Reform and Revolution

Against the Current, No. 40, September/October 1992

Samuel Farber

Socialism Unbound
by Stephen Eric Bronner
New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1990. 241 pages. $49.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

FOR SEVERAL YEARS, Stephen Eric Bronner has been an able exponent and analyst of the thought of Rosa Luxemburg. His Rosa Luxemburg. A Revolutionary for Our Times (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987) is one of the best short expositions of Rosa’s political thought and career.

Socialism Unbound is a much more ambitious project than Bronner’s previous works on Luxemburg. Besides rediscussing Rosa’s political trajectory, this volume also analyzes other major socialist figures such as Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein and V.I. Lenin, and effectively demonstrates that these socialist leaders developed a serious intellectual-political tradition that cannot be dismissed as is fashionable among many bourgeois and trendy scholars.

Bronner also attempts to grapple with the classic, and never fully resolved, socialist problematic of reform and revolution. He bravely engages in these multifaceted efforts with what are, in my view, mixed results.

On the clearly positive side, Socialism Unbound maintains Bronner’s previously established high standard of Luxemburg scholarship. I would especially recommend this material to all those who may have been seriously misled by Margaret Von Trotta’s film coloring Rosa green-pacifist, feminist, lover of plants, and anything but the reddest of truly “old-fashioned” Reds.

Bronner’s exposition and analysis of Kautsky and Bernstein are also very informative, insightful and conceptually precise. The strength of Bronner’s analyses resides in great part on the fact that he places these socialist leaders in their historical context.  Thus, it is hard to understand the appeal and delusions of reformism unless one considers what was happening in Germany at the end of the Nineteenth century.

For one thing, in 1887 Social Democracy polled 10.1% of the votes in the Reichstag elections; in 1890, 19.7%; in 1893, 23.3%; in 1898, 27.2%; and in 1903, 31.7% (34). No wonder that the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) became strongly attracted to notions of evolution and inevitability!

On the negative side of the balance sheet, I am in the first place somewhat critical of Bronner’s analysis of Lenin. In this context, Bronner’s flaws are typically Luxemburgist.”

First, we find here the misperception common to Luxemburgists, Maoists, and some Trotskyists that Lenin in some sense favored nationalism (130). This, as opposed to those of us who view Lenin’s politics of “the right of nations to self-determination” as the most principled and effective way of <both opposing imperialism and competing with nationalism.

Second, Bronner also seems to share the common misconception that Lenin was permanently committed to one particular model of party organization regardless of time and place (81). In contrast to this approach, I would contend that the problem laid elsewhere; namely, Lenin’s much greater emphasis on the role of the minority of revolutionary activists than on the power of working class institutions such as soviets.

Workers’ Revolution Outdated?

However, I am most critical of Bronner’s approach to the questions of the agency for socialism and the closely related matter of reform and revolution. In essence, Bronner dismisses, without a serious and sustained argument, many of the elements of the revolutionary Marxist case for a socialist revolution led by the working class.

In his view, the objective necessity for socialism no longer exists and what remains is the admittedly important ethical need for it, and for which he makes a strong and coherent case. Moreover, according to Bronner, the status of the working class as an agent of change is at best ambiguous since “the empirical definition of class [is not] any longer self-evidently tied to the structural contradictions of capitalism.” (165)

Last but by no means least, Bronner concludes that, “no less than with respect to reform, the commitment to revolution is therefore predicated on ‘judgment’ rather than historical necessity. Thus, the ideological priority traditionally accorded the concept by Marxism surrenders to a socialist stance in which revolution–no less than reform–becomes a tactic rather than a strategic goal.” (180, Bronner’s emphasis)

Bronner is certainly entitled to his views and a detailed, substantive argument on these issues could have indeed provided the basis for a useful dialogue. However, he seems to treat these matters as unproblematic givens and in the process fails to acknowledge the existence of a continually developing body of Marxist theory concerning capitalist crises and the changing composition of the working class.

The major changes that have taken place in capitalism do not eliminate or rule out the revolutionary potential of the working class. Yes, the working class of the 1990s is certainly different from that of the 1960s, let alone the 1930s. Yet critics such as Bronner would need to show that these important changes specifically alter the social characteristics that originally led Marx to believe that this class, unlike previous exploited and oppressed classes, had the capacity to overthrow capitalism and establish a collectivist and democratic form of society.

Those of us who maintain that the working class continues to be the key agency for socialist change may be right or wrong, but again this must be discussed on the basis of substantive and detailed empirical and theoretical grounds. Rather than doing this, Bronner argues against what he considers the reliance that Marxists have traditionally placed on immanent and teleological arguments in support of revolution.

I would be the last person to deny that many Marxists, in the past as well as in the present, have done precisely that. Nevertheless, I would still insist that critical Marxists do not need to do so, and can make the case for revolution on the bases of solid empirical and theoretical grounds.

Finally, Bronner seems to endorse reformist schemes without bothering to examine the very problematic, and cooptative, nature of the institutions he is alluding to. This is the case, for example, with his apparent support for so-called “co-determination” (Mitbestimmung) in German industry (159-160).

In sum, I believe that Bronner has done well in addressing the perennial problem of reform and revolution, although his answers were disappointing in light of the expectations stimulated by his previous work. In any case, this is a book that helps to continue the necessary, ongoing discussion of problems with which readers of this journal must always struggle.

September-October 1992, ATC 40