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Reforms, Revolution and the Left

Most people can think of aspects of  capitalism that they'd like to change.Individual changes can theoreticallly be made, but does reformism work as an overall strategy for real change?

Socialists are revolutionaries: we believe that the establishment of a Socialist society will involve a fundamental change in the way people live, and will necessitate the capture of political power by the Socialist working class. As revolutionaries, we do not advocate reforms, that is, changes in the way capitalism runs, such as alterations to immigration policy or the health service or the tax system. Reforms, however ‘radical’, can never make capitalism run in the interests of the workers. Nor should supporting reforms be some kind of tactic pursued by Socialists to gain support from workers, for workers who joined a Socialist Party because they admired its reformist tactics would turn it into a reformist organisation pure and simple. Socialists must reject reformism as a distraction from the revolutionary goal.

The reform–revolution issue is a long-standing one that has occasioned much debate over the years. In 1890 William Morris wrote an essay ‘Where are we now?’, as he left the Socialist League and looked back over his time in that organisation and the Social Democratic Federation. He saw two ‘methods of impatience’, as he termed them. One was futile riot or revolt, which could be easily put down. The other was, to use the then-popular label, ‘palliation’, what we would now call reformism. Morris resolutely opposed both, since they would be carried out by people who did not know what Socialism was and so would not know what to do next, even if their efforts were successful on their own terms. Instead he advocated propagating Socialist ideas:

"Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e., convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible."

Morris thus rejected the reformist ideas that permeated the SDF and prefigured the Socialist Party’s view on this issue.

Another important discussion took place a few years later in the German Social-Democratic Party (the SPD). Eduard Bernstein, who enjoyed the prestige of being Engels’ literary executor, argued that reforms were all that should be aspired to: ‘The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything’. This was partly because Bernstein considered that some of the unpredictability of production under capitalism could be mitigated by the provision of credit and the founding of employers’ organisations (cartels and trusts). He also envisaged reformist politics and trade unions as gradually eliminating capitalist exploitation and ushering in Socialism.

 Bernstein’s main critic at the time was Rosa Luxembourg, in two articles reprinted as the pamphlet Reform or Revolution. Damning his work as ‘opportunist’, she pointed out that trade unions could only," limit exploitation, not abolish it", and claimed that his views were tantamount to abandoning Socialism. Certainly we can agree that reforming capitalism will not turn it into Socialism. But even Luxembourg did
 not oppose reforms.

"Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal — the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labour. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means: the social revolution, its aim."

And she made no real attempt to relate reformist policies to the final goal, other than in statements such as: " as a result of its trade union and parliamentary struggles, the proletariat becomes convinced of the impossibility of accomplishing a fundamental social change through such activity and arrives at the understanding that the conquest of power is unavoidable. "

This, however, offers no reason why a revolutionary organisation should advocate reforms. And how has the reformist argument fared over the last hundred years? Have reformist movements and reforming governments made any contribution to Socialism? The answer to this question is a resounding No! Reformist governments, like all governments, do what they have to do: they administer capitalism in the interests of the ruling class, though they do make some effort to claim that their actions benefit the whole population. The Labour Party, for instance, has abandoned any pretensions about fundamentally changing society, and is now unashamedly the Tory Party Mark II.

Reformist movements try to get elected to government or attempt to influence the government of the day, all with the aim of carrying reforms into practice or of defending the status quo against some ‘anti-reform’. For the reformer’s work is never done under capitalism, which continually throws up new problems which need the reformer’s attention and constantly undermines any existing ‘gains’, however feeble. The list of potential reforms is as long as your arm; in the course of just one recent week in Manchester, there were meetings/campaigns dealing with ‘rights’ for homeworkers, the new Immigration and Asylum Act, the police ban on a picket outside Marks and Spencer, flood relief in Bangladesh, and the pollution caused by urban 4x4s. Which of these and many other worthy causes should the committed reformer give priority to?

The ‘Left’ may claim that it enjoys the best of both worlds, both supporting reforms and advocating revolution. But in fact its revolutionary posturing is just a matter of words, for its practical policies are purely reformist. Take the biggest Left organisation in Britain, the Socialist Workers Party, for instance. The 18 December issue of its weekly paper Socialist Worker carried an article on the pension myths being peddled by the government (for the Socialist take on this, see the November Socialist Standard). Here is part of the SWP’s ‘solution’ (from their website at

"We don’t want the present miserly level of pensions and care, we want better.

So say we did want to increase the share of GDP spent on the old by 5 percent of GDP or more. This only means increasing the tax rate by 0.1 percent of GDP a year for 50 years, a tiny amount.

It might mean returning top tax rates to closer to the ones which Margaret Thatcher’s governments used for most of their time in office.

Or it might mean taxing private pensions of the rich, or returning corporation tax rates on big business to a decent level".

It is obvious that, in speaking of the rich and tax rates, the SWP envisage the continuation of capitalism, rather than its abolition. It might be argued that they are only trying to attract support on the basis of reformist policies but that they really aim at revolution. But firstly, it would be quite dishonest to do this, to get workers’ support on the basis of saying one thing while really wanting something quite different. Secondly, there is no reason why anyone who goes along with increasing corporation tax should, as a consequence of supporting this, somehow be won over to Socialism. And thirdly, the SWP are utterly silent about revolution and Socialism, suppressing all mention of ‘the suppression of wage labour’. Rosa Luxembourg, as we saw, viewed reforms as the means and revolution as the aim. Like the rest of the Left, the SWP have effectively embraced Bernstein’s view, abandoning revolution for reformist measures.

The Socialist response to all this is straightforward. If you want to get somewhere, aim for that destination directly, rather than going on detours and trusting that you will eventually, by however roundabout a route, arrive at where you want to be. There is, and can be, no reformist road to Socialism, nor can there be a mixture of reformist and revolutionary policies. The Socialist Party has just one aim, the establishment of Socialism.

Paul Bennett