Letter: In Search of Nebulous Reforms
I should like to draw your attention to — and perhaps spark some debate amongst your readers — what I see as a nihilistic attitude developing amongst some Socialists towards reformism.
An attitude appears to be developing that reforms don’t do any good, are irrelevant to the emergence of real socialism, and are therefore not worth bothering about.
This is obviously nonsense. Of course it’s true that any reforms under capitalism are nebulous and could disappear at any moment — indeed in the last fifteen years many of the earlier gains have been eroded or diminished — but it’s also true that in many areas, reforms over the last 100 years have alleviated distress and provided better working conditions for many. It is far too glib to suggest that these reforms have been granted to the working class by the ruling class in order to consolidate their own position and for no other reason. If it wasn’t for the work of the activists and reformers in the last 100 years, we would be living in a country not unlike South America in the seventies perhaps.
It’s perfectly reasonable for someone like myself to support campaigns such as that against the Criminal Justice Bill whilst at the same time recognising that winning a victory in this battlefield is not an end in itself and that socialism is the only ultimate answer to our problems. I’m perfectly capable of holding both positions simultaneously and indeed using the struggle against the Criminal Justice Bill as a vehicle for the propagation of socialist ideas.
Indeed, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that some reforms such as free health care, education, housing and perhaps ultimately basic foodstuffs (now there would be a genuine common agricultural policy!) and clothing could be enough to give the average man-in-the-street a taste of what full socialism could be like in its entirety, and we might find ourselves flooded with enough supporters to build the common majority we need to bring about full socialism.
In short, my view is that we should stamp on this defeatist tendency to wash our hands of the real world, and start working to change it to a better one. Socialism won’t come about by writing pamphlets and passing them amongst ourselves, it will come about through years of working-class struggle in every field and on every front.
Yes, socialism will only come about through years of working-class struggle in every field and on every front — but for socialism not for reforms of capitalism.
You are quite right too that it is obviously nonsense to suggest that reforms haven’t done any good. Of course some have. Health and safety at work legislation (now being watered down, by the way) would be an obvious case in point. But then we have never taken up the position that reforms do not, or cannot, improve things for workers under capitalism.
Our position is that it is not the purpose of a Socialist Party to advocate reforms. Its purpose is to advocate Socialism. That’s why we were set up and that’s why people join us.
Nor would we deny that as a matter of historical fact struggles by workers have got the ruling class to bring in reforms. But we would make three points here.
First, you underestimate the extent to which reforms which lead to a more healthy and better educated working class do benefit the capitalist class and that this has been an equally, if not more important, factor in their introduction.
Second, if workers had struggled for Socialism instead of for these reforms, they would still have got them — and probably more as the capitalist class made concessions to try to ward off their coming expropriation.
Third, there are other ways of improving things under capitalism than reform legislation: trade unions, tenants associations and like organisations in which workers organise themselves collectively to bring direct pressure to bear on those making decisions that affect their lives. We have always said workers should get involved in such organisations and our members, as workers, get involved in them themselves (and are just as capable as you of recognising that winning a victory in these struggles “is not an end in itself and that socialism is the only ultimate answer to our problems”). But as a party we don’t. We stick to our specific role of campaigning for Socialism.
Where we would take serious issue with you is when you claim that some reforms are relevant to the emergence of real socialism. We recognise that you are not putting the classic gradualist position that a series of reform measures can lead to Socialism step by step (free housing one year, free transport the next, free heating the year after, till in the end everything is free).
But you are suggesting that we should campaign for what might be called “socialist leaning” reforms. Quite apart from the fact that some of these reforms have been enacted (free education, free libraries, etc. exist while free transport has existed in some places) without having the effect on people’s ideas you predict, if we were to campaign for them this would inevitably be to the detriment of our campaigning for Socialism.
And, as we pointed out earlier, if we do struggle for Socialism we’ll probably get them anyway as a by-product of that struggle. That’s why it is saying that we should struggle for reforms that is defeatist, not the other way round. This is to concede that Socialism is not an urgent necessity, is not the immediate agenda. If you want Socialism, the quickest way to get it is to campaign for it directly. So, if you want Socialism, join the Socialists in that campaign.
If Paddy Small, of Glasgow, would let us know his address (not necessarily for publication) we will gladly consider his letter for publication. We regret we do not publish anonymous letters.