1980s >> 1987 >> no-990-february-1987

Are you a reformist?

Society needs to be changed. Few people doubt that. We have a world which is bursting with discontent. Bombs scare people. The dole queue is the fate of millions and the threat facing millions more. There is the grotesque spectacle of mass starvation while food rots, of overcrowded hospitals and poor welfare services. The streets are unsafe as the poor who are stronger steal from the poor who are weaker while the rich whose robbery is legal have well-protected mansions. This is the age of the shoddy goods. Fast food. Old people wait for the cold of winter when thousands freeze to death. This is called civilisation, but it does not feel very civilised. There is plenty of discontent around.

There are three things which can be done with that discontent. It can be bottled up. Millions of workers have learned to complain and accept. What can they do? It is easy to feel powerless when the problems are so huge, growing all the time — and politicians, despite their claims to sincerity, have done nothing to solve them. So vast numbers of people ignore politics and turn to the bottle or the soap opera or the mind-numbing drug or the pursuit of the many other phoney escape routes presented to the working class by those who benefit from apathy. Then, one can try to reform the problems of society out of existence — elect MPs to pass laws. Sign petitions and go on marches. Put sticking plaster on the ever-increasing wounds of a society which is problem-producing. That is what the reformist does.

Or thirdly, one goes for revolution. Seeing that these many problems of society are not the result of separate causes which can be removed by piecemeal reform, the revolutionary understands that one single cause creates the social ills which face us and that is the capitalist system. It is a system which does not throw up problems by accident, but does so of necessity. War is needed by a system of competition; unemployment is needed by a system where wage slavery is a “privilege” only on offer to those who can be exploited for profit; mass hunger is needed by a system where food is a commodity to be sold on the market for profit and starving millions do not constitute a market; shoddy production is needed by a system which cares not for the quality of what is made but its cheapness. A system called world capitalism is the root cause of the social problems which afflict us and therefore it is world capitalism which must be abolished and replaced by a totally new social system where production is solely for use: socialism. That is the analysis and the objective of the revolutionary socialist.

Only socialist revolution will eradicate the problems caused by the capitalist system. As long as the system remains, however much it is reformed, it will throw up more problems. more discontent. The socialist is not in the business of reforming capitalism, for to do so is to make repairs to a structure which is only fit for immediate demolition. That is not to say that socialists oppose reforms: we do not. If, for example, the bosses offer the workers free health treatment or the right to reply to media lies or other reforms, socialists will not refuse to take what is given. Our opposition is not to reforms, some of which have benefited many workers (all too often at the expense of others), but to reformism — the belief that it is worth bothering to reform capitalism.

One reformist argument is to point to what has been achieved. Indeed, capitalism has been reformed and some of these reforms were campaigned for. But two points need to be considered in opposition to this claim for reformist success. Firstly, it is hard to think of any whole problem which reformists have tried to remove which has been successfully eradicated. They have tried to abolish homelessness but in 1987, despite all the legislation inspired by reformists. there are more homeless workers than when the main housing campaign, Shelter, was set up. Despite all kinds of treaties and government policies to eliminate bombs, there are now far, far more bombs in existence than when the reformist disarmers first started. Sincere reformists for many decades before the name Geldof was heard of spoke of making mass starvation a thing of the past but there are more children starving today than there were when the reformists began their campaigns. As the system goes on new problems arise which previous generations of reformists had not even heard of.

Secondly, even if we grant that it is a good thing that reforms have achieved the slightest measures of success, who is to say that the capitalists would not have granted these reforms anyway, without the reformists pleading and petitioning? For example, it could be argued that the National Health Service was a result of reformist pressure being successful but it is much more historically valid to recognise that the NHS was essentially a capitalist measure carried through as a get-you-back-to-work-service in the interests of the smooth running of the system. Again, if the capitalists should ever decide to disarm, however slightly, that will be much more because of the needs of the bosses to reduce the cost of militarism than the moral demands of reformists.

But should we accept that the achievement of “something now”, however slight, is success for reformism? No: very often the “something” which reformists are offered is a means of buying off workers, of reducing discontent and so giving capitalism a longer lease of life. Minor reforms serve as a cosmetic exercise, appearing to give the profit system a humane face. And when it is necessary for the system to withdraw such humane offerings it will do so, as is being seen in Britain in the present recession during which both Labour and Tory governments have destroyed whole areas of the “welfare state”. If the power to give reforms is left in the hands of the bosses, then so is the power to take them away: yesterday’s “something now” is all too often today’s “something vanished”.

Tied to the “something now” defence of reformism is the belief in what is called “the meantime”. It is often stated by supporters of reformist campaigns and parties in the following way: “Yes, a socialist revolution would solve the problems of capitalism but we cannot wait for millions of workers to understand and want socialism, so in the meantime we must. . . . save the whale, ban the bomb, build nuclear defence shelters, oppose cuts in welfare spending”. There are two major flaws in such reasoning. The first is a matter of logic: if it is accepted that capitalism does cause such problems and will go on doing so until “the meantime” is over, why try to solve problems which are the inevitable product of a system which is to remain in being during the very period that the reformist activity is taking place? Logically, the person who accepts “the meantime” thesis should become totally inactive and put up with whatever problems the system throws up. Secondly, if the reformist who recognises the possibility of abolishing capitalism and thus making reformism unnecessary can do so why does s/he imagine that it will be a task involving a lengthy “meantime” for others to think the same way? In fact, if a reformist argues that reformism is only necessary while we are waiting for the workers to wake up and see the logic of revolutionary change, the intelligent move would be to join a party committed solely to the revolutionary socialist objective. so making it less likely that “the meantime” will be extended by workers being sucked in to reformist activity.

The Socialist Party does not advocate reforms. If we did we would be conceding that socialism is not an immediately practical proposition. We say that the socialist way of running society could now solve the problems facing humankind and that no amount of reforms, however long we would have to wait for them, could improve society in the way that socialism could as an immediate change. If we adopted a reform programme as a “meantime” or “minimum” policy there would be two consequences: firstly, all kinds of workers who accepted our reform demands but who regarded socialism as being of little or no practical importance, could join us and become a majority, so converting The Socialist Party into yet another “radical” capitalist party; secondly, as soon as we went into the game of competing with other parties to offer reforms it would be a sure thing that the revolutionary aim of socialism would be transformed into a utopian demand for the future, to be brought out on ceremonial occasions to satisfy the minority of revolutionary members. Indeed, the price of reformism would be higher than that: it would not be long before the reformist majority would be silencing the socialists, warning them that they are endangering electoral prospects by failing to concentrate on reform advocacy and that they should leave The Socialist Party in order to give it a better image. Other parties which started out with socialist intentions have gone that way. but the Socialist Party, based in all ways and at all times upon firm revolutionary principles. will not be diverted.

Capitalism without problems and discontent is a dream of Utopia which is not worthy of serious political effort. No worker looking for a way out of the mess of the present social disorder can be allowed to waste their hopes and energies on the treadmill of futile reformist politics. That is why The Socialist Party is hostile to reformism — not to reformists as fellow workers, but to reformism which wastes their sincerity and that is why if you are a reformist now is the time to make the great political step forward from struggling to mend capitalism to uniting consciously to end it.

Steve Coleman