Is Socialist Politics Possible from a Position in Government?

Michael Brie

Is Socialist Politics Possible from a Position in Government? Five objections by Rosa Luxemburg and five offers for a discussion

Participation by the left in governments dominated by other forces has always been controversial. Primarily, five objections to government participation by the left have been formulated, to the effect that: (1) capitalism cannot be changed fundamentally; (2) only a revolution can solve the basic problems; (3) the state is only the instrument of political power of the economically dominant class; (4) government participation inevitably weakens the left; and (5) by its participation in government, the left makes the continuation of rightist politics possible in the first place.

First objection: Capitalism cannot be changed in its essence

The first objection to the participation of the left in government is that to date, there has been no case in which such participation has led to a permanent progressive overcoming of capitalism. The concept explicitly formulated by Engels to the effect that, striding from one electoral success to the next, one should close ranks, make no significant compromises, not let oneself be co-opted by the “system”, and then either introduce socialism by obtaining a parliamentary majority (as the “reformists” say), or achieve the overthrow of the system based on a “revolutionary” working class, after the success of which the foundations for democratic socialism would have been laid (“revolutionary social democrats”). Neither option has worked. The claim that government participation has been the cause of the failure of socialist and communist movements in the progressive overcoming of capitalism is hence untenable.

The classic dispute over reformism has its roots in the debate over Bernstein’s series Problems of Socialism (1896 – 1898) and his paper Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (1899)[1]. Rosa Luxemburg’s rebuttal Reform or Revolution, first published in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, achieved the status of the outstanding Marxist response. At the same time, this reply revealed basic problems of orthodox Marxism.

Bernstein had seen strong trade unions, the implementation of social reforms and political democratisation as the conditions for a change in the character of society which would point the way to a future beyond capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg now pointed out that the trade unions could do nothing more than apply “the capitalist law of wages.” Rather: “Trade unions cannot suppress the law of wages. Under the most favourable circumstances, the best they can do is to impose on capitalist exploitation the ‘normal’ limit of the moment. They have not, however, the power to suppress exploitation itself, not even gradually.”[2]

The model of a capitalist society behind such positions insinuates by implication that exclusively capitalist tendencies impact upon such economies and upon the societies shaped by such economies, and especially upon the state (leaving aside non-capitalist sectors of small production) – excepting of course the case of a politically organised labour movement which calls the whole system into question. According to this concept, the trade union struggle only brings the capitalist law of wages to full effect; state social regulations can accomplish no more than to secure the proper increase in the value of capital; the state is nothing but the instrument of power of the capitalist class; any struggle for improvements on the basis of the existing order actually constitutes support for the rulers.

Once however – since the end of the nineteenth century – state social supports, wage agreements and legal regulations moved beyond merely providing elementary protection of the means of subsistence, once economic conditions began to be shaped, too, by such considerations as social justice, reduction of social inequality and the strengthening of the power of dependant employees, and once the long-term interests of social reproduction came to be forced through even against the short-term interest of increasing the value of capital, then did tendencies come to the fore which contradicted the “logic of capital”.[3] In the following, I will use the generalised term “social logic” to describe these tendencies. It covers the struggle for the interests of the general realisation of social, cultural and political human rights.

The implicit assumption underlying such a view is that due to the social and political struggles, to the compromises won through them, and to the fact that the temporary realisation even on the part of the rulers, of the need for change after enormous catastrophes, it will be possible to engender elements, structures, tendencies and forms of socialism in the womb of the old order, the capitalist order – and not merely in the form of “anti-systemic political movements”. It is time to make a final break with the contradiction between the fact that we on the one hand, in theory, hold these elements and structures of the existing order in contempt, and on the other hand defend them in practice.

Second objection: Only a revolution can solve the basic problems

Rosa Luxemburg crystallised the contrast between reform and revolution as follows: “And socialism itself, to some, results from the conquest of political power by the proletariat and from a complete social upheaval; for the others, it is the result of unnoticeable shifts in the womb of capitalist enterprise and the bourgeois ministry.”[4] A transformationist strategy adopts from the politics of socialist reform the essential elements of an active policy of shaping contemporary societies and expanding emancipatory gains, and adopts from the revolutionary approach the notion of an inevitable break with the dominance of capitalist private property and the overthrow of the power relationships associated with it.

