolutionaries of the early 20th century gave to Bernstein. Indeed, we could do with inspiring a 21st century “Revisionist Controversy”.

i) Trotsky, L., Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects , London 1962
ii) Lenin, V., I., “The State and Revolution; Marxist theories of the state and the tasks of the proletariat in the revolution”, Lenin Selected Works , Vol. 2, pp. 272 - 274
iii) See Sedley, N., 2007, “The Indonesian Massacre 1965” Fifth International, Vol. 2, Issue. 2,
iv) It seems fair to say that this subtle change in terminology is used to disguise the revisionist nature of Bensaïd”s approach to the capitalist state.
v) Marx, K., “Bourgeios and Proletarians”, Communist Manifesto
vi) See ‘Anticapitalist manifestos: Monbiot, Albert and Callinicos’, Fifth International, Vol. 1, No. 1, 2003
vii) Trotsky, L., 1973, “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”, Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution , (1938), pp. 111 - 115
viii) Bensaïd, D., 2006, “The Baggage of Exodus”, [/I] 100 Years of Permanent Revolution; Results and Prospects [/I], ed., Dunn and Radice
ix) Workers Power, 1983, “Revolutionary Tactics Towards Reformism”, Permanent Revolution , No. 1,
x) See Workers Power, 1983, “The Workers Government”. Permanent Revolution, No. 1
xi) ibid
xii) Luxembourg, R., Reform or Revolution, (1901), {I] Marxists Internet Archive [/I],