The Revolution Will Be Supervised: On Vivek Chibber’s “Our Road To Power” (Part 1)

By Ahmed K.
In December 2017, NYU sociology professor Vivek Chibber published a major strategic statement in Jacobin which has since played a large role in setting the terms of debate in the socialist movement, in particular in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Carrying the title “Our Road to Power,” the piece referenced the German social democratic leader Karl Kautsky’s 1909 classic  “The Road to Power” and rehashed much of that piece’s argument for an electoral path to socialism. Published on the 100-year anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the piece can be read as a rejection of Bolshevik organizational methods and strategy.
Chibber has become a leading theorist, if not the leading theorist, for the (recently dissolved) Spring Caucus of the DSA. This caucus until recently represented the most well-organized DSA grouping, it has the allegiance of a significant number of that organization’s members, is dominant on its National Political Committee (NPC), and wields virtually unchallenged power in large, agenda-setting DSA locals such as Philly and the East Bay. Its politics are closely reflected in the editorial line of Jacobin and its more academic cousin, Catalyst, which have in recent years become much more narrowly focused on a strategic analysis that echoes Chibber’s. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Chibber’s ideas play a major role in guiding large sections of the socialist movement. Therefore closely engaging with those ideas is necessary for clarifying socialist methods of organizing and strategy.
This article is the first of a two-part series. The two parts, the second of which will appear in the next issue of La Voz, echo the structure of Chibber’s argument. In “Our Road to Power,” he argues that the 1917 Russian Revolution had two main legacies, an organizational one and an institutional one, or, “how to organize for socialism within capitalism” and “how to build a post-capitalist, socialist society.” Here, we deal with the institutional side of Chibber’s argument. The second part of the series will deal with the organizational legacy, which relates crucially to the question of whether the working class needs its own party and what kind of party that should be.
“Our Road to Power”: Reviving Kautsky for the 21st Century
According to Chibber, the current moment represents an opening for socialism. “If we play our cards right,” we can revitalize left parties or form new ones “where they prove to be immune” to reform, but in order to do this, we need to draw the “correct” lessons from the 1917 Russian Revolution. 1917 left us with two “broad legacies”: an organizational legacy – how to build “inside” capitalism, for example in unions and parties, and an institutional one, which addresses the question of how to construct a post-capitalist society.
For Chibber, there are two main legacies of 1917 with which today’s socialist movement must grapple. The first, which he calls the organizational legacy, deals with building inside capitalism and pertains to the kinds of organizations – parties, unions, etc. – that are needed to build working class power. To us, this question is crucial, complex, and one which other critics of Chibber haven’t sufficiently engaged. It requires its own detailed engagement and we deal with this in part two of this series. Here we focus the on what Chibber identifies as the second legacy of 1917,  “the institutional” one dealing with how to build a post-capitalist society. He writes that since the 1950s, pursuing a Bolshevik strategy of “rupture” with the capitalist state has become “entirely hallucinatory” not only in the “advanced capitalist world” but also in the South. Why?
Because, the capitalist state today, he asserts, is “infinitely” more legitimate than it was to Europeans a century ago. Contemporary states’ power of surveillance and coercion along with the internal cohesion of the ruling class make the capitalist social order more stable “by orders of magnitude” than in 1917. What we’re experiencing post-2008 is a crisis of neoliberalism, not of capitalism itself. Therefore socialists must pursue a gradualist strategy of “non-reformist reforms.” Socialists, should build movements to pressure the state and win power within it, with the goal of changing the “institutional structure of capitalism” to “erode” the structural power of capital, “rather than vaulting over it.” Not the Bolsheviks, but the Nordic social democracies, are the model we should emulate. Yet, as the title of his article makes explicit, there’s a deeper heritage from which Chibber is drawing, that of Karl Kautsky and Kautskyism.
In recent months, Jacobin has been publishing more explicit apologia for the German social democratic leader once called “the pope of Marxism” and whom Lenin called a “renegade” against Marxism. Chibber’s piece, along with Jacobin and Catalyst publisher Bhaskar Sunkara’s overt nods to Kautsky, are among the clearest expressions of this tendency’s Kautskyist genealogy. What characterizes Kautskyism? And why should socialists reject it?
