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Why reform a rotten system?

Many think that reform is positive, but why should Socialists divert their energies to repair and patch up a system they want to end altogether?

"Campaigning for reforms is a distracting and diversionary waste of time," I declaimed, to the massed ranks of blank uncomprehending Socialist Worker Students at one of their campus meetings, "that mostly will attract people interested in reforms, and not Socialists!". I had as usual, to fill up the abject spaces in time due to the lack of debate, spoken too much—or so I presumed by the scowling cat's-arse face of the most grungy (and therefore dedicated and friendless) Trotskyist in the room. "Bollocks," he eventually said. I had gone too far, I had attacked the sacred cow, I was a heretic.

I must have been speaking Dutch that night, for it was plain that no-one in the room was understanding the least word I said. I was incomprehensible. "But, but," said the deputy dedicated Trotskyist, "we need reforms, we need to fight for higher wages, against factory closures, we need to keep the Tories out"—all said with the same matter of factness and certitude as statements like "gravity is" or "the Earth is flat". I was fascinated to note not one mention of things like nationalisation, union recognition laws, nor capital regulation tariffs, clearly such little matters do not occupy the activists' time (although they each form a part of the SWP's amazing "Action Plan" against the economic crisis). I then, however, went on to point out, presumably in Ancient Hebrew, that higher wages were not what I understood by the word reforms, whilst the latter list were nothing else. The looks of incomprehension (and contempt) grew. I sat down, and made my peace, and suffered the interminable summing up by their speaker.

Such is the triumph of the spirit of reformism that it presents itself to its adherents as if a natural law, an obviousness, a natural thing that must be done. There could be no questioning of the principle of fighting for reforms, no exploration as to their efficacy or need. Politicians' logic prevails:

1. Capitalism is terrible.

2. We must do something.

3. Reforms are something.

4. Therefore we must enact reforms.

Reforms are beyond question, apparently.

It is a tribute to the ideology of the possible that Labour penny-snatchers can pass themselves off as radical allies of the poor, when in fact they are their willing and servile oppressors, gradgrinding through their careers. It is a tribute to "reform" that it has come to take on a wholly positive meaning, as if any reform of a system is inherently good. Such are the fruits of one hundred years' deleterious perseverance.

The average Labourite can of course claim that they are just working to improve the lives of working folk. They do not question the property and market systems, they accept them as a natural fact, and thus work within them. Our fine feathered Trotskyists, however, have no such excuse. They claim to be fighting for Socialism, for an end to property and the madness of the market, so how can they justify fighting for reforms predicated upon just such a pernicious system?

When I asked, I was met with two responses. The first was half-way reasonable—the working class must fight to defend itself under capitalism, and to improve its lot and avoid poverty. Fair enough, and of course it must; that's the whole point of the class war, but that is hardly a revolutionary platform; because the working class is engaged in such a struggle every day, every pay cheque is an act of class war. Further, any defence of the working class or gains for the working class must be won by ourselves, for ourselves, because we cannot expect the capitalist state to administer affairs for our benefit. Changing laws does not help the working class, because they are only a change on paper. Only a real social change can aid the working class. Everything else is just window dressing.


But, "Aha!" they cried, "there is another, more important reason for fighting for reforms, we must help workers gain the confidence to effect a revolution". I stroked the feeble wisps of hair on my chin that some wags have named a beard, and thought this through, as they filled in the details:

1. The working class has a reformist consciousness.

2. It is the duty of the Revolutionary Party to be where the masses are.

3. Therefore, to be with the mass of the working class, we must advocate reforms.


1. The working class is only reformist minded.

2. Winning reformist battles will give the working class confidence.

3. So that, therefore, they will go on to have a socialist revolution.

I swear, this is the argument that they have put to me. What none of them has ever relayed to me, was exactly how the jump from reform-mindedness to socialist consciousness would come about. There are three basic models for how this may come about:

1. The working class will learn from its struggles, and will eventually come to realise that assuming power is the only way to meet its ends.

2. That the working class will realise, through the failure of reforms to meet its needs, the futility of reformism and capitalism, and will overthrow it.

3. That the working class will come to trust the Party that leads them to victory, and come a social crisis they will follow it to revolution.

The first relies upon a notion of the inherently revolutionary nature of the working class (a popular Leninism), and that through the class struggle this inherently revolutionary character will show itself. After the best part of a century it hasn't, so I think it safe to say it doesn't exist.

The second reason is flawed because it shows no reason why, due to the failure of reform, the workers should turn to socialism. Why, since it was people calling themselves socialists who advocated that reform, don't they turn against it, or even to fascism? However, given that that is precisely what Lenin advocates in Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder we can assume that the loyal Leninists of the SWP leadership have this idea thoroughly in mind.

Just as likely is that they will have number three in mind as well. Since they want to be leading the revolution, they will have to find a way for themselves to become leaders. "The revolution is made by the minority" (Trotsky said so, so it must be true) and the way for the minority to become a good little bunch of leaders is to show that they are the successful ones.

Under the model of revolution presented by the Trotskyists this can be the only way I can see the working class could come to socialist consciousness. This, then, explains their dubious point about needing to "be" where the mass of the working class is. Being a poor ignorant fool, I always wondered about quite why a revolutionary party should change its mind to be with the masses, rather than trying to get folk to change their minds and be with it. They do not want folk to change their minds, merely to become followers. Their efforts are not geared towards changing minds, or raising revolutionary class consciousness. The problem is that the central committee doesn't tell the sloggers on the ground this, because, just perhaps, our enthusiastic cat-arse faced friend might just object to being manipulated, just maybe.

Capitalist ideology

Fighting for reforms is to fail in the duty of socialists to demystify and dispel capitalist ideology. This is important to note: capitalism is in the end an ideology; everything it does, all of its workings, all of it is a human product, constructed in the minds of humans, and obeyed because it presents itself as the natural law, as the real world, and the realm of the possible. Money itself is the example par excellence of ideology at work; it is a sign, an idea, used to cover up the contradictions in property society. Money presents itself as the natural and only way of dealing with property relations, and as a socially neutral object, and not as a way of controlling poverty and inequality in favour of a small minority, which it really is.

To fail to reveal the ideology, to de-mystify and explain it, means to remain within it. To work with workers under the influence of the ideology of capitalism, to attempt to use the ideology to lead them, in the end means that you will find yourself replicating the ideology, obeying its demands, and replicating the social structures of dominance and obedience that it helps build. As such this amounts to a heinous flaw in Leninist politics. However, the Leninists claim, the workers are not capable of seeing through ideology; only they are, the minority, and so they must work this way. This is why, in the end, they are doomed to recreate capitalism.

For so-called socialists to fight for reforms then is to fail as socialists, to become enmeshed within the working of capitalism. Can the SWP's action plan work? Wouldn't raising the taxes necessary to nationalise all failing industries at a time of reduced profits just exacerbate the crisis? Or is that what they want? Whatever way, fighting for reforms effectively becomes a way of retaining leaders and leadership, of running away from the more difficult and radical task of changing minds.

A Trotskyist friend of mine showed me a petition of people who had voted Labour, but who now were sick of them, and of how these people were coming to the SWP. Had any of these people changed their mind? Were any of them now more revolutionary? Or had the SWP just filled in a space left by the Labour Party, and effectively changed nothing. Politicians' logic—the urge to "do something"—must be resisted. Doing something is no good, we need to do the right thing. We need to campaign for socialism.