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
‘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
All the more reason, then, to insist that a strategy of structural reforms not be seen as being, at best, some mere ‘detour’ (as Callinicos would have it) on the road to revolution. Under many (if not most) contemporary circumstances, including the circumstances of a post-apartheid South Africa, it may well be the road itself. For it suggests a model of socialist activity that can force the most unromantic reading of the odds against any very immediate transformation of existing capitalist circumstances and yet permit a definition of sites and modes of real struggle, and a concretization of tactics and strategies that opens up the possibility of moving towards just such a transformation. Moreover, it promises to underscore the saliency of substantive issues (rather than vague revolutionary nostrums) in terms of which leaderships can most effectively be held to democratic account by their constituencies and in terms of which these very constituencies can become ever more conscious of their class interests—indeed, of their very ‘classness’—not as some theoretical given but as the practical content of their own lives and public activities.
There is a final point. As my original article emphasized, the present ‘simultaneity of the apartheid and post-apartheid moments’ serves to complicate both theory and practice in South Africa, de Klerk’s sustained intransigence and the anc’s inability to force the pace of meaningful advance on the crucial front of constitutional negotiations continuing to bracket some questions about the socialist prospect raised in the present exchange. Perhaps Callinicos’s rather abstract preoccupation with ‘socialist revolution’ helps him underestimate the potential importance of consolidating an achieved democratic political dispensation in South Africa (important both in pre-empting chaos and in opening space for socialist agitation). Combine this miscalculation with the overall weakness of his theoretical position and we find Callinicos presenting constitutional negotiations as being, virtually by definition, a Bad Thing (predictably, ‘a fetter on mass struggles’). Yet the fact that the ‘Revolutionary Alliance’ now seeks much more self-consciously to make ‘mass action’ and ‘negotiations’ mutually reinforcing, not starkly contradictory, tactics of struggle should actually be seen as quite promising. The question, of course, remains as to how to render this combination of tactics more potent than it has been to date. But it is precisely this kind of tough, concrete political question that, once again, Callinicos’s approach prevents him from helping to answer.