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What Non-Reformist Reforms Meant to Us


Karl Klare is the George J. & Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern University School of Law.

This post is part of a symposium on non-reformist reforms. Read the rest of the posts here.

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I welcome Amna Akbar’s article on non-reformist reforms (NRR), particularly because it foregrounds a question the LPE space often bypasses: namely, how might systemic social change occur in the 21st century? What potential paths toward radical transformation do we see? My enthusiasm for the article comes with a significant caveat, however. The article erases the NRR-style activism and theory-work accomplished by countless people over the nearly fifty years between when André Gorz introduced the concept in the 1960s and when Akbar picks up the story.

The “us” in the title of this post refers to a portion of the US New Left coming of age in the 1960s-1970s during the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, anti-poverty community organizing, student protest, and the meteoric rise of the women’s liberation, gay liberation, and ecology movements. We believed in participatory democracy, “power to the people,” and that “the personal is political, the political is personal.” Millions participated in movement activity, from consciousness-raising groups to campus protests to marches on Washington. For a while, the NY Times ran a daily list of universities on strike. Progressives engaged in electoral and reformist initiatives, but the limitations of those routes to social change became more evident as each day passed. The Vietnam War escalated, poverty endured, and patriarchy and heteronormativity remained obdurately entrenched. Peaceful protestors were killed at Kent State and Jackson State, SNCC imploded, and SDS self-immolated in a paroxysm of pseudo-insurrectionary violence and Maoist sectarianism. Police murdered Black Panthers.

Grassroots activists hungered for new, non-violent paths to systemic change. Left tradition bequeathed us two, exhausted scenarios – revolutionary seizure by a vanguard party, and parliamentary politics under the aegis of a Northern-European-type social democratic party. These approaches focused on capturing state power but said little about transforming consciousness and social practice. Despite its achievements, conventional social democracy compromised too much with capitalist logics, failed to break decisively with dominant culture, and hesitated to ally with newly politicized identities. The insurrectionary path produced some repellant regimes in the 20th century and seemed implausible anyway given contemporary societies’ tight integration and diverse social and economic identities.

Instinctively, we understood that radical political change presupposed a long process of consciousness-transformation challenging the social, economic, gender, sexual, and cultural (i.e., “ideological”) foundations that sustained racial-patriarchal capitalism. The kind of political change we hoped for needed to be accompanied by and ensue from a revolution in civil society that would, as Perry Anderson wrote, “promulgat[e] human freedom across the entire existential space of the world.”

Social movement experience, not theory, drove the search for a non-Leninist, non-parliamentary path. Gorz’s impactful work, which fortunately received rapid translation, provided a conceptual vocabulary that helped us to articulate what we were looking for. In turn, Gorz’s work had an identifiable theoretical provenance in an early and mid-20th century school later known as “Critical Marxism” that laboriously reconstructed Marxist foundations. The distinctive nature of this school’s investigations was due in part to the fate of Marx’s literary estate. Apart from Capital, Marx’s most important theoretical work remained unpublished at the time of his death, and tragically, the manuscripts dispersed upon the death of Engels and Marx’s daughter Eleanor. The manuscripts began to appear in print only in the 1930s (in English, not until the 1960s). Early luminaries who spoke in Marx’s name (e.g., Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg) did not have access to his work. Hegelian-influenced Marxists such as Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci began recovering and brilliantly advancing Marx’s ideas about knowledge, consciousness, and social practice even before publication of the manuscripts. The reconstructive project accelerated, as the manuscripts became available, in the work of Bloch, Marcuse, the Frankfurt School, Sartre, and others, generating an entirely new understanding of Marxian methodology that provided the foundation for Gorz’s contributions. One minor quibble with Akbar’s article is that it does not identify Gorz’s intellectual roots, his close relationship to Sartre, the link between NRR and Gorz’s prescient “new working class” theory, or his later postindustrialism. Reflecting a tendency in LPE to invoke the Marxist tradition selectively, eliding its complexities and tensions, Akbar cites Lenin and Trotsky (vintage believers in revolutionary rupture), Luxemburg (more complicated but still dated), and Poulantzas. Gramsci gets a passing mention.

Gorz and adjacent thinkers proposed an alternative image of radical transformation drawing on the idea of non-reformist reform. NRR activity would carry out what Gramsci conceptualized as counterhegemonic struggle, challenging the hegemonic ideologies that sustain capitalist domination. The Left would address the paramount questions (imperialist militarism, racism, poverty, environmental devastation) as fought out in mainstream politics but would endeavor to do so by connecting high-level political controversy to people’s lived experience. NRR activism would involve struggles where we live and work. It would attend to consciousness raising as much as reform per se. It would exemplify a critique of everyday life and conduct a long march through the institutions.

The non-reformist reformer does not hope to accumulate enough reforms to miraculously “tip” the system from authoritarian capitalism to egalitarian post-capitalism. The goal, in addition to alleviating deprivation to the extent possible, is to induce a revolution in political consciousness that will transform masses of people (and, ultimately, large electorates) into historical subjects demanding systemic change. Non-reformist reforms aim to undermine the “common sense” of capitalist culture, inaugurate practices that entrench grassroots participation, and even open avenues to partially escape from capitalism through new forms of employee representation, cooperative forms of residential tenure, and similar innovations (reform initiatives variously called countervailing or dual power, self-management at every level, or autogestion). Radical social change is for everyone, not just the dispossessed. In the words of Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, “C’est pour toi que tu fais la revolution” (It is for you that you make the revolution).

