The Rough Road to Power: Comments on “Goodbye Revolution?”

Red Guards patrol at a fire in the Smolny Prospekt (1917)

A commentary by Patrick Berkman on the essay “Goodbye Revolution?” by Tim Horras which grapples with various debates around power and the path to socialist transformation.

By Patrick Berkman

In a new essay for Regeneration, Tim Horras examines just how fraught the alleged parliamentary roads to socialism are. Taking aim at debates within and around Jacobin and DSA, Horras goes after two general variants. The first is the suggestion that all we need to do is elect enough socialists, who will then be able to enact their platform and transition society away from capitalism:

The more sophisticated democratic socialist will grant that capitalist class power deforms the functions of government, but argue that the existing constitutional order is indestructible and/or a neutral, objective tool which can be made use of by any class. Thus, the existing state apparatus could be either used on behalf of the working class and the oppressed, or peacefully transformed from an apparatus of capitalist rule into an instrument of the working-class sovereignty. In other words, the idea is that if the Left wins enough elections to possess a majority in Congress, the capitalist state (with its courts, police, prisons and military) can then implement “full-throated democratic socialism” with the consent of “voters.” Thus, reformists generally posit a scenario whereby the capitalist class and their military and career civil service cede power in a relatively peaceful process to the working class majority.

To that Horras asks, “do we really think that the most powerful and ruthless ruling class in human history will quietly acquiesce as they find their ill-gotten wealth expropriated?” Ever since the dawn of the modern socialist movement those privileged few at the top of capital and state have worked tirelessly to ensure that, by hook or by crook, they hold onto their wealth and power. They won’t let a silly formality like elections get in their way: socialists in power must either submit to the will of capital, or bad things can happen.

The second variant critiqued is one that at least attempts to take seriously the real problems of capital strike, intransigence and sabotage from the permanent state apparatus, and violence from the armed forces and reactionary groups:

Immediately upon winning the election, capitalist resistance to the democratic mandate of the masses begins: this could take the effect of juridical interference, capital strikes, and violent fascist provocation. […]

To their credit, left reformists do not try to minimize these problems. However, given that their sole recourse to counterrevolution is mass mobilization and vague appeals to the ability of “movements” to stymie the bloody tide of reaction. This is wishful thinking.

Mass mobilizations, broad popular support, and the weapon of the general strike certainly ought to be tactics in the arsenal of any socialist movement. But in the face of the ruling class’s trump card — a full-blown military coup d’etat — it is likely even these powerful forces will prove insufficient without an armed and organized resistance. And since these very same democratic socialists reject out of hand the possibility of insurrection (and, presumably, also dispense with the need to make preparations today for the eventuality of armed struggle), we are faced with the ironic prospect that democratic socialists will not prepared to defend their own reforms.

If civil war is likely to be an inevitable component of the transition to socialism, our movement must make every preparation necessary — psychologically and in practice — to ensure that the forces of the working class and oppressed come out on top in such a contest.

Presenting an existential threat to the capitalist class is a deadly serious affair, and historically, socialist parties in parliament have not been up to the task: “In the context of a revolutionary situation, defensive measures will need to quickly pivot toward an all-or-nothing struggle for power or else face utter annihilation. Halfway measures and equivocation will lead us straight to the graveyard.”

The critique in this essay is thorough, well-reasoned, and worth a read.

However, after offering a compelling case against the parliamentary road to socialism, Horras still leaves the door open to it, seemingly in spite of himself. Aside from citing Lenin and writing that revolutionaries must “leap into political openings when they present themselves,” no justification is offered. How “political openings” themselves are identified is no straightforward matter, and depends on both real-world conditions and the theories, analyses, and strategies that animate those of us examining them.

As anarchists we’ve concluded that the history of revolutionary socialist struggles points to electoral and parliamentary engagements as methods that do not move us closer to achieving a successful break with capitalism and the state, and indeed are actually detrimental to that goal. Horras’ critique of socialists in power who have rejected armed resistance to capital’s backlash (or rarely, those who have supported it weakly or ineffectively) implies that this was a voluntary choice — that different socialists in office could have done things better. But the demobilizing effects of parliamentarism are baked into the project itself. As Rudolf Rocker, a one-time German SDP youth activist expelled for criticizing the reformism of the party leadership, put it when he examined socialist parties in Europe in the 1930s:

These very parties which had once set out to conquer Socialism saw themselves compelled by the iron logic of conditions to sacrifice their Socialist convictions bit by bit to the national policies of the state. They became, without the majority of their adherents ever becoming aware of it, political lightning rods for the security of the capitalist social order. The political power which they had wanted to conquer had gradually conquered their Socialism until there was scarcely anything left of it.

The advancement and defense of the working class must be done by the working class itself: those who wish to get beyond capitalism should firmly place electoralism among the many other tactics and strategies the socialist movement has rightfully abandoned over the past two centuries.

If you enjoyed this piece we recommend “The Lure of Elections: From Political Power to Popular Power” which is co-authored by Patrick or you can hear him speaking on similar topics with It’s Going Down on “Elections, Power, & the DSA: The Failure of the Left in Power.”