Book Review: The Impotence of Reform

Modern Social Reforms, Arthur B. Shostak. Collier-Macmillan Publishing Co. £2.95.This book has the presumptous sub-title “Solving Today’s Social Problems”. The fact that today’s social problems are not amenable to being solved by reforms, somehow seems to have escaped the notice of Shostak, and the numerous tinkerers to whom he refers.Shostak poses the question as being one of finding appropriate reforms within the framework of obstacles presented by human nature. Thus it is not class interest, property relationship and the profit motive of capitalism that render reforms futile. It is merely that we need a clearer grasp of what human nature really is, in order to formulate reforms that fill the bill.

As Socialists we argue that a clear understanding of capitalism is indispensable to comprehending what is commonly called “human nature”.
Shostak is like the man who craves recognition as an ace motor mechanic, but after closely examining the old banger parked in the road, fails to discover it is out of gas. While projecting ideas as possible reforms into the 1980’s and on to the turn of the century, Shostak notes that “the taxpayers’ appetite for further costly programmes is small”. It simply is not possible to legislate at will some abstract set of concepts (however seemingly laudable) and thereby get rid of poverty, bad housing, unemployment and war. Capitalism defeats all such policies.

Reforms have to be paid for. The capitalist class and governments, which are the political power centres of that class, are dominated by the economic dictates of capitalism. Profit is the main spring of the system. Taxes are a levy on the surplus-value (produced by the working class, but owned by the capitalists). Reforms are a particular kind of investment by the capitalist class as a whole. They need a schooling system, they need fairly healthy workers, they need a network of motorways, and a modern military complex with which to warn off rivals in the struggles for world markets and resources. There must also be enough surplus-value left for capital-renewal, so that fresh exploitation of wage-labour can bring forth future surpluses. The profit motive ultimately decides the priorities.

When a boom peters out and capitalism slides into recession the capitalists become reluctant to re-invest as profit margins begin to narrow. Pressure on governments to reduce taxation builds up, and governments start to look for things to cut back on. Government revenues do not come out of some bottomless purse. They come from the surplus wealth produced by wage-labour, and are therefore subject to the economic laws of capitalism, the machinations of vested interest, and the fluctuations of world markets.

Arthur Shostak is an American author, and despite the familiar ring of it all, he is aiming his “Modern Social Reforms” at America’s “Social Problems”. He must currently be reading reports in the American newspapers similar to that in The Guardian, (25th October 1974) which tell of a sharp recession in America with unemployment expected to rise to seven and a half per cent., and car sales slumping by twenty one per cent., compared to the same period a year ago. He must be aware that “The anti-inflationary package now on the table represents little more than a timid compromise between various warring factions advising the President,” and that President Ford is intent upon a reduced and balanced federal budget, while maintaining war expenditures, and also as The Guardian report states:

  He has been told by several of his economic advisors that he cannot have both, and at the same time provide relief for the unemployed and lower income groups.

In his eager quest for answers Shostak looks at reform patterns in Japan, Israel, Canada, Scandinavia and Britain. None of the reforms enacted in any of these countries has solved any of the major social problems engendered by capitalism. There is no reason to suspect that their importation into the United States will improve their effectiveness.

Shostak sets down four main schools of thought on social reforms. The conservative, liberal, radical and visionary. A series of tables is produced to show the positions taken by each of these on various social problems. While in his thinking, the conservatives and liberals tied to the present system, the radicals are presented as revolutionaries, who regard themselves as temporary. When however they come to spell out their demands, they get no further than the usual leftist claptrap.

  A 90% tax on inheritance and estates and tax reforms to help the working man. Free medical care for everyone. Public ownership of utilities. Strict controls on the profits of banks . . .

So for example if Paul Getty dies (despite all the benefits available to him under free medical care) and leaves £300,000,000 his heirs would have to struggle along on the mere £30 millions left after taxes.

The visionaries are billed as way-out re-thinkers whose ranks subdivide to include believers in astrology, witchcraft, Scientology, and Buddhism. When pressed for a programme, Shostak cites Theodore Roszak, who offers among other irrelevancies:

  Labour-gift and bearer exchange systems in the local economy “and” . . . neighbourhood courts in a participative legal system.

Suddenly, as though from nowhere, and out of harmony with the confusion surrounding it, comes a shaft of light. During a discussion about work, Shostak relates that he put forward

  the less popular view that the root of the inadequacies lies in the ownership of the means of production.
And the relatively fresher view that faults the quality of the jobs themselves and would thoroughly overhaul the very meaning of the work itself in preference to mere tinkering with the mechanics of work distribution.


No reform programme can meet what is implied in that paragraph. It implies that the means of production and distribution need to be owned in common, so that work can be guided by the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. And man can direct his efforts to the common welfare of all, instead of the accumulation of profits by a few.


Finally, may we be pardoned an act of cruelty against Mr. Shostak, in order to be kind to him? He uses quotations to open his chapters. The one from a certain Todd Gitlin is particularly telling.


 Ideology shakes when it no longer convincingly interprets reality whereupon it must change to account for the new reality, or die.

The ideology of reformism is indissolubly bound to capitalism They cannot change. They will die together and make way for the reality of Socialism.


Harry Baldwin