Kosambi Circle meeting 5 notes

8 March 2020

1120 – 1400

Meeting notes


This was the fifth meeting of the KRAC, 51 people attended, 20 in person and 31 via zoom. At first we went over some logistical stuff with the idea that the enthusiasm of people in joining the group needs to be translated more into better meetings.


In this meeting the focus was Rosa's Reform or Revolution. First, the context that book was written in was discussed, the extremely popular labour movement in Germany, the events during Marx's first international (and Bismark's politics during which for 12 years the SPD was illegal) leading to the SPD sweeping into power and threatening the Kaiser. From the November of 1918 when it came into power on the backs of a popular revolution till around 1930 the SPD was in control of the German parliament and the German street.


The SPD was a social democratic party and in that time that phrase meant something different, a Marxian acknowledgement that social democracy must precede socialism, and that party was socialist in its goals if not outright orthodox Marxist, the agenda was very much to have a democratic revolution followed by a socialist one. Its remarkable electoral triumph and power in the streets, and the popular hatred for WW1 combined with defeats on the front made many of the party rank and file anticipate a complete socialist victory and an immediate end of war, this popularity was the one which accelerated the exit of the Kaiser and the formation of a democratic republic. However, this hard won and almost absolute electoral power was something the party leadership were loathe to endanger with yet another revolution, and negotiations with the army leadership started. A streak of virulent nationalism also entered the party and they were unwilling to negotiate an end to the WW1 with some of the army leadership still under the delusion it could be won. Thus, opportunism and a pro war stance controlled the party leadership (unlike its cadre), and in this climate Bernstein writes a book. The book is a theoretical argument that capitalism cannot be done away with revolution, that “socialism” can be achieved by gradual increase in power of trade unions, labour laws, and cooperatives, and that democracy having been achieved will allow all that. Essentially, Bernstein is preparing a theoretical pivot for the SPD leadership. Rosa's book is a fierce counterattack to that and lays bare line by line why Bernstein is both theoretically incorrect and politically wrong, both a utopian and a reactionary.


In the meeting it was discussed that Rosa herself mentions at the very beginning, that the point of Reform or Revolution is NOT Reform or Revolution, Bernstein is not advocating for reforms to reach socialism, Bernstein is advocating for giving up on the labour's conquest of political power by whatever means, so he is giving up on socialism itself. The book RoR is discusses chapter by chapter. Some of the many interesting points which were discussed are:

  1. Bernstein using Blanquism as a strawman for all revolutionary projects, but himself makes the Blanquist fallacy by thinking workers are too dumb for theory and the revolution (even a peaceful one) cannot be popular (Rosa contends that popular revolutions very much exist and even the actual Blanquists thought after their coup they will get support of the workers)

  2. Bernstein implying he is using Marx to go beyond Marx, Rosa (who actually goes beyond Marx in accumulation of capital) points out correctly that while it is fine to theoretically disagree among socialists, Bernstein does not give any alternative theory. He just states counter-Marxian (with shoddy proof) that capitalism is “adapting”, cannot collapse, and hence revolution is impossible with a very shallow case. Rosa tears into the “adaptation” hypothesis (she goes after the credit reasoning and the cartels reasoning) and also asks if capitalism is doing so well why are these adaptations even necessary.

  3. Bernstein's conflation of small capitalists with shareholders, his getting trade unions and their role in wages wrong. Rosa even predicts political collapse of trade union movement and liberal democracies when they become an irritant to capitalism.

  4. Rosa states that “gradual expropriation” using legislature is a utopian idea because private property is fundamental to capitalist social relations. Why would they just let go of something so fundamental. Essentially Rosa says for democracy to survive that contradiction it can only do so in socialism. Socialism is both “necessary” for democracy and is also made “possible” by it.

  5. Aside from these huge theoretical issues Rosa makes a case of why Bernstein's non-theory is impractical. Its not that she is opposed to trade unions or cooperatives or elections, they are good platforms to “prepare the workers” for something more. But all of those things have fundamental limitations, things they cannot do, if the agenda to snatch power and change society fundamentally is forgotten. Especially electoral politics has very obvious limitations. As Rosa says, her problem with Bernstein is not in the “how” but “what for”.

  6. Rosa sharply lays out how Bernstein incorrectly characterizes a class war into a rich and poor thing and thus the fundamental problem of redistributive strategies, they do nothing to change the control of means of production, and thus change of who has power in a society. This is connected to the fact the Bernstein already has called Marx's law of surplus value an “abstraction”, whereas Rosa contends it most certainly isn't Marx was just observing how money operates in society.

  7. Rosa challenges Bernstein's legalism by stating that every single constitution is a product of revolution. We also discussed what “revolution” means and why a revolution is not “condensed reforms”

This discussion kept interweaving with recent events, and also stuff like how a lot of Bernstein's argumentation remains popular with people from Fukuyama to Richard Wolff and why the problem with electoralism is misrepresented as a dogmatic “debate” which Rosa had emphasised is not the point. The point isn't that Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, the point is if that movement is of any use to socialism and if yes how. So this whole discussion was contextualized into recent political events and more importantly how electoralism operates in different places, in global north and south, and also how it should be used. Because the point, as Rosa says, is nothing less that the radical change in social relations through conquest of political power and means of production by labour. We ran out of time before we could discuss the political theory bit by Miliband, we will start on him next meeting.


Convenor's chapter wise book notes for this meeting: