1980s >> 1985 >> no-968-april-1985

The Birth of Reformism

Human society has reached a point where the conflict between profit and human needs is condemning the vast majority of people to lives of relative poverty, despite all the technological advances of the twentieth century. The rapid growth in the productive forces of society, including both machinery and workers themselves has, during the past couple of centuries, turned capitalist social relationships into fetters against further development, rather than a vehicle of progress.

The appalling conditions of life suffered by workers in nineteenth-century Britain spawned two parallel tendencies. On the one hand, there were those more “enlightened” bosses who were anxious to prevent revolt or revolution, and to improve efficiency, by taking the edge off the almost absolute degradation which brutalised workers in the slums of Victorian times. In 1912, for example, writing in the journal. The Nineteenth Century and After R.C.K. Ensor defended the idea of a legal minimum wage as follows:

A working class, the poorest members of whom can get from newspapers and cinematographs a vivid idea of the country’s wealth and how it is at present spent, must be less and less content with what contented its forefathers. The only question is whether in its strivings upward it is better on the whole to be cool in temper, clear in vision and constructive in method, or hot. blind and destructive.

On the other hand, there had developed a growing consciousness among workers of the fact that the interests of the buyer and the seller of labour power, the interests of boss and worker, could never be reconciled. The capitalist system of society could not satisfy the needs of humanity, ever.

Throughout the various stages of private property society over the last few thousand years, there has been no time or place without some clear expression of opposition to the ruling class. From the slave revolt of Spartacus, to the underground trade unions in the Russian empire today, the dispossessed have been forced by material necessity to take some action to defend themselves.

The history of the political development of the modem working class follows several stages. At first, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the main form taken by our resistance was that of individual acts of crime and sabotage. Riot, arson and the destruction of machinery in the age of Luddism, were resorted to in a desperate attempt to fight against the growing power of the employing class. Such action was isolated, unorganised and easily crushed.

The aims of the earliest trade unions were to establish uniform wage rates, and to reduce pressure on wages by limiting apprenticeships and opposing the introduction of machinery. Financial assistance was also offered to card bearers. Most importantly, though, the association of workers through organisation was seen to increase the strength and power of working-class resistance to the employers. It was commonly agreed that only by removing competition within the working class could unity, strength and therefore liberation be achieved. Such unity was found to be of use, however, only if it took a political form. The Chartist attempt to gain some kind of democratic access to the capitalist state made clear the political nature of the class struggle. This rising confidence felt by workers about their potential power was summed up by Engels, writing in the Labour Standard in June 1881, when he said that<

 “There is no power in the world which could for a day resist the British working class organised as a body”.

The response of capitalist employers and landlords to this growing working class consciousness was violent and brutal. At Peterloo in 1819, the magistrates had been horrified by the orderly, well-disciplined way in which thousands of workers had assembled together, to listen to speeches for democracy. Eleven of those workers were killed by the licensed agents of the state, and the Six Acts were passed to prevent workers from organising.

Sixty-eight years later, not a great deal had changed in the way society was run. as shown by this report of Bloody Sunday. 13 November 1887:

I noticed the banners of the East Finsbury Radical Club and of the Clerkenwell Branch of the Social Democratic Federation. The banner of the latter association bore the words “Educate. Agitate. Organise” . . .  the police, mounted and on foot, charged in among the people, striking indiscriminately in all directions.
(Reynolds Newspaper, 20 November 1887.)

There had however, developed a definite movement among some sections of the ruling class and their advisers, in favour of reform to palliate workers’ grievances, as opposed to outright oppression of them. This movement for reforming, rather than getting rid of capitalism, with its inbuilt class division between owners and non-owners of industry, was developed by capitalists trying to save their system. Their fears were summed up, for example, by G. Sims in How the Poor Live (1889): “This mighty mob of famished, diseased and filthy helots is getting dangerous, physically, morally, politically dangerous”, and Lord Milner, in his speech at Wolverhampton on 17 December 1906. stated quite openly that “The attempt to raise the well-being and efficiency of the more backward of our people . . .  is not philanthropy: it is business”.

What was the reaction in the working class to this idea of reforming and patching up the profit system, rather than replacing it with a new order of society devoted to satisfying needs? Capitalism meets needs merely as a by-product of serving the needs of profit and capital accumulation through the market. At the turn of the century there was quite a debate among workers as to whether this policy of reform, or “palliatives” as it was called, could be of any real value to the working class as a means of liberation.

