What’s Left of Reformism?

If there is one thing the employing class is more afraid of than anything else it is the possibility of the workers accepting the idea embodied in the term “social revolution”. Revolutionaries are described as wild visionaries, utopia builders, and so on. In the not-so-distant past, the labour and social-democrat parties did talk in terms of changing society. True, this was only as a long-term prospect, but the idea of an alternative society was there as was a wide consensus among those calling themselves socialists as to what socialism was. Dissent among socialists was mostly not about the nature of socialism but about the best way of achieving it. At that time socialist organisations did not offer reform policies as an end in themselves but rather as strategies that would lead to the eventual overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. Now this has gone and those of us who are still proposing this are denounced as “unrealistic” for continuing to advocate a “big solution” when supposedly there is none. The real casualty of the errors and internecine disputes of the past has been socialism itself. Unfortunately, this has created a graveyard of broken hopes.

The working-class movement has vacillated between different paths:

1)The armed conquest of power by a small determined group which would hold on to power until the majority were converted – Vanguardism

2) The seizure of the means of production and distribution by some form of industrial action – Syndicalism
3)The accomplishment of ever more sweeping reforms until capitalism had been reformed out of existence and society had “glided” into socialism – Reformism

In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been formed; some following one or other of the above roads or a combination of them. Trying to change capitalism, or “reformism”, is the one that has been taken by most people who have wanted to improve society. There can be no questioning of the principle of fighting for reforms, no exploration as to their efficacy or need. Politicians’ logic prevails:

1. Capitalism is terrible.
2. We must do something.
3. Reforms are something.
4. Therefore we must enact reforms.

We do not deny that certain reforms won by the working class have helped to improve our general living and working conditions. Indeed, we see little wrong with people campaigning for reforms that bring essential improvements and enhance the quality of their lives. Some reforms do indeed make a difference to the lives of millions and can be viewed as “successful”. There are examples of this in such fields as education, housing, child labour, work conditions and social security. Socialists have to acknowledge that the “welfare” state and healthcare made living standards for the working class better than they had been under rampant capitalism’s earlier ideology of laissez-faire. However, it also has to be recognised that many “successes” have in reality done little more than to keep workers and their families in efficient working order and, while it has taken the edge of the problem, it has rarely managed to remove the problem completely.

Socialists do not oppose reformism because it is against improvements in workers’ lives lest it dampens revolutionary ardour; nor, because we think that decadent capitalism simply cannot deliver on any reforms; but because our continued existence as propertyless wage slaves undermines whatever attempts we make to control and better our lives through reforms. Our objection to reformism is that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the workings of the wages system.

All that effort, skill, energy, all those tools could be turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our common mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing struggle. What we are opposed to is the whole culture of reformism, the idea that capitalism can be tamed and made palatable with the right menu of reforms. We oppose those organisations that promise to deliver a programme of reforms on behalf of the working class, often in order to gain a position of power. Many of the Left are going to put before the working class only what they think will be understood by the workers – proposals to improve and reform the present capitalist system- and, of course they are going to try to assume the leadership of such struggles as a way of achieving support for their vanguard party.

These Left parties may try to initiate such struggles themselves and they will try to muscle in on any struggles of this sort that groups of workers have started off themselves. But it’s all very cynical because they know that reformism ultimately leads nowhere (as they readily admit in their theoretical journals meant for circulation amongst their members, although not in their populist, agitational journals). The purpose in telling workers to engage in such struggles is to teach them a lesson, the hard way which is the only way some on the Left think they can learn i.e. by experiencing failure. The expectation is that when, these reformist struggles fail the workers will then turn against capitalism, under the Party Leadership. It is the old argument, advanced by Trotsky in his founding manifesto for the “Fourth International” in 1938, that socialist consciousness will develop out of the struggle for reforms within capitalism: when workers realise that they can’t get the reforms they have been campaigning for they will, Trotsky pontificated, turn to the “cadres” of the Fourth International for leadership. In fact it never ever happens so all that’s achieved is to encourage reformist illusions amongst workers. The ultimate result of this is disillusionment with the possibility of radical change.

Its flawed because it shows no reason why, due to the failure of reform, the workers should turn to socialism. Why, since it was people calling themselves socialists who advocated that reform, don’t they turn against it, or even to fascism? Under the model of revolution presented by the Left-wing the only way the working class could come to socialist consciousness is through a revolution is made by the minority with themselves as its leaders. This, then, explains their dubious point about needing to “be” where the mass of the working class is. It is the reason why a supposedly revolutionary party should change its mind to be with the masses, rather than trying to get the masses to change their minds and be with it. They do not want workers to change their minds, merely to become followers. Their efforts are not geared towards changing minds, or raising revolutionary class consciousness.

