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Reformism - or socialism?

There are two kinds of reformism. One has no intention of bringing about revolutionary change – indeed it may use reforms to oppose such change. The other kind cherishes the mistaken belief that successful reforms will somehow prepare the ground for revolution. Reforms are seen as necessary first steps on the long road to eventual revolution.

Reformism has some attractions over revolution – especially if you lack imagination, don't like confrontation. prefer to think only in the short term, and don't want to be accused of not living in the real world. You are also assured of being in good company because large numbers of people think (or fail to think) as you do.

Reformism is a most excellent strategy if you want only small changes in society, and are satisfied with what you get (which is usually substantially less than what you were promised). However, reformism is futile for two other groups of people: those who expect that capitalism can be reformed to operate in the interests of the majority, and those who believe that a programme of reforms will “win the workers for the revolution” and hence make a contribution to the achievement of socialism.

The idea that capitalism can be humanised and changed by a series of reforms is almost as old as the capitalist system itself. But reforms are implemented by political parties that seek and get a mandate to run capitalism. The motives for reforms may include anxiety to relieve suffering and keenness to promote well-being, but the measures have the effect of serving the system rather than meeting the needs of individuals or groups.

Examples of reforms serving capitalism over the last two centuries are not hard to find. The Poor Law of 1834 was a response to mass destitution as peasants were driven off the land – crime and the poor health of workers were expensive to the ruling class (incidentally, minimal “relief” pacified workers by removing their pauper status). The post-1945 Welfare State introduced measures of health and social security intended to raise workers' efficiency and thus make them more productive of profit for the capitalist class – poverty was re-organised, not abolished.

The role of hegemony – a powerful combination of ruling ideas filtered through conventional education, the mass media, and a culture of consumption – is important in understanding how reformism, like all policies designed to sustain capitalism, is actually carried out by members of the working class (the roughly 98 percent of the population who are not capitalists). Concerned as they are to maintain the profit system, they persuade themselves to do what is best for “the economy”. Furthermore, one person's advocated reform is sometimes another person's preferred status quo. To Old Labour, nationalisation was a reform; to New Labour, at least some privatisations are a reform.

The kind of reformers who believe they are taking the first practical steps on the long road to eventual revolution are looking for quick results, which means they want as many people as possible to support their proposed reforms. Reformers often say to revolutionaries “Don't split the Left. We are all working for the same goal, so why don't you join us? We can get strength through unity.”

Revolutionaries must reject this appeal if they are to remain revolutionaries. Reformism is never a contribution to the achievement of socialism – it is a diversion of energies working for that goal. The offer of unity proposed by the reformer to the revolutionary is always a poisoned chalice: “Join us today to promote . . . .[small but achievable reform] and tomorrow we'll start the revolution together.” But of course tomorrow never comes.

Another line of thinking that presents itself as friendly to revolution but is really calculated to frustrate it is “the time is not yet ripe” argument. Consider this statement by R.Biel in his recent book The New Imperialism:

“The organised left has itself opted for a mode of action which downplays (without completely rejecting) the idea of directly challenging the system… The left has had to retreat for a time from organising an alternative political economy, and is working instead on the terrain of capitalism” (emphasis added).

“Working on the terrain of capitalism” is a euphemism for reformism. There are two implications in what Biel is saying. One is that there was a time when the left – or at least part of it – was working for socialism. The other is that, since the retreat was only “for a time”, there will be a time in the future when working for socialism will come to the top of the agenda instead of being downplayed.

A further interesting question is why the left supposedly “has had to retreat” from something it never really did anyway, that is, work wholeheartedly for socialism. Were the arguments for capitalism so strong that its opponents were forced into retreat? More likely those of the reformers who claimed to be willing to become revolutionaries in the long run succumbed to the status-quo-preserving goodies that they saw within their grasp in the short run.

The New Statesman journal offers general support to New Labour's reforms, but to describe that support as lukewarm would be to exaggerate the heat. Its editorial of 25 September 1998 is worth quoting at length:

“The arguments for electing Labour governments have never been based wholly, or even mainly, on the likelihood of their bringing about equality or the abolition of poverty or any of the other traditional aims of social democracy. Within two or three years of taking office, Labour, more often than not, is blown off course and forced to introduce policies quite at variance with its original intentions, slashing, for example, the public services on which the poor depend. But Labour governments have usually nudged things in the right direction. The economic gains for the poor folk of Barnsley, Blackburn or Bootle may be scarcely measurable at the end of a period of Labour government but at least, for a year or two, their voices have counted in Whitehall and Westminster and, with luck, their children will be taught in slightly smaller classes or their local bus services will run a bit more frequently or their hospitals will be a bit less dilapidated.”

But, looking at New Labour's achievements so far in its second term of office, don't bank on even those small mercies. Such are the “benefits” offered by a reforming party, proud not to be revolutionary. Thank goodness a party was not elected that nudged things in the wrong direction!

Capitalism, like an old car, has developed many faults and always seems to be needing costly repairs and new parts. Isn't it about time we scrapped it and got something new? The analogy isn't a particularly good one – for one thing, replacing a car costs only money, while replacing a social system takes much thought and organisation – but at least it reminds us that things (whether cars or social systems) don't have to be patched up for ever.

Going directly for revolution, refusing to settle for anything less than the full monty of socialism, is a policy that will take time to bring results. Many people will have to be weaned off the superficial attractions of “achievable” reforms. But going for revolution isn't just a long-term policy – it is also a good short-term one. Faced with an electorate who refuse to vote for capitalism-supporting candidates, confronted by a majority who no longer believe “there is no alternative”, challenged by a growing socialist movement that says revolution is possible and shows how life and society could be so much better, what else can those who wish to support capitalism do than concede as much as possible, in effect to narrow the gap between the old and new systems?