Revolution or Reform?

Can capitalism be reformed to work in the interest of the majority, instead of the rich elite? Or must there be a social revolution to replace capitalism with some other society? This is a debate that has raged for over a century.

The route of trying to change capitalism, or ‘reform,’ is the one that has been taken by most people who have wanted to improve society. We do not deny that certain reforms won by the working class have helped to improve our general living and working conditions. Indeed, we see little wrong with people campaigning for reforms that bring essential improvements and enhance the quality of their lives, and some reforms do indeed make a difference to the lives of millions and can be viewed as ‘successful’. There are examples of this in such fields as education, housing, child employment, work conditions and social security. But such ‘successes’ have in reality done little more than keep workers and their families in efficient working order and even where they have taken the edge off the problem, they have rarely managed to remove it completely. What we are opposed to is the whole culture of reformism, the idea that capitalism can be ‘fixed’ with the right reforms. So we oppose those organisations that promise to deliver a programme of reforms on behalf of the working class (often so they can gain a position of power). Such groups, especially those of the left-wing, often have real aims quite different to the reform programme they peddle. In this, they are being as dishonest as any other politician, from the left or right. The result is that people give up on the possibility of radical change.

If you still think that are groups or parties promising reforms who deserve your support, consider the following points.

  1. The campaign, whether directed at right-wing or left-wing governments, will often only succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system. In other words, the reform will often be turned to the benefit of the capitalist class at the expense of any working class gain.
  2. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary.
  3. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve.

This was summed up by William Morris over a century ago: “The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side.” For more on William Morris, see William Morris: how we live and how we might live.

In other words, although individual reforms may be worthy of support, the political strategy of reformism — promising to win reforms on the behalf of others — is a roundabout that leads nowhere. Even where some problems are alleviated, in a society which is changing ever more rapidly, new problems arise faster than anyone’s ability to tackle them.

Our website contains many examples illustrating the problems of reformism. As an introduction to some of the most important, see The problems of reformism.

Here’s a short list of fixes that don’t work, which we know because they’ve been tried.

Profit motive

The profit motive of capitalism is a major cause of the problems we face in today’s society: ever increasing inequality, poverty, alienation, crime, homelessness, environmental degradation—the list could go on and on. There are countless ways in which the working class (and indeed the capitalist class) suffer as a result of the profit system. Unless we organise for an alternative, the profit system will continue on its blind, unswerving path.

But what is the alternative?