The Manifesto of the English Socialists, signed on 1 May 1893 by members of the Fabian Society, the Hammersmith Socialist Society and the Social Democratic Federation, proclaimed that they supported:

the collective ownership of the great means and instruments of the creation and distribution of wealth . . . thus we look to put an end for ever to the wage system, to sweep away all distinctions of class.

But at the same time, there was a different approach to the problem beginning to take shape. This involved workers joining hands with the enlightened capitalists quoted above, to work for a humane capitalism rather than for a socialist society. One of the early representatives of reformism was Ramsay MacDonald, later leader of the Labour Party. Writing in the journal Today in March 1887, he explained his elitist and ultimately conservative view of social change:

The coming revolution is to be directed from the study . . .  to be, in fact, a revolution of the comparatively well-to-do . When we are strong in the strength of intellectual faith, the discontented will still be at our command, and as explosive as ever. We may have to use them, or we may not; but should the worse befall, their destructive power will be skilfully directed; it will not cause ruin, but will clear a way — it will be the tool, but not the designer.

In the seventy-nine years since its formation, the Labour Party has stood unswervingly for capitalism. The famous Clause Four adopted in 1918 was a blueprint for nationalisation, not socialism. Its reference to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange is a contradiction in terms: if the means of production were really in the hands of us all, there would be no need to buy articles which were ours already, so there would be no need for a means of exchange. The pragmatism and compromise of reformism over the past century has proved a miserable failure, pointing the way towards adopting a genuine socialist policy as the only solution now.

The Liberal government in the years before the First World War. 1906-1914. introduced several reforms which have been seen as the foundations of the modem “welfare state”. The discussion entered into at the time by capitalists and politicians responsible for implementing these reforms shows clearly what their concerns were. The Sheffield Chamber of Commerce voted in favour of compulsory training after a 1908 speech by Lord Newton stating that this would “increase a man’s efficiency as a wealth-producing machine’. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Journal supported in 1905 the introduction of Labour Exchanges for workers, who were described as “assets of the nation”. They also urged “the sternest measures for the wastrel and the loafer”. When introducing the National Unemployment Insurance scheme in 1909. Churchill reassured employers that “the whole system will prove to be nothing more than wages spreading” (quoted in J. Harris, Unemployment and Politics. 1972).

Individual reforms of capitalism will sometimes succeed in improving the conditions of some workers, although often at the expense of certain other workers, as implied in the above statement by Churchill. There is a pressing and practical alternative to the maze of legislation, campaigning and lobbying which capitalism has thrown up. Some reforms may be of benefit, but what socialists are implacably opposed to is the policy of reformism, which sometimes claims that emancipation can be won through a gradual accumulation of petty changes in the mechanics of exploitation. This is a cruel myth which, as we have shown here, has its roots to a large extent in the squalid attempts of capitalists to seduce us away from the socialist alternative and into futile compromise. In fact, if we wanted concessions from the capitalist class, the best way of winning them would, in any case, be to start building a strong socialist movement.

In many ways, the physical confrontation which has often figured in the class struggle has now become above all an internalised conflict, a battle of ideas. The nineteenth-century repression by mounted police has now been joined by the Sun headline as a weapon against workers in the class struggle between employers and employees. Capitalism is the most universal and adaptable system of oppression. As the last class society, it has had to make a fine art out of inculcating submission. Placing a policeman inside every worker’s head can prove more efficient, and even cheaper, than having a policeman on every street comer. This is why it is essential for us to look critically at the forms of change which are offered to us.

For over a century we have had reform campaigns, aiming to solve the housing problem, the problems of poverty, unemployment and so on. Not one of these campaigns can be said to have succeeded, as all of these problems remain after decades of campaigning and. in some cases, enormous support. Some of the absurd contradictions in society between what is technologically possible and what is socially available have even got worse. Where some apparently useful reform has been achieved, this has often been dismantled later under the pressure of the market system, with its inevitable cycle of boom followed by recession. As a strategy for real social change, reformism has failed because it leaves intact the real cause of the problems: the fact that production is still carried out for profitable sales in the market, on the basis of minority ownership, rather than for free use on the basis of common ownership.

Next time you are approached by someone on the Left who argues that socialism must be deferred in favour of some minor re-arrangement in the social furniture of capitalism, bear in mind in whose interests such a deferral would be. In a study of American capitalism in the early twentieth century, one employer was quoted as saying in 1922 that “with labour crying for democracy, capital must go part way or face revolution” (S.D. Brandes, American Welfare Capitalism); and in the Chicago Daily News of 16 June 1906, another kind boss reassured some of his fellow bosses who were worried about some benefits he had granted his workers:

When I keep a horse and I find him a clean stable and good food I am not doing anything philanthropic for my horse.

Clifford Slapper