In Response to Reformism

We in the World Socialist Movement are often accused of being opposed to reforms, social legislation ostensibly designed to ameliorate some more or less intolerable situation such as the NHS or Social Security. However, to the contrary, the World Socialist Movement is NOT opposed to reforms per se, any more than it ADVOCATES them. Socialists should not support or agitate for reforms precisely on the grounds upon which they are ostensibly presented, for they do NOT CURE the ills to which they are addressed. We further argue that the interest of the ruling powers lies in attracting votes for their various political programmes. Witness all the reform promises, offered by the politicians in an election year.

They are a necessary policy of governments seeking a broader base of support in their efforts to maintain a sufficient degree of viability in the capitalist system: to keep order in a social system whose nature is to engender disorder: to maintain an unstable equilibrium in a system continually facing crisis. And in time of great stress the offering of reforms to a restless and dissatisfied populace, helps to provide a “breathing spell” to a badly harassed government. As a fretful mother tries to quieten a  howling infant by placing a pacifier in the child’s mouth and sometimes sweetens it by coating it with syrup – so these reforms were offered with promises to do away with “fear” that of the dispossessed and of those also who own and control.

But they did nothing whatever to help resolve the basic contradictions in the economic system. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” remained and even widened.

Over a century of reforms, which do not reform, leaves this society more affluent in the upper levels and more poverty stricken in the lower. The fewer rich become richer and the increasing many poorer. Despite growth in the Gross National Product, despite an apparent rise in the general standard of living for some, the gap remains and widens.

Capitalism cannot be genuinely reformed in the interest of the whole of the society, socialists contend also that it be superseded by a better, higher, social order. It is to this end that of changing the world that socialists direct their efforts.

(1) Distribution of goods and services instead of exchange:”use” not “profit”.
(2) Administration of THINGS instead of Government over people.
(3) A complete social body: not one divided into Rulers and Ruled.
(4) An entire economy administered democratically in the interest of the entire community.

Any socialist with a correct reading of Marx and knowledge gained from his or her own research into history knows that societies have passed through various periods, with different social formulations, but ever possessing rulers and ruled, until today man faces another “Eternal Order”, capitalism. This present order, despite its cruelties and oppressions represented social advance and in its early stages compared to its antecedents, was “liberal” and “progressive”. It is no more “Eternal” than Feudalism, Chattel Slavery. Capitalism’s increasing and continual crises indicate its time of dissolution: as it was with previous social orders: “Where wealth accumulates and man decay”.

Growing affluence above among the few, abysmal poverty below the lot of the many. Chaos abounds and confusion reigns. Crime in the streets and warfare abroad. These and one thousand and one other distressing items are featured daily in the news media and presently exercise more and more minds in the populace. The politicians cry “Reform, Law and Order”, and the pity is that so many are thereby fooled.

Labour and Tory are two wings of the capitalist vulture. The choice between Labour and Tory is described as one between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both are staunch champions of capitalism. If there is so little difference between the two parties, what is to account for the overwhelming majority of the workers supporting one of them? Are they so utterly blind as not to see what is so plainly before their noses? Politics under any system is a struggle by conflicting groups or classes for control of the state apparatus. The “choice” between Labour and Tory is not a choice between “socialism” and capitalism. Trotskyism is dyed-in-the-wool reformism draped with revolutionary and scholarly phrases, their reformism shines through like a blinding light. Reformism is poison in the socialist movement.

The socialist case is that capitalism cannot be reformed in the interest of the majority, but it can be abolished is reinforced in the language of history. A study of history teaches that no society ever set itself the task of dealing with any situation or problem without that society having first developed the necessary and sufficient conditions in process of emergence. Nor can any society be dissolved and replaced by a higher one until it has developed all those forces requisite for its replacement. These forces are now abundantly evident. A high technological perfection is seen in modern society – automation and new technology, which does not come about automatically (it is often restrained because of the influence of various vested interest.) Can the workers gain substantial economic concessions within the limits of capitalism? Reformist politics operate within self-imposed limits, the limits of capitalism and its class relations. If capitalism is progressing and increasing production, profits and employment, reformist labour politics have room for effective action. But when capitalism is declining, and the capitalists are tearing down the concessions they had granted in the past, the limits within which such labour politics can function disappear. The concessions which it can win are mythical because capitalist decline is real. Reformist labour politics, which arise from the economic problems of the workers, are helpless to solve those problems.

It can be seen how the productive apparatus is capable of producing more than a sufficiency for all. Capitalism does not produce unless it can sell its goods at a profit. The age long problem facing man – PRODUCTION – has been solved. Poverty, chaos, war, and social strife can de eliminated by doing away with the root cause of these horrors. This is socialism’s objective: To abolish capitalism, not vainly attempt to reform it. Think, think, and think again and join in this great, and only meaningful task.

Adapted from an article in The Fulcrum, by Bill Pritchard of the Socialist Party of Canada.

Another essay on the topic of reformism comes from ‘The Futility of Reformism’ by Samuel Leight, a member of the World Socialist Party (US) who also wrote ‘World Without Wages’, companion volume to ‘The Futility of Reformism’.

An acceptance of capitalism is indicative of a political approach that must inevitably enmesh itself with the reformation of the system and not with its abolition. Conversely, a genuine opposition to capitalism implies an understanding and knowledge that should preclude any desire to embark on a reformist program, recognizing the futility of such action, irrespective of the merits of the reforms contemplated.

Wherever and whenever there is a program of reforms you will always find the “Leaders” ready and willing to perform, but always unable in the end to properly fulfil the promises which originally were so artfully dangled. Reforms never live up to their expectations because the very nature of capitalism invariably sabotages the performance of the reformers. Even when certain problems get resolved they are replaced with new ones, generally of an equal or greater magnitude. Apart from the wasted energy and time that reformism engenders, the danger of such activity lies in the inevitable apathy and disillusionment that arises in the aftermath. These are the breeding grounds for dictatorