The Reformism of the Hard Left

The social revolution to replace minority class monopoly over the means of production by common ownership finds a formidable barrier in the guise of reformism to which the Hard Left, every bit as much as any mainstream capitalist political party, is fundamentally wedded. It is important to precisely define what we mean by this term. It is very easy to conflate reformism with other forms of activity, notably trade unionism, on the grounds that both seem to have in common the aim of improving the welfare and wellbeing of workers.

However, it would be a gross error to see trade unionism as a type of reformism. In the Introduction to her pamphlet Reform or Revolution (1900) Rosa Luxemburg, for one, seemed to commit this very error:

‘Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim’.

What underlies this thinking is the understandable fear that the revolutionary goal might seem somehow divorced from the ‘daily struggles of workers’ if it did not appear to endorse the latter. But this fear is misplaced for reasons that have already been touched upon

Reformism is distinguishable from trade unionism by virtue of the fact that it is essentially political in nature. That is to say, its field of operation – like revolution itself – is political whereas the field of trade union struggle is bargaining with employers.

Reformism entails the state enacting various legislative measures that are ostensibly designed to ameliorate certain socio-economic problems arising from the capitalist basis of contemporary society – without, of course, posing any kind of existential threat to the continuance of capitalism itself. In other words, reformism seeks to mend capitalism. As such it runs completely counter to the socialist goal of ending capitalism.

The futility of reformism was no better summed up than by the revolutionary socialist, William Morris, more than a century ago in How We Live and How We Might Live (1887):

‘The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side’.

Capitalism by its very nature has to operate in the interests of capital, which interests are fundamentally opposed to those of workers. The accumulation of capital, whether in the hands of private corporations or the state, expresses itself in the remorseless drive to maximise the amount of surplus value – ‘profit’ – extracted out of the labour of working people and is, thus, firmly predicated on the exploitation of the latter. This is not a matter of choice but of economic necessity. It is the very condition of commercial survival – not to mention, expansion – in a world of ruthless economic competition. Quite simply, any business that did not make a profit out of its workforce would soon go out of business.

Were the Hard Left ever to secure political power it would soon enough find itself politically imprisoned within the constraints imposed by the non-socialist outlook of the majority and thus forced to continue with the administration of capitalism in some form. This follows logically from the very premise of its own vanguardist theory of revolution. Vanguardism is defined as the capture of political power by a small minority ostensibly acting on behalf of the working class majority in advance of the latter having become socialists. Since socialism cannot come about without the latter becoming socialists this means that, for the time being, a Hard Left government would have no option but to continue by default with the administration of capitalism.

The Hard Left may protest that this is to overlook the whole point of a socialist minority capturing power before a majority had become socialist – namely, to be in a position to be able then to counter the enormous weight of capitalist propaganda in order to infuse workers with a socialist consciousness. How can you do that without this minority first capturing the state?

Actually, this is yet another example of the Hard Left shooting itself in the foot. While it is all too ready to scornfully characterise the so-called ‘abstract propagandism’ of the Socialist Party as ‘idealist’, arguing that ‘practical experience’ is the way we become socialists rather than through the dissemination of socialist ideas – as if these two things can ever really be separated – it conspicuously chooses not to apply this very same argument to itself and in its own theory of vanguardism.

What, for instance, does it imagine would be the result of the ‘practical experience’ of a Hard Left government having to administer capitalism? Since capitalism can only really be administered in the interests of capital, and not wage labour, such a government, like any other capitalist government, would be compelled to come out and oppose the interests of the very workers it claimed to represent. In other words it would be compelled to abandon any thought of inculcating socialist consciousness into workers since to do that would defeat or, at least, seriously impede, the very purpose to which it had resigned itself – namely, the effective administration of capitalism. You can’t effectively administer capitalism with millions of people beginning to question, and oppose, the very basis of capitalist society – class ownership of the means of wealth production.

The Hard Left, while fond of rebuking others for their philosophical ‘idealism’ shows its own attachment to ‘idealism’, in its utterly lame attempts to explain away the all too obvious shortcomings of the so called “proletarian states” to which it has historically pledged allegiance – from the establishment of the Soviet Union onwards. Even today Leftist supporters of such transparently obnoxious anti-working class regimes as Maduro’s Venezuela or Kim Yong Un’s quasi-monarchical North Korea will perform political gymnastics to justify this craven, not to say cringing, support. Their gullibility seems to know no bounds.

For the regimes in question a few petty, token pro-worker reforms or the ritual bombastic denunciation of that ogre of ‘American imperialism’ (as if imperialism is limited to just the US and its European allies) will suffice to have the Hard Left meekly eating out of their hands and sycophantically trying to rationalise every twist and turn of policy designed to tighten the screws on the workers in these countries.