This however requires no more and no less than a complete revision of the orthodox Marxist philosophy of history, which tended towards a view of capitalism as the highest and most extreme form of oppression, surpassing all pre-capitalist formations in its alienating material cruelty. However, as explained elsewhere, the great “epochs marking progress in the economic development of society” (Marx, Critique of Political Economy) are in their tendency stages of gradual liberation, as limited to certain social groups as these may have been, and as much as they may have gone hand-in-hand with new forms of exploitation. Each higher form of the production of wealth, on the basis of which certain societies have superseded other ones, engenders greater productivity and likewise the development of individuality, however unequally those assets may be distributed socially. They are therefore not only economically more powerful, but also have greater cultural vibrancy. These are stages of world-historical emancipation.

Taking Marx as the point of departure, we can thus in sum define the formation-theoretical criterion of progress as follows: those societies are progressive which enable and/or force upon others a higher degree of productivity by engendering greater freedom of individual development and a greater degree of the transformation of that development into the development of the societal forces of production. This depends first on the relations of property and power which define the distribution of the societal functions of the production of human wealth; and second, it is conditioned by the forms of socialisation which determine the forms of exchange of wealth. Thirdly, the condition is that neither socialisation nor power and property structures “sap the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the labourer”.[5]

A socialist transformation must advance this world-historical trend of emancipation and must not, like Soviet state-party socialism, fall behind the potentials already achieved by bourgeois-capitalist societies. Magnus Marsdal has clarified this position in the following diagram:

Diagram: The Scheme of Socialism[6]

Such a concept of the real power of historical progress reminds us of the fact that socialism is part of the comprehensive historical process of the struggle for emancipation which began in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in the great bourgeois revolutions and reform movements, in which the struggles of the labour movement, the feminist movement, the antislavery and anti-racism movements, and the peace and ecology movements are key stages. It is a process that is measured in growing liberty and equality, and assumes socialist dimensions where, by means of the conscious design of the societal conditions of production and reproduction, it pushes back the dominance of profit and repressive state power and sets itself the goal of overcoming their hegemony over people’s lives. Socialist politics seeks to design a process of transformation which differs from both traditional reformist politics and the orthodox concept of revolution (see Table).

This concept of transformation of the new left is being developed in a wide variety of contexts, of which such examples as the World Social Forum, the Latin American leftist parties united in the São Paulo Forum, or the European Left Party stand out. In the latter, the concept of transformation has become the guiding element in the central concept of basic change which transcends capitalism.[7] In the German discussion, we have developed that position more systematically elsewhere.[8]

Table: Reform, Revolution, Transformation: A Categorical Comparison (see table in the – soon be – published book, Link here)

Third objection: The state is only an instrument of power of the economically dominant class

The third objection to the participation of socialist and communist parties in governments was formulated by Rosa Luxemburg as follows: “While parliament is an organ of class fractional struggles within bourgeois society, and is therefore the most suitable terrain for the systematic resistance of socialists to the power of the bourgeoisie, this role is denied to the workers’ representatives in the lap of government from the outset.”[9] She justifies this as follows: “Called upon to implement the final results of the partisan struggles which have been carried out in parliament and in the country, the executive power is primarily an organ of action, the viability of which is based on internal homogeneity.”[10] For her, the government of a nation-state represents an entity which is “only the political organisation of capitalist business”, between the “particular functions of which complete harmony exists”.[11]

The political motion engendered by the internal contradictions of the capitalistically structured economy occurs within the structure of the capitalistically characterised state. In marked contrast to Rosa Luxemburg, Nicos Poulantzas claims that the contradictions between the factions of the dominant classes assume, “within the state, the form of internal contradictions between the various branches and apparatus”.[12] Since the state manages class compromises in order to enable the cohesion of a society rent by class differences,[13] it is, even in the operation of its executive, an arena of social struggle. It is not at all a coincidence that in centre-left governments, the finance ministry and the central bank are often headed by persons who are part of the establishment of the neo-liberal block, while for other sectors of the executive, figures are assigned who are close to the trade unions or the social movements. This would by no means be necessary if the executive were inevitably homogeneous. The removal of Oskar Lafontaine[14] from the Schröder government in Germany in 1999 was therefore a necessary move to enable enhanced neo-liberal policies under the Red-Green Coalition. The state itself is at once the space for the crystallisation and the arena for the carrying out of social conflicts and struggles.[15]