While a full explication of how Kautsky’s ideas inform today’s US socialists is beyond the scope this article, we can summarize his main strategic contribution, which he developed between the 1890s and the end of his life in the late 1930s as, in practice (if not always in rhetoric), an exclusive focus on an electoral path to socialism. This strategy therefore inextricably tied the working class to bourgeois parliaments as the only path through which to win power. In turn, it made the politicization of the working class – its movement into struggle and the articulation of its interests – dependent on a stratum of representatives from the leadership of unions and, in a subordinate role, Social Democratic Party (SPD) leaders. In general, Kautskyism, like Stalinism (discussed below), has always been suspicious of working class self-organization and independent movement. In one telling example, during a major wave of European and Russian wildcat strikes in 1905 – 1906, Kautsky joined his “revisionist” SPD comrades (we would call them “liberals” or even “centrists” today) to denounce advocates of the mass strike such as the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg as “fabricators of revolution.”
The period between the late 19th Century and the eve of World War I has been characterized as a time of “detente” between the German working class and bourgeoisie. Fattened by steady growth, not least because of imperial plunder, German capital felt confident enough to grant the proletariat concessions – legalizing its party, raising living standards, allowing for more civic freedoms. Kautsky believed, like the mainstream of the SPD at the time, that as capitalism continued to grow in pacific conditions, so would the proletariat, which in turn would yield more votes for the SPD. As its votes grew – from nearly 10 percent of the German electorate in 1884 to almost 20 percent in 1890 – the SPD would eventually achieve a huge majority in the Reichstag (or so Kautsky assumed) and then have the power to impose legislation in the interests of the working class. It would, as Chibber would say, begin to “erode” the power of capital from within.
Of course, history in the form of the conflagration of World War I, proved Kautsky and his followers, not the revolutionary Marxists, to be the “hallucinatory” ones. Relating to our own times, as Marxists we must always begin with a materialist analysis and ask: what parallels, in economic terms, are there between the period during which Kautsky developed his theory of the parliamentary path (late 19th Century) and our own time? The short answer is: very little if any. We don’t live in a time of capitalist stability, let alone increasing growth, at all. Capitalism, mired in a secular stagnation, generates more frequent and intense crises all the time, especially since the decline of the Keynesian liberal order in the 1970s. This is inextricably interwoven with the climate crisis that is the direct result of the pursuit of capitalist profit and its ecocidal dependence upon extraction of mineral resources. The ruling class is widely loathed globally, north and south, and the capitalists seem at least unconsciously to know this, as some sectors support increasingly authoritarian and right-wing governments the world over, while others keep the faith a moribund neoliberal order.
Yet for some reason, Chibber believes, like a latter-day Kautsky, the “erosion” from within of the power of capital is possible in the near future. Assuming for a moment that he’s correct, once this happens, how do we build a post-capitalist society? First, says Chibber, by strengthening liberal democracy, in particular its regime of political rights, which Chibber sees as having been won by the workers movements of the past. Second, by disabusing ourselves of illusions in central economic planning (all attempts at central planning have ended in failure, he claims rather vaguely). And third, by allowing for a market economy with a socialist flavor. Chibber’s “market socialism” would, he says, “put people before profits,” hold economic decision makers accountable, and prevent wealth inequalities from translating into power inequalities. In short, Chibber’s socialism boils down to liberalism plus a more robust welfare state. How this differs from traditional social democracy is – despite Chibber’s protest to the contrary – impossible to tell.
Post and LaBotz’s Critiques
Soon after “Our Road to Power” appeared in Jacobin, Marxists Charlie Post and Dan LaBotz (the latter a member of Solidary and DSA) both published polemics critiquing Chibber from a revolutionary Marxist perspective. Although Post’s article is much softer in tone than LaBotz’s, both agree that Chibber’s strategy for gaining power within the existing capitalist state to initiate a series of partial breaks with capitalism is “fundamentally unrealistic” (Post). The two pieces are densely argued, often brilliant, and well worth reading. Unfortunately, Chibber’s response (he only dignified Post with one) is both dismissive and disappointing, minimizing, at best, fundamental differences on questions of strategy and conceptions of socialism.