When evidence of the anti-working class nature of these regimes becomes too overwhelming to ignore, the excuses offered will be couched in terms that do not – and dare not – question the basic tenets of vanguardism itself. The failure of the ‘proletarian state’ to make good its promises to the workers will be attributed to the various character flaws and the betrayal of the Leadership in its ‘drift to the Right’. If only Trotsky had got into power and not Stalin, exclaims our fervent Trotskyist, then things would have been so different and so much better. The irony of rebuking socialists for being ‘idealists’ while endorsing this idealist ‘Great Man’ theory of history could hardly be richer.

Reforms and Reformism

Part of the reason why the Socialist Party comes in for so much criticism for its opposition to reformism is that it seems to suggest an attitude of callous indifference to the plight of fellow workers. Is it not clearly the case that certain reforms can be beneficial to the working class or at any rate, certain groups of workers?

Well, yes, of course some reforms can be of some benefit to workers. This is not denied. Socialists are not opposed to particular reforms as such but, rather, to reformism – that is, to the practice of advocating or campaigning for reforms. Once you go down that road there is technically no limit to the number of reforms you might then want to push for. Sooner or later in your bid to push for reforms, the revolutionary objective of fundamentally changing society will be overwhelmed, side-lined and eventually forgotten altogether. The entire history of the Second International, and of the Social Democratic and Labour parties of which it was composed, unequivocally shows this to be the case.

Not only that, any benefits that particular reforms might provide are likely to be transient and provisional and dependent on the current state of the market itself which is always subject to fluctuation. Reforms that can be given with one hand can also in effect be taken away with other – that is, withdrawn in the interests of ‘belt tightening’ or simply honoured in the breach, particularly in the context of economic recession

Furthermore, insofar as some reforms provide some benefit to some workers they can sometimes be at the expense of other workers. Also, it is not only some workers that might benefit but some, if not all, capitalists too. It is, after all, mainly through the taxes paid by the latter to the state that reforms are financed. Increased taxation can undermine the competitiveness of the businesses concerned unless the advantages accruing to them from the resultant increase in state spending outweigh the costs. This places a structural limit on what reformism can hope to achieve. Tax the capitalists too heavily and you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs that provides the state with its revenue.

In short, then, opposition to reforms as reforms is not at all the position of the Socialist Party though, surprisingly enough, such opposition is something that has, in the past, attracted support in certain quarters. In his book, Socialism (1970), Michael Harrington cited the curious case, in the late 19th century/early 20th century, of the American Federation of Labour, at that time led by the colourful figure of Samuel Gompers.

Gompers espoused a ‘voluntarist’ philosophy and ‘was hostile to all social legislation on the part of the government’. This stemmed from a quasi-Marxian conviction that the state inevitably governed in the interests of the ruling capitalist class and, consequently, any legislation emanating from it was bound to have the interests of that class in mind and thus be injurious to the interests of workers concerned. For that reason the AFL went out of its way to campaign against health and unemployment insurance, old age pensions and even helped to defeat referenda in favour of the eight-hour day.

Now this was obviously a ludicrous position to take but it also provides a salutatory warning of the dangers of blurring the distinction between economic and political struggles. As far as political struggle is concerned, the position of the Socialist Party is quite simply that it opposes reformism, not reforms, on the grounds that this is incompatible with the goal of achieving a socialist revolution.

Transitional demands

While the Hard Left goes through the motions of paying lip service to that revolutionary goal it is, nevertheless, fully committed to the struggle to reform capitalism. One of the ways in which it strives to rationalise this basically incoherent strategy in doctrinal terms, and thereby appear to give some credence to its revolutionary pretensions is by advancing the Trotskyist concept of ‘transitional demands’.

By this is meant a set of reforms that are supposed to differ in kind from the sort of reforms that, for instance typified, the so called ‘minimum programme’ espoused by the Second International. They are deliberately advocated by the Hard Left, on top of the minimum programme, in the full knowledge that they are unrealisable within capitalism. So, for instance, instead of pushing for a minimum wage of ten dollars an hour, you double, treble or even quadruple that figure. Yet even though such demands are unrealisable (since their implementation would spell commercial bankruptcy for the businesses involved which would, in turn, rebound against the workers employed in these businesses), they are still advocated. Why?

According to this crackpot theory what these so called transitional demands are supposed to do is to whet the appetite of workers for more ambitious change and so ultimately pave the way for the socialist transformation of society itself. In other words, they are supposed to bridge the gap between reform and revolution. Strangely enough, campaigning for the socialist transformation of society is considered ‘utopian’ by these theorists yet campaigning for a hopelessly unrealistic and unrealisable reform is not.

What this illustrates is the fundamentally manipulative and elitist outlook of the Hard Left. You cannot cynically engineer a socialist transformation of society behind the backs of the workers themselves. Apart from anything else that will more than likely backfire against you.

Workers are a lot savvier about the workings of capitalism than the Leninist vanguard seems to give credit. They are quite capable of sniffing out an opportunist politician offering pie in the sky when they meet one and the Hard Left, seemingly, will not be outdone in the size of the pie they offer.