1990s >> 1994 >> no-1080-august-1994

Reformism: the road to nowhere

Socialists are opposed to reformism, the attempt to reform capitalism to make it a better – or, at least, less objectionable – social system. We have never advocated a single reform, and have resolutely refused to become sidetracked into supporting individual reformist policies. For the Socialist Party to aim for reforms would be to attract members more interested in the reforms than in Socialism, and would mean the effective renunciation of the Socialist goal. Our sole aim is the establishment of a Socialist society.


Two reasons may be put forward for following a reformist programme. One is that the effects of capitalism can be mitigated, that working-class suffering can be alleviated. If politics is “the art of the possible”, it is supposedly better to pursue short-term aims which can do some good, rather than to adopt a long-term goal which can be achieved only in the dim and distant future. In fact, some have claimed, that widespread reforms can undermine the oppressive nature of capitalism so that it becomes a free and fair social system, or can even gradually usher in Socialism. The second reason given is that reforms are a way for a political party to gain support and publicity; a successful campaign for a reform will attract new members who can then be won over for Socialism. On this approach, reforms are seen as helping to make Socialists, irrespective of whether they help to solve working-class problems. However, neither argument stands up to scrutiny.


Those who believe that reforms can make capitalism a bit more palatable will point to examples such as the health service, the provision of universal schooling, or housing legislation. Workers have benefited from these, they will say, so reforms can clearly do some good. In responding to this argument, we need to examine these and similar cases to see if they really show what their enthusiasts claim. The example of housing, for instance, in fact shows the inability of reformist policies to solve the problem: housing legislation dates from 1868, but even today there are in England alone 1.5 million homes described officially as “unfit for human habitation”, thousands are homeless, and a thousand homes a week are re-possessed by building societies.


Problems not solved


The whole paraphernalia of the post-war welfare state, including the health service, was introduced for the benefit of the capitalist class, not for that of the workers. Politicians and others at the time were quite open about this, and made no secret of their reasons. For instance, Tory industrialist Samuel Courtauld stated in 1943 that social security “will not undermine the morale of the nation’s workers: it will ultimately lead to higher efficiency among them and a lowering of production costs” (emphasis added). Likewise, the driving-force behind education reforms has always been responding to the needs and interests of capitalism, not the demands of reformers. William Forster, architect of the 1870 Elementary Education Act, argued that “upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity”. So these much-trumpeted reforms were aimed at benefiting the capitalists, and (insofar as they were not detrimental, as they were in some cases) only incidentally advantageous to workers.


Besides revealing the real reasons why reforms are introduced, these examples are instructive in other ways. Firstly, they show that the consequences of reforms are often very different from what their supporters intended. Some housing legislation, for instance, has led to a reduction in the supply of rented accommodation, rather than the intended limits on rents. Secondly, they demonstrate that it is not enough to fight for reforms – it is also necessary to fight to maintain them once they have been introduced. The welfare state, in particular, is currently in retreat, with attacks on pensions and the health service. The ludicrous notion of “care” has led to many mental patients being booted out of hospitals; they often receive no care, and frequently join the growing ranks of the homeless. Many social security payments are likely to be even more rationed over the coming years, so that only the “most needy” qualify.


Reforms, then, cannot cure working- class problems. For one thing, they are not designed to do this. For another, they have to operate within the confines of capitalism and its profit-based economic system. No reform can overturn capitalism’s need for profits and its boom-slump economy. The argument that reforms can lead to the introduction of Socialism by stealth is equally nonsensical. Socialism is built on a completely different basis from the present system, and cannot be achieved by gradually changing ever more bits of capitalism.


Dishonest and dangerous


But what of the other case for reforms, that they can help build support for an organisation? The first thing that needs to be pointed out is that it is fundamentally dishonest for any organisation to try to gain support on the basis of policies which it does not itself advocate. It would be utterly hypocritical if a party standing for Socialism were to try to win members by supporting higher pensions or more state subsidies for rural bus services. Why should workers believe a party which seeks support for a goal it does not itself espouse? Any who indulge in such deceit deserve nothing but contempt.


In any case, consider what would happen if a party with the declared aim of Socialism gained large numbers of members who were in favour of reforms rather than Socialism. These new members would inevitably affect the party’s policies and strategy, so that the reforms would cease to be a mere recruiting ploy, and would instead become its central purpose. Reformist members would mean reformist policies, and inevitably so. There might be an exception if a party were organised undemocratically, with policy the prerogative of some inner circle or central committee from which ordinary members were excluded – but such a party could not be Socialist anyway.


How often have Socialists heard arguments along the following lines: “Yes, I agree with much of what you say, and when the Socialist Party gets large enough to make an impact, or when such-and-such a reform has been achieved. I’ll certainly consider joining. But in the meantime I think it’s better to work for reforms, despite all their inadequacies.” The trouble with this argument is that it will always lie “the meantime”. There will never come a day when the job of the reformers is done, for capitalism constantly throws up new problems which require addressing. And Socialist ideas will never make progress if those who agree with them opt for reformist activity. Rather than waste their time and effort in advocating reforms, workers should consider the case for revolution and its message of Socialism now.


Paul Bennett