Idon’t think I have misrepresented Alex Callinicos’s position. I do know that he has misrepresented mine. He says that one of my two criteria of a ‘structural reform’ (as distinct from a measure of ‘mere reformism’) is that it ‘form[s] part of an irreversible process of change’, and proceeds to twit me with the reminder that no progressive measures are irreversible, not even the provisions of the National Health Service. Yet the fact is that I did not advance the rather simple-minded position Callinicos chooses to criticize. What I did state (as the first attribute of ‘structural reform’) was that ‘any reform, to be structural, must not be comfortably self-contained (a mere “improvement”), but must, instead, be allowed self-consciously to implicate other “necessary” reforms that flow from it as part of an emerging project of structural transformation.’ In other words (and in contrast to Bernstein’s ‘the process is everything for me, and. . .the final aim of socialism is nothing’), the popular movement-cum-party attempting a programme of structural reform must constantly articulate both to itself and to its broadest potential constituency the goal of structural transformation/socialism. It is this alone that can situate and make revolutionary sense of short-term struggles and achievements and forestall a situation in which these latter take on no more than the vulnerable half-life of free-standing, one-off ameliorations of some particularly raw attribute of otherwise ascendant capitalism.footnote9

Indeed, such emerging self-consciousness about the long-term imperatives of transformation (and about the logic that must be seen to link the realization of any one advance to the need/possibility for a set of subsequent advances towards a transformative goal) is also the necessary touchstone for realizing the second attribute of any ‘structural reform’ (the one Callinicos does permit me to retain): that it be fought for and realized in such a way as to contribute to the ongoing, cumulative, self-conscious ‘empowerment’—ideologically, organizationally—of the vast mass of the population. Obviously, attempts at structural reform are always prone to collapse into ‘mere reformism’ and/or to contribute to the unhealthy bureaucratization of ostensibly progressive organizations; Callinicos is correct to flag the dangers. But why should this be deemed to be inevitable? In fact, the struggle within the movement to sustain the kind of tough bargaining stance that a transformative process implies is one of the most crucial factors within the politics of the transition.

‘Power necessarily shifts from the shop floor to the union head office’, says Callinicos. ‘Necessarily’? Surely only so long as there is not a vibrant context for debate about the terms of the ‘structural reform’ endeavour and no effective set of democratic procedures through which movement spokespersons (of whatever organizational provenance, be it union or party or women’s organization) can be held, ultimately, to account. And what is the alternative? Take Callinicos’s own examples. There are bound to be differences of opinion—and debates—within the movement about whether or not at some particular moment direct action of the kind Callinicos identifies as occurring at the Mercedes Benz plant is the immediately appropriate tactic. How are such differences to be resolved? And there are bound to be complex struggles over issues like vat. But surely real ‘struggles’ over such issues will take place in hotel meeting rooms and ministerial offices (even in the ministerial offices of some future ‘revolutionary government’) as often as in the streets and in the neighbourhoods. Three and a half million workers can demonstrate against the government’s imposition of vat, as they have recently done in South Africa. They cannot all crowd into a negotiating room to further pressure business and/or government on the issue. Does this automatically render the latter an illegitimate front of the class struggle?

Are there to be, in sum, no organizations, no leaders, no differences of opinion, no politics, within the movement that Callinicos would see facilitating a transition to socialism in South Africa? Unfortunately, whenever Callinicos comes up against complexities like these—complexities inherent in real rather than notional struggles for socialist advance—he backs away and invokes that magic talisman ‘mass struggle, to outrank competing arguments. Moreover, he is only able to do this by simultaneously underestimating the practical significance of the fact that conservative forces with real power (power rooted both locally and internationally) are not, at any early date, going to disappear from South Africa by wholesale lot. How are they most effectively to be checked, finessed, seduced, resisted, and, one hopes, ultimately constrained to yield to transformation? Neither in his response to my article nor elsewhere does Callinicos provide any tools which might help the South African Left to answer its most pressing questions: when to confront directly? when to negotiate? with whom? over what issues? Surely if we have learned nothing else from recent history, we have learned that substituting the pure flame of revolutionary rhetoric for the hard calculation and complex and subtle politics of structural reform/socialist transition is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, it is true that there are always risks in any kind of abstract discussion of politico-economic practice. As Stephen Gelb has recently reminded me, my own article could itself do a great deal more to analyse, for different sectors, how various concrete policy measures that are on the cards in South Africa might have their full potential drawn out as structural, rather than ‘reformist’, reforms. But Callinicos’s brand of abstraction is of a kind that becomes, particularly readily, a platform for leftist purity—and mere point-scoring. The Left in South Africa (and elsewhere) will have to do better than this. The main point of my article was to underscore the fact that, both within the union movement and within the camp of the anc, some significant segments of the South African Left may be beginning to do just that.