What is Reformism?
Reformism resembles the treatment of leprosy with vanishing cream. It attacks the symptoms but ignores the virus—world Capitalism.
People see misery everywhere. Righteous indignation, protest, rebellion, humanitarian zeal, burst from some of them unceasingly. Yet this very force, this fervour to better the lot of others is nearly always diverted into futile channels. It is as if every member of the working-class had inside his head a voice announcing: “Capitalism is eternal and all improvements must take place within it.” Are we poor? Let us have fairer wages. Are we to be exterminated? Let the great men sign treaties. Are we surrounded by trashiness? Let us protect the consumer.
Only a handful, the Socialists, seems to notice that this Reformist activity has been going on at a furious rate for decades and the world is nonetheless as bad as ever. We Socialists are often derided as “Idealists,” but the compliment is misplaced: it belongs to the Reformists. Their Utopia is Capitalism without Capitalism’s inevitable consequences. And what an astonishing, vigorous, unbounded faith they have in it, a shining devotion altogether untouched by such paltry considerations as the facts.
Let us make clear that by Capitalism we mean the system of private ownership of the means of wealth production—a system with money, wages, governments, armies, etc. By reforms we mean tinkering about with, instead of the abolition of, all these things.
The real driving force behind Reformism is the desire to stabilise Capitalism and thus to retain it. In fact Capitalism needs continuous reform in order to run as smoothly as possible in the interests of the master class.
Oscar Wilde said that the worst slave-owners were the kind ones: they tended to prevent the full horror of the chattel slave system from becoming generally realised. But our case is not as weak as this. It may be true that the Capitalists would sooner alleviate a bit of suffering than have their position of privilege endangered. But in fact many reforms alleviate suffering not at all. Some, like family allowances (a trick to rearrange working-class misery) make exploitation more thorough. Others simply replace one trouble by another.
In addition, it will be found that the vast majority of proposed reforms fall easily into two categories: they are either necessary, or impossible. The first sort includes, for instance, all those measures aimed at making the working-class a healthier and better-trained beast of burden. Impossible reforms include all Capitalist measures to abolish war, unemployment, strikes, slumps, etc. Support for either kind is obviously a total waste of time from a working-class standpoint.
The Reformist presents his argument in one of three ways: He claims that reforms can solve the working-class’s problems: He admits that only a social revolution can solve them, but adds: “Socialism us a long way off. People need help now. Why can’t we struggle for revolution and reforms?” He claims that revolution and reform can be one and the same thing, that Socialism will be introduced gradually by the piling-up of one reform after another.
The problems of the working-class spring from its poverty. This is inseparable from the wages system, which functions by paying workers less that the value of what they produce. If workers were not poor they would not be restricted in access to the world’s wealth, and if they were not so restricted they would have no motive to slog their guts out for wages. The unpaid labour of the workers produces surplus value, which is appropriated by a parasite class. Also, the bulk of production is shoddy, wasteful or destructive—because it is for profit, not for use. Production for profit leads inevitably to war, because for one thing nations must seek ever-widening markets for their products and must therefore collide with other nations doing the same thing. You cannot have Capitalism without war, poverty and universal misery.
Socialism will remain “a long way off” so long as so many people waste their energies on reforms. By trying to “alleviate” this or that source of trouble the Reformist helps to put off the day when it will be abolished, since every bit of energy spent on reform is one bit not spent on propagating revolution. The argument that we should strive for both revolution and reform is actually an excuse to shelve revolution “until society is ripe for it,” but revolutionary propaganda will help to make society ripe for it, since only one thing more is needed to bring Socialism, a Socialist working class. If our Reformist actually meant that the working class should devote “a fair portion” of its time to revolutionary propaganda and a fair portion to Reformism (fifty per cent each?), he ought really to give up Reformism altogether, for at the moment more than ninety-nine per cent of political action is entirely for reforms. On top of this, History has shown that organisations of the 50-50 brand always end up 100 per cent Reformist.
“Gradualists” are at fault in their conception of the Socialist system of society, because a gradual transition from Capitalism to Socialism would mean that we could have bits of Socialism existing alongside bits of Capitalism, which is an absurdity. How could we be only partly wage-slaves? Or how could nations (with their frontiers, police, espionage, armies and governments making plans to blow us all up) only half exist? And even if this tissue of fantasy were feasible, surely our Gradualist doesn’t think Socialism will come about without there being first the will for it. If it needs working-class understanding to introduce Socialism suddenly, how much more would it be needed to play the complex game of introducing it bit by bit? And if the working-class does understand Socialism, then there is nothing to stop an immediate overthrow of the existing order. But even these arguments are over-generous. It is up to the Gradualist to demonstrate that a Capitalist reform will bring Socialism any nearer, and there is just no evidence that it ever could.
Sorry, Mr. Reformist. The emancipation of the workers will take a long haul yet. Perhaps you’re disappointed that establishing Socialism isn’t easy, and prefer to devote your energies to what you think are simpler tasks, even if they are futile. We never said the revolution would be easy. It would be a damned sight easier of but for you supporters of Anti-Apartheid, C.N.D., U.N.A., etc, and all the other subsidiaries of Reformism Ltd.