Book Review from the August 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Socialist Challenge Today. Syriza, Sanders, Corbyn. By Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin. 100 pages. Merlin Press
This pamphlet-length book is an attempt to draw a distinction between ‘Social Democracy’ (which seeks merely to run capitalism better) and ‘Democratic Socialism’ (which seeks to transform capitalism away). The authors see Bernie Sanders’ campaign to get the Democrat presidential nomination, the rise of Syriza in Greece, and the election and re-election of Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party as examples of the latter.
These do represent a change in conventional politics but what the authors forget is that what they call ‘Social Democracy’ also originally set out to transform capitalism away. However, through the experience of being in government under capitalism, they ended up as a mere alternative team for managing capitalism. Instead of them transforming capitalism, capitalism transformed them.
What the authors call ‘Democratic Socialism’ is essentially a return to the original aim of ‘Social Democracy’ anyway. There is no reason to suppose that their fate will be any different. Panitch and Gindin quote, and endorse, Tony Benn as saying that any serious ‘socialist’ strategy has to begin from
‘the usual problems of the reformer: we have to run the economic system to protect our people who are locked into it while we change the system.’
This is accepting that a left-wing government would have to be running capitalism for a while. But both the theory and the experience of how capitalism works show that it cannot be made to work in the interest of the majority class of wage and salary workers; and that any government that tries this may well, at the beginning, be able to introduce a few favourable reforms but in the end will have to ‘run the economic system’ on its terms, by giving priority to profit-making over spending on reforms.
The authors have a different explanation for the failure of Social Democracy – not that no government can change the economic laws of capitalism but that previous left-wing governments neglected to transform the state. Instead of mobilising their supporters in the country by establishing popular committees to oversee and implement reforms decided at government level they left the existing state apparatus as it was. In other words, a political rather than economic explanation, a variation on the familiar theme that left-wing governments fail because they were not determined enough.
This is in fact the main theme and policy recommendation of the book. But it doesn’t stand up. Not even popular mobilisation can overcome or change the economic laws of capitalism. The Chavez government in Venezuela tried this but still failed. In fact it is instructive that Panitch and Gindin chose not to include Chavez alongside Syriza, Sanders and Corbyn.