Where Reformism Fails
The dispute between Reformists and Socialists is not a very easy one to disentangle. This is partly due to the variety of arguments put forward by reformists, but above all to the failure of reformists to grasp the Socialist explanation of the problem that has to be solved.
The problem is not that of a social system that is satisfactory on the whole and only needs improvements here and there. If it were the reformist would be on the right road —but then there would be nothing in the Socialist case for the abolition of Capitalism.
Nor is the problem that of a social system which started as capitalist but is steadily evolving towards something fundamentally different, Socialism. If it were there would be nothing in the Socialist explanation of the true nature of Capitalism; that it is a system the character of which is determined by its being based on the division of society into two antagonistic classes, a capitalist class which possesses the means of production, but does not produce, and a working class which produces, but does not possess. The Socialist points to the fact that though capitalism changes in superficial ways, its foundation does not change. The capitalist class are as much the owners and controllers of land, factories, railways, etc., as they were 60 or 100 years ago. Capitalism changes but not in essentials. It does not evolve to Socialism. While the capitalists remain in control of political power they will continue to avert any change which would deprive them of their ownership. They constantly introduce reforms to deal with the most resented effects of their system, but they firmly resist attempts to interfere with the foundation of capitalism which is the cause of the evil effects.
Socialism cannot be achieved without a social revolution, that is a change in the property basis of society, from private ownership to social ownership and democratic control.
In the past most reformists held one or other of the first-mentioned views; either they believed that the social system is essentially sound but needed improvements in detail or they believed that an accumulation of reforms would ultimately produce a fundamental change. We need not here concern ourselves with the first group, since the workers who believe this now are certainly a diminishing number; but the second idea is still the idea that guides the majority of supporters of the Labour Party. The idea is wrong and harmful, not so much because those who hold it labour largely in vain, but because while they continue to hold it they will not direct their efforts to the real task that has to be accomplished.
That the idea is wrong can be seen if a little attention is given to the results of the activities over a number of years. Have those activities been fruitless? If we judge by the very large number of reform measures passed by Parliament in the past 50 years we would say that they have been very fruitful; but if we go to the heart of the matter and ask whether capitalism has become a system in which life is comfortable, happy and secure for the workers we see that the gulf between reformist hopes and their practical achievements is enormous. The legislative changes are too numerous to count but nothing material has been altered thereby. The workers are still poor, still haunted by unemployment and insecurity. The capitalists are still rich, still in control of power. The explanation of this seeming paradox is absurdly simple once it is grasped. It is that reforms do not reform capitalism, nor is that the intention of those who introduce them. Reforms are not positive improvements added to a firm structure but piecemeal measures to alleviate the worst effects of new evils (or old evils grown more acute) as they arise. As each new evil arises or old evils get permanently or temporarily worse the cry goes up that something must be done. The reformers step in with their proposals, but the capitalist State, when it tardily takes action, just does the least that it believes will suffice to patch up the evil. The reform may be a gain for the workers if it is compared with the worst state of the evil just at the time when the reform is introduced, but it may mark a worsening of the workers’ position compared with the position a few years earlier when the evil was of smaller dimensions, and still more so when related to society’s growing powers of producing wealth. The reformer, however, looks only at the immediate alleviation and forgets that capitalism can go on producing new evils as fast as old ones are temporarily dealt with. As Bernard Shaw, Sidney Webb and others (most of whom failed to act up to their own knowledge) wrote in a “Manifesto of English Socialists” exactly 50 years ago: “Meantime small improvements made in deference to the ill-formulated demands of the workers, though for a time they seem almost a social revolution to men ignorant of their own resource and of their capacity, will not really raise the condition of the whole people.”
These words might well be studied by men and women who to-day acclaim the Beveridge Report as “almost a social revolution.”
There are still other reformists who say they realise that Socialism is the only solution, and that it requires a basic change in the foundations of society after political power has been obtained for that purpose. Their case for advocating reforms is rather different. They argue, as did Shaw and his associates in the above-mentioned Manifesto, that reforms give the workers more leisure and less anxiety so that they are better able to turn their attention to Socialism; or else they argue that the struggle for reforms is part of a valuable and necessary educational process for the workers. Both arguments could with greater justification be made for the trade unions, where the workers wage their own struggle over wages and conditions of work. Where the argument fails in its application to the Labour Party’s efforts for legislative reforms is that it overlooks the part played by the openly capitalist parties. Fifty years ago it was supposed that a Labour Party would take the lead in securing the introduction of more or less drastic reforms, up to and including the time when there would be Labour Governments able to take the initiative in drafting bills and pushing them through Parliament. Nothing like that has happened. Can anyone point to any outstanding Act of Parliament associated in the public mind with the Labour Party? Do the workers remember the two Labour Governments for any bold measures they introduced? On the contrary, despite the spade work of the Labour Party, outstanding reforms are associated with their political opponents, particularly Lloyd George and now Sir William Beveridge.
The Labour Party has worked up agitation for one demand after another, only to see them introduced by Liberal or Tory Governments which naturally reaped whatever credit there was to be obtained. Far from educating the workers towards some ultimate goal, the effect has been rather to persuade them that the capitalist politicians are not so bad after all, for do they not introduce measures similar in name if different in detail from those on the Labour Party programme? At the present time we see a spectacle that is still more remarkable, a Labour Party which believes in leadership yet devotes much of its efforts to popularising the leader of the Tory Party, Mr. Winston Churchill, and heaping its praises on a Liberal, Sir William Beveridge. So far has this gone that probably many Labour voters do not even know who is the leader of their own Party.
After all these years of effort by the reformist parties, capitalism is intact and as powerful as ever. It will continue to be so until such time as the workers turn their attention away from reformism to the task of capturing the capitalist citadel—control of the machinery of government —for the purpose of taking over the means of production and distribution for the community.