But what about the mainstream, “realistic” reformers? What of all the labour and social-democratic parties? They did at one time seek to reform capitalism in the hope that capitalism could prove to be a fair and fulfilling society for all its members. Now, they are even more dedicated than ever to running with optimal efficiency the very system that creates poverty, misery, homelessness and war. Keeping the system and trying to make it work against its logic is not a viable option. Such reformism has been tried over the years and has failed. Those who set out to change society through winning political power and reforms have had to accept what was always inevitable, that reformism is a graveyard for such hopes. For anyone wishing to bring about a new and better world, reformism requires a pact with the Devil, where the forming of a government means being sucked into running the system. Over decades, millions of workers all over the world have invested their hopes in so-called ‘practical’, ‘possibilist’ organisations, hoping against hope that they would be able to neuter the market economy when, in reality, the market economy has successfully neutered them. They turned out to be the real ‘impossibilists’ – demanding an unattainable humanised capitalism – is one of the greatest tragedies of the last century, made all the greater because it was so predictable. They held the idea that capitalism could be reformed into something kindly and user-friendly. It couldn’t and it can’t.

Socialists understand well the urge to do something in the here and now, to make a change. That makes us all the more determined, however, to get the message across, to clear away the barrier of the wages system, so that we can begin to build a truly human society. Why waste time fighting for half measures? We would better spend our time, energies, and resources educating people to establish socialism rather than waste time in the false belief that our present system can be made to work in everyone’s interest. We do not claim capitalist reforms stand in the way of achieving socialism. If we did we’d logically have to oppose them; which we don’t. We encourage workers to fight back against employers and, although we don’t propose or advocate reforms, we don’t oppose them if they genuinely do improve workers’ lives under capitalism. What we say is not that they are obstacles to socialism but merely that they are irrelevant to socialism and that a socialist party should not advocate reforms.

If you are convinced, however, that groups or parties promising reforms deserve your support, we would urge you to consider the following points.

  1. The campaign will often only succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system. In other words, the reform will often be turned to the benefit of the capitalist class at the expense of any working class gain.
  2. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary.
  3. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve. One can pick any single problem and find that improvements have taken place, usually only after a very long period of agitation. But rarely, if ever, has the problem actually disappeared, and usually other related problems have arisen to fill the vacuum of left by the “solution”.

If your view remains that the struggle for reforms is still worthwhile then imagine just how many more palliatives and ameliorations will be offered and conceded by a besieged capitalist class in a desperate attempt to retain their ownership rights if the working class were demanding the maximum programme of full and complete appropriation and nothing less. To stem the socialist tide the capitalist parties will sink their differences and draw closer together, much as religions do today in the face of the world avalanche of atheism. Reforms they now deride as utopian will be two-a-penny in an attempt to fob off the workers. Perhaps, for example, capitalism will provide a batch of free services, on the understanding that this is “the beginning” of a free society. They’ll maybe offer the universal basic income but socialists will not be taken in.

The lure of unity proposed by the reformer to the revolutionary is always a poisoned chalice: “Join us today to promote such and such [some reform or other] and tomorrow we can start the revolution together.” But of course tomorrow never comes. Another line of thinking that presents itself as friendly to revolution but is really calculated to frustrate it, is “The time is not yet ripe” argument. Many people have sympathy with the socialist idea but say that such a transformation is a long way off and that in the meantime we must still aim for improvements within the framework of the existing system. They point to the changes that have taken place in peoples lives since the nineteenth century. It is worth trying to get more of these improvements, they say, and the best way to do it is to press governments for reforms. But yet again, the time is found to be never ripe for fundamental changes to the system.

It may at first sight seem that certain reforms are motivated by humanitarian concern as in education, sanitation and housing. Yet it is clear that the schooling received by the children of most wage and salary earners merely fits them for their role as workers. Improved sanitation reduces the threat of epidemics which do not spare the wealthy, while subsidised housing is intended to lessen the pressure by workers for higher wages. These measures have the purpose of raising the standard of efficiency of the workers, thus making them more productive for their masters’ benefit. The more astute and far-sighted members of the ruling class have long realised this.

Any socialists in parliament should consistently expose reformism for its inability to solve the problems of capitalism but he or she will be prepared to consider on their merits particular, individual reforms that clearly benefited the working class or the socialist movement, but always under democratic direction from the wider movement and without ever giving support to reformist parties. A blanket opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism, in the guise of being true to socialist principles, would involve actions (or inaction) that was expressly contrary to the interests of the working class. That would be ridiculous and taken to its ultimate, logical conclusion would lead to the situation whereby socialists in parliament would be inadvertently allying themselves with the forces of reaction to keep wars going, or oppose factory legislation that might benefit the safety and health of workers. The men and women in the the World Socialist Movement realised the absurdity of this tactic a long time ago.

It is economic theory that underlies our case against reformism. A revolution is the work of a class which has gained political power in order to transform society to suit its interests; a reform is carried out only within the framework of the social system. Reforms cannot end capitalism; they can modify it to some extent, but they leave its basis untouched. To establish socialism, a revolution – a complete transformation of private property into social property – is necessary.

Further Reading
The Market System Must Go, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1997