The left hence does not confront the state as would a besieging army, with no influence whatever upon the garrison of the besieged castle. Inevitably, its struggles are influenced enormously by the state and its legal, institutional and cultural forms, as any observer of the various national left cultures will recognise. This also means that the struggle to democratise and socialise the state anew must be taken up again and again. Joachim Hirsch has identified five basic tendencies of the bourgeois state which serve to qualify its function of preserving the dominance of profit in the economy and society: (1) A preference for social “practices” (bureaucracy, parties, type of electoral system, type of representation, legal system) which confirm and reinforce the isolating and separating effects of capitalist socialisation;[16] (2) Prevention of overcoming the splits in the subordinate classes, and creation of unity in the ruling classes, particularly by means of the relative autonomy and contradictory unity of the system of state structures, and their partial insulation from societal influences; (3) The self-denial of instruments which might seriously call into question the dominance of profit; (4) The development of the personnel of the state as a special stratum; and (5) The systemically determined dependence of the state’s ability to act on taxes, the collection of which is dependent on the relatively trouble-free functioning of the increase in the value of capital. In each of these areas, the left is challenged to formulate alternatives and to insert them into the reform of the state and its economic, political, legal and cultural foundations.

Transformation politics which take the present contradictions as its point of departure and transcends them, must also carry this struggle into the state itself. The state is thus not the only, nor even the most essential locus of struggle – that is and will continue to be civil society and the struggle for hegemony within it. If however we leave the state to its own devices, we will end up feeling its power, without having used the existing possibilities to change it.

Fourth objection: Government participation weakens the left

A fourth objection claims that change can be achieved only outside government, that participation in government inevitably serves to weaken one. Government participation, in Rosa Luxemburg’s view, makes criticism of the government and hence education of the masses, impossible, forces compromises to be entered into at all costs, and delivers the left up to the hands of the bourgeois majority, and weakens its own extra-parliamentary forces, so that it achieves not more, but rather much less than it would have from the opposition.

Rosa Luxemburg is surely right in saying that a type of government participation which completely fixates the autonomous forces of the left upon government and suppresses all other forms of action, which denies itself the opportunity to publicly describe the contradictions involved with this participation and to analyse the available basic conditions and barriers to action, which dampens the thorn of action which drives politics onward instead of applying it more strongly, will fall into the trap of cooptation. But is this inevitable?

The most important condition necessary to escape this trap, which is present in any participation in government, is to strengthen the left outside the state facilities, its power in social movements and emancipatory organisations of social interests of the subordinate social classes and of those middle strata oriented towards solidarity. Ultimately, parties can only be really strong left forces if they are part of such a left – and not its monopolistic representatives.

The strength or weakness of the extra-parliamentary left is not dependent directly on left political parties, but they can contribute to it. They can (1) make cooperation on the basis of an intensive and direct dialogue which is based on solidarity, yet is certainly not uncritical, a central focus of their strategy; (2) develop joint projects for the purpose of mutual support in extra-parliamentary and intra-parliamentary conflicts, including drafting of proposed legislation; (3) find forms of integration of personnel (primarily through the electoral lists of the Left); and (4) use resources to strengthen those extra-parliamentary forces which are always discriminated against by political parties. (5) Also important is the common struggle against anti-trade-union politics and legislation, and on the other hand in favour of new legal stipulations which strengthen the forces and organisations of civil society, particularly of the subordinate classes, so as to reduce the imbalance of forces. The political party left in government may therefore under no circumstances confine itself to just the governmental role, and the extra-parliamentary left should not subordinate itself to the logic of representation.

