I don’t really have any plans to join the cabinet any time soon (Greasy Pole, October). I rather suspect I would need to have a conscience-ectomy first. I know my grandfather Tony Greenwood became very depressed towards the end of his career, both at some of the awful things his role had demanded and also at his wider, belated discovery that even cabinet ministers really have very little power to change anything for the better in the context of a capitalist state. He did manage to do some good things around housing once upon a time, and he was justly proud of his pioneering environmental legislation, but basically he was dissappointed and frustrated with the results of his career in politics. My mum was a greenham commoner and has always warned me that men of integrity should keep out of party politics since it is poison for the soul, and made my grandpa very unhappy.
Leo Murray (by e-mail)
Could I make a couple of comments on your reply to my letter about reformism in the October Socialist Standard?
1 You say “We can’t accept that all ‘reforms are by their nature divisive’.” Neither can I. Women are by their nature child bearers but it’s obviously not true that all women are by their nature child bearers. An exactly analogous thing is true of reforms, so you are replying to a position no one has taken up.
2 You say “we define a reform as a politically-implemented measure and so don’t include wage increases as a ‘reform’.” But, just as one example, the new NHS contracts for GPs three years ago were both politically implemented and involved a wage increase. The contracts over working conditions had to be negotiated with an elected government and implemented in law.
This second point is immensely important, showing that people’s economic and political lives are not two separate things. More generally, particular groups of workers can marginally improve their conditions of life within capitalism by both political and nonpolitical means. Reformist parties use that as a reason for supporting all sorts of stopgap measures which leave capitalism untouched, on the grounds that they must be with the workers in their day-to-day struggles. The Party needs to continue keeping its distance from that approach. If it ever goes soft on reformism it will lose its reason for existing and therefore will probably cease to exist. But it can’t keep its distance by making an untenable distinction between wage struggles and political action.
Keith Graham (by e-mail)
Your desire to ensure that the socialist movement remains free of reformist influences is entirely laudable.
The socialist position is indeed that all reformism needs to be opposed and that socialists do not seek to attract support by advocating reforms, as no series of reforms can ever solve the problems inherent to capitalism. In addition, advocating a reform programme would attract the support of non-socialists and because a voluntary, co-operative society like socialism can only ever be created by a majority of convinced, conscious socialists, this would be counter-productive.
Any socialists elected to parliament would consistently expose reformism for its inability to solve the problems of capitalism but may be prepared to consider on their merits particular, individual reforms (however rare in occurrence or few in number) that clearly benefited the working class or socialist movement, but always under democratic direction from the wider movement and without ever giving support to reformist organisations.
We define reforms as political measures brought forward to amend the operation of capitalism in some way. We say this because in a class divided system like capitalism, it is the state, controlled by the political apparatus, that is the institution operating this entire process. By extension, ‘reformism’ is the attempt to seek support so that political power and influence over the state can be obtained to enact reforms (originally, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformism meant seeking support for reforms that could specifically lead to socialism). While political and economic measures are often intertwined as you say, without their political character they can’t be reformist.
So the key issue for socialists is not to advocate (or seek political support for) reform programmes, as this is reformism and leads to disastrous Labour governments and to the other things you have alluded to in your letters. But we don’t do this and never have done, as you presumably know.
Nevertheless, you raise some issues about this we cannot agree with and, while they are in most respects a matter of tactics, they seem to serve little practical purpose. In your previous letter, you said that the Party’s ‘opposition to reformism is well grounded because reforms are by their nature divisive and therefore work against the vital condition of working class unity’. When we pointed out in response that while reformism is a disastrous way forward individual reforms aren’t always intrinsically divisive to the working class, you say you don’t really hold this view anyway, with the sophistry that because something naturally tends towards a condition, it doesn’t mean it always exhibits that condition in practice. In which case we can only presume you now concede that some reforms are not by their nature divisive after all and that the practical examples we gave (e.g. securing freedom of speech, extending the franchise, stopping a war, etc) do not serve to intrinsically divide the working class in any meaningful way but are individual reforms which could conceivably benefit the entire working class and socialist movement.
So, out of all this, what are we left with? The view that democratically-controlled socialist MPs (acting as delegates) should never in any circumstances vote for reforms brought forward in parliament that are in the interests of the working class or the socialist movement more generally – as this would somehow be reformist. Also, the insinuation that trade union action is also reformist.
But both views misunderstand the nature of reformism and confuse it with a blanket opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism. And to put it bluntly, in the guise of being supportive of working class interests and being true to socialist principles, they would involve actions (or sometimes, inaction) that was expressly contrary to the interests of the working class. This would be ridiculous and taken to its ultimate, logical conclusion would lead to the situation whereby socialists in parliament determinedly resolved to oppose all reform measures as a matter of course, even those of clear benefit to workers or the socialist movement (and by doing so inadvertently allying themselves with the forces of reaction to keep wars going, or oppose factory legislation and anything else that might benefit workers). The men and women who founded our Party realised the absurdity of this tactic a long time ago, and we rather hope you do too. Certainly, very few have seriously countenanced it since –Editors.