Both critics point out that Chibber’s strategy will inevitably lead to placing electoralism at the center of socialist strategy, meanwhile diluting the socialist program into partial reforms of the capitalist system that preserve the structures of exploitation and oppression. Chibber, in his response to Post, thinks that they are simply arguing over what the balance between electoralism, on the one side, and social movement and workplace organizing, on the other, should be for socialists. But this is to fundamentally misunderstand Post’s point, which is surprising since he is echoing a very well-known argument in the socialist movement. Robert Brenner summarizes this as the “paradox of reformism.” As Post and Brenner among others have shown, you can’t just discuss electoralism and militant movement building as if they are discrete objects, unrelated to each other except through the external intellection of socialist theorists (Luxemburg called this “sausage socialism” in her classic polemic against  reformism).
What Post actually says is that socialists have to choose between electoralism and building movements. These are contradictory to each other. Why? Because an electoral strategy is a demobilizing strategy. It tries to win seats on the basis of 50+1 votes on the lowest possible political basis. Passing legislation is premised on forming alliances that water down any potentially radical proposal. Politically deactivated voters are not politically active workers, these kinds of political activity are the opposite of each other. In short, electoral politics seeks to discourage confrontation and radicalism. Socialist workplace and social movement organizing seeks to encourage confrontation and radicalism.
After distorting (at best) Post’s argument and positioning it as “sectarian”, Chibber  asserts: “the fact is that, across the world, there is simply no question about whether or not socialists should have an electoral dimension as part of their strategy. The only debate is over how to manage it in combination with class organizing.” Again, we would point out that this is a (not too) subtle misinterpretation of what the revolutionary Marxist position is, and a reframing of the debate in such a way as to make Chibber’s reformist strategy the only “serious” one. What does Post actually say? Not that socialists shouldn’t participate in elections (as Chibber implies), but that they should have a different approach to elections, agitational and educational rather than focused on winning or passing legislation. This is of a piece with a revolutionary approach to organizing, in which increasing the class consciousness of the working class and building our confidence for increasingly bold, independent class politics are the goal.
LaBotz is therefore correct when he writes that Marxists begin by asking: what is the relationship between crises, action, and consciousness? What Chibber fails to recognize, writes LaBotz, is that sudden changes in contemporary conditions – the economic and political crises that are inevitable under capitalism – lead working class people to take action, first on a small scale then on a mass scale. The experience of struggle, usually at first for economic reforms, changes working class consciousness. The working class becomes class conscious. At that point, change can be rapid and dramatic. Class consciousness creates more space for political demands and in turn for socialism. As LaBotz writes, “such action always tends to overflow the narrow channels of labor union contract negotiations and parliamentary elections, escaping the control of bourgeois and of social democratic politics that are predicated upon the gradual pursuit of reforms.” Chibber’s strategy, in short, has historically been one pursued not by proletarian militants, but by labor union bureaucrats and political parties seeking to contain and even repress radical movements.
Chibber’s Retreat from Scientific Socialism
For LaBotz, one of the fatal flaws in Chibber’s strategy is that it throws overboard the goal of establishing a planned economy. The idea of an economy democratically planned by workers, writes LaBotz, is at the heart of Marxism. In this scenario, the working class, in an intense process of struggle, destroys the capitalist state, creates a new state where “working people then the people as a whole govern.” (This is typically called socialist “transition” by socialists). A new kind of social order is brought into existence, one which plans according to the needs and “votes” (in LaBotz’s words) of the entire population. In short, working people take conscious control of the economy, transforming it and ending alienation and exploitation. This, according to LaBotz, is “the very definition of socialism.”