Fifth objection: Through its government participation, the left actually enables the continuation of rightist politics possible

At the turn of the twentieth century, Rosa Luxemburg also raised a fifth objection to any government participation by the left: “The participation of Millerand in the cabinet…, far from issuing in a new era of social reforms in France, means the end of the struggle of the working classes for social reforms before it had even started, that is, the suffocation of precisely that element which alone might instil a healthy modern life into ossified French social policy.”[17] And more than a hundred years late, the following has been written about the government of Lula da Silva in Brazil: “All instruments of macroeconomic intervention had long since been surrendered – yet the economic crisis forced a greater social consensus to be sought. That would have been impossible with a government led by the traditional Brazilian right. Riots and ungovernability, as in Argentina or Bolivia, loomed. Thus, the stock of confidence built up by the Workers’ Party and its candidate over the course of decades was just what was needed to recycle neo-liberal policies.”[18]

However, this can also be seen differently: The left can and must strive to initiate ways towards a fundamental transformation – also, but not only, from government. However, as stated elsewhere,[19] it faces the contradiction of having to confront three lines of conflict at once: it is confronted with tendencies towards open barbarisation, is in fundamental contradiction to economic-liberal, authoritarian and imperial policy approaches, and is locked in a struggle against a social-democratic or social-liberal policies based on the existing financial market capitalist system. Today’s social democracy is an ally in the struggle against the first two approaches, and at the same time an opponent, inasmuch as it does not try to overcome the fundamentals of the present crises.

How ambivalent the results of the most recent cases of government participation are is demonstrated by international experience. But even in Europe, it is apparent that to date, single positive results contrast with an inability to create a stable anti-hegemonist formation which might be capable of challenging neo-liberalism in its basic elements and of entering onto a stable path of transformation. Whether this will turn out well is uncertain. But it would be equally impossible to claim with certainty, on a “Marxist” basis, that it could not. Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1900: “Thus does the ship of dogma-free socialism return to port from its first test run in the waters of practical politics with broken masts, a smashed rudder and corpses on board.”[20] Today, a left in re-formation is engaged in building a new ship of a transformational-socialist left. The study of past shipwrecks is just as important in that process as the analysis of new conditions.

Michael Brie: Prof. Phd. Philosophy, Director of the Institute for Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Member of the advisory board of Attac Germany and member of the programm commission of the party Die Linke (The Left).

Original source: The Left in Government: Latin America and Europa compared. Ed. Birgit Daiber, 2010
[1] Literal translation: “The Prerequisites for Socialism and the Tasks of Social Democrats”; published in English under the title Evolutionary Socialism.

[2] Rosa Luxemburg: Reform or Revolution?

[3] The “logic of capital” refers to all tendencies which flow from the unhampered implementation of the interests of increasing the value of capital and the complete subordination of labour and society to capital.

[4] Rosa Luxemburg: Zum französischen Einigungskongress [On the French Unity Congress], in: Works, vol. 1.2, p. 91.

[5] Marx, Capital, Ch. 15, Sect. 10

[6] Magnus Marsdal: Sozialistischer Individualismus In: Utopie kreativ, No. 2/2005
( English: Socialist Individualism?

[7] Cf. the programmatic Founding Document of the European Left:, or the Principles of the World Social Forum:

[8] Michael Brie, Michael Chrapa & Dieter Klein: Sozialismus als Tagesaufgabe, Dietz, 2002. English: Socialism as the order of the day, In Suffering/New Journey, e-Book, rls, 2004-’05.

[9] Rosa Luxemburg: The Socialist Crisis in France., Sect. 5

[10] ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nicos Poulantzas: State, Power, Socialism. Hamburg 1978.

[13] Poulantzas: Classes in Contemporary Capitalism, 1975.

[14] Lafontaine was the finance minister; until 2010, he was co-chair of the Left Party

[15] Poulantzas: State, Power, Socialism. Op. cit.

[16] Joachim Hirsch: Kapitalismus ohne Alternative? Materialistische Geschichtstheorie und Möglichkeiten einer sozialistischen Politik heute [Capitalism with no alternative? Materialist theory of history and the possibilities for socialist poltitics today], Hamburg: VSA-Verlag 1990, p. 45.

[17] Rosa Luxemburg: The Socialist Crisis in France. Op cit., p. 57.

[18] Luis Fernando Novoa: Lulas Brief an die Banken [Lula’s Letter to the Banks], in: Freitag, Jan. 6, 2006 (

[19] Michael Brie: Die Linke – was kann sie wollen? Supplement to Sozialismus, Issue 3/2006; English: The Left – what can it aim for? In Suffering/New Journey, e-Book, rls, 2004-‘05.

[20] Rosa Luxemburg: The conclusion of The Socialist Crisis in France. In: Works.