Central to NRR thinking was the idea of prefiguration: the idea that movement activity should embody, reflect, or at least gesture toward social practices and relationships characteristic of the type of society we hope to bring into being. Prefiguration resonated deeply with the women’s movement’s commitment to politicizing the personal and personalizing the political; with early SDS’s commitment to participatory democracy; with labor movement traditions of solidarity; with the rich, life-altering culture of the Southern civil rights movement as exemplified by SNCC’s voting rights campaigns; and with Dr. King’s “beloved community.” Movement activity must model egalitarian, democratic, non-authoritarian, diverse, and sustainable ways of life.

Prefiguration is morally right, it raises consciousness and teaches things we need to learn on the journey toward a better future, and, when successful, it allows people to internalize faith that there is a better way of life than the limiting, harmful, oppressive patterns we live through under capitalism. Gorz taught that we must show the desirability of systemic social change by showing its possibility, as well as vice versa. As he said in a 1968 essay: “The emancipation of the working class can only constitute . . . a total stake justifying a total risk if the action of struggle has already been an experiment for them in self-organization, in initiative and collective decision-making, in short, an experiment in the possibility of their own emancipation.”

Many on the Left still harbor an unarticulated yearning for the grand day when a switch will flip us from racist, patriarchal capitalism to an un-alienated future. Gorz permanently problematized the distinctions between reform and revolution and between working intra-systemically to ameliorate deprivation vs. working outside-the-system to abolish it. This forced us to abandon magical thinking and take a long view. Yes, racial-patriarchal capitalism may place hard limits on systemic social change that must be undone. Still, Gorz urged:

“[i]nstead of dichotomizing the future and the present—future power and present impotence, like Good and Evil—what must be done is to bring the future into the present, to make power tangible now by means of actions which demonstrate to the workers their positive strength, their ability to measure themselves against the power of capital and to impose their will on it.”

Akbar describes NRR in terms virtually identical to those New Leftists used a half-century ago, but then jumps from Gorz to Gilmore, omitting the “well-known history of prefigurative politics on the left.” Sixties people and many of their children carried the NRR/prefiguration vision forward over decades through participation in antiwar, civil rights, feminist, queer, poor people’s, indigenous peoples’, environmental, AIDS-HIV, and other movements. People wrote books and dissertations in the NRR vein. Left journals, such as Radical America, Studies on the Left, Socialist Review, and Telos flourished. Imaginative lawyers worked with activists to model prefigurative and empowerment practice in welfare rights, landlord/tenant disputes, criminal defense, domestic violence, and other fields. Attempts to theorize this experience echoed NRR themes.

No reform initiative is inherently free from the risks of marginalization, cooptation, or failure, but opposition activity can set the stage for the next struggles. Partially successful campaigns can generate synergies and cumulative, positive externalities for parallel progressive activity. Much was learned about what works and what does not, what mobilizes communities, what is lasting, episodic, or ephemeral, how alliances coalesce and fracture, how seemingly radical demands are coopted, and when apparently conventional reforms yield unexpected gains.

NRR thinking inspired one initiative in our neck-of-the-woods directly relevant to Akbar’s comments on the left-activist law professor. She commends, as I do, the time-honored role of progressive lawyers serving as adjuncts to social movements by generating supportive scholarship, performing useful legal work, and encouraging students to pursue social justice careers. Decades ago, CLS, Fem-Crits, CRT, and others proposed an alternative (fully complementary) conception of the activist law professor’s role, namely, to bring Left politics into our workplace, the law schools. The effort was prefigurative and Gorzian to its core. We trained our critical analytics on the ideological content of the curriculum and law schools’ complicity in legitimating and servicing racial-capitalist domination.

A significant aspect of workplace struggle in that period was fighting the early, often brutal battles for affirmative action in appointments and admissions. This required challenging the dubious criteria of “merit” that conveniently served an overwhelmingly white, male professoriate. A NRR approach meant humanizing the classroom; radically transforming the curriculum; advocating for clinical education; resisting administration opposition to staff, adjunct, and graduate worker unionization; supporting striking food service and janitorial workers; defending students disciplined for campus political activity; opposing hierarchical practices and pay systems. It included the work of keeping institutions officially committed to social justice true to their ideals (CUNY, Harvard Legal Services Center, New College, Northeastern). No matter how respectfully and collegially one behaved, these activities entailed career risks. Outraged colleagues, pundits, and politicians misrepresented your scholarship, called you nihilist wreckers, and accused you of endorsing violence. Appointments were blocked. People were denied tenure.

There were successes, failures, breakthroughs, heartbreaks, and disillusion. We made mistakes, some spectacular. We should not romanticize this past, but we should critically recover it. The experience of those fifty years and the theoretical reflections they generated have much to teach as the legal Left renews interest in non-reformist reforms.