While we agree with LaBotz, we would also point out that it’s not just Chibber’s disavowal of a democratically planned economy that deviates from socialist strategy. It’s also in his decidedly undialectical and stageist approach to strategic questions. In this view, revolution sits discreetly in one compartment, reforms in another, each waiting to be pulled out whenever they’re deemed expedient. Chibber’s, and Kautsky’s, theory is that we should fight only for reforms, and mainly through electoral means, that is we should focus on doing what is possible inside the capitalist framework, with the means available to us, until the conditions for revolution are ripe. The reformist illusion is that it is possible to focus on electoralism now and switch to a revolutionary strategy later. In Chibber’s monochromatic “socialism,” you just pile one reform after another in a straight path to “eroding” the power of the capitalist class, the most well-organized, well-armed, and rapacious group of humans on the planet, and somehow they’ll sit back and let you do it. Not only is this, to say the least, highly unlikely. This strategy was in fact enacted in numerous European countries in the early 20th century by skilled social democratic leaders. The result was that when revolutions erupted across the continent, the European socialist parties opposed them and united with liberal bourgeois forces to quash them.
In short, at the heart of Marxism is not just a democratically planned economy, but also a dialectical and materialist, or scientific, method to combine the fight for reforms with the development of a revolutionary strategy and program that relies on class power, not on capitalist institutions of governance. From this springs Marxism’s great advantage over liberalism, social democracy, and the other various contenders for primacy as both an interpretive tool for understanding reality and as an organizing tool for emancipation. Marxism or scientific socialism sees flux and change where others see stasis, and Marxists always strive to see the dynamic connections between all spheres of life, natural and social, human and non-human. This is what distinguishes Marxism, as well, from the utopian socialism that historically preceded it. By contrast, liberalism and social democracy, like utopian socialism, rest on what Engels would have called metaphysical foundations. They begin from first principles, such as “justice,” “morality,” “human rights,” etc., and see these principles embodied in institutions statically conceptualized: “the State,” “the Law,” the “Family,” and so on. They evacuate from their analysis any robust sense of historical, material, and social process, through which human institutions, forms of organization, and practices emerge and develop. In more concrete terms, metaphysical thinking can come in many more prosaic forms, for example, the stereotype that the working class is forever beset by “backward” ideas, or that the capitalist state is a vehicle for justice (respectively, a favorite slur and a favorite illusion of the Democratic Party’s leaders and of liberals generally). Or that the capitalist state is “too legitimate” and “powerful” ever to open itself to a revolutionary assault by the working class.
The problem with metaphysical thinking is not only theoretical, it’s also related to putting theory into practice. When revolutionary socialists say that we can’t just casually pick and choose strategies, this is because how we theorize the state and class, and their interrelationship, determines where we commit our resources as activists. If we begin by saying, as does Chibber, that the capitalist state is stable and legitimate, we necessarily commit ourselves to building power within that institution. Logically, it would be absurd to do otherwise. But if we approach the state dialectically, that is, historically and materially, we see new avenues opening up. The fact is, since World War II many capitalist states have been shaken by mass movements. To name a few examples: the anti-colonial struggles that liberated South Asian and African countries; left wing – often socialist or communist – mass movements all over Latin America (Guatemala, Cuba, Chile) and Asia (China, Indonesia, both Koreas, Vietnam); the worldwide student and worker uprisings of 1968; and the Arab Spring more recently. Today the Gilets jaunes take the streets in France and teachers all over the United States mobilize wildcat strikes. Recently, student-led street demonstrations by millions of Algerians have forced the hated Bouteflika regime into a major crisis, with the president unlikely to survive in power for long. Many if not most of these movements have been politically or socially transformative, or both. They all began with workers or oppressed people recognizing that they could no longer tolerate living under a particular system. That is, they recognized, if only intuitively at first, that that system was not the only system possible, that it was a product of history and of class struggle and that the way to change it was also a possibility afforded by history and class struggle. While we only have a precious few examples of revolutions that fully put in place a workers state – Russia 1917 for example – the real value of revolutionary socialist organizing is not just in whether it succeeds in creating a workers state or, the true goal of socialism, a stateless and classless communist society. The reason we choose the revolutionary and not the reformist path is, as Robert Brenner has taught, because it is the only way to reform the society we live in.
In part two of this article, which will be published in next issue of LaVoz Magazine, we tackle Chibber’s organizational theory, in particular his view of what a workers’ party should look like and what’s its role is in fighting the power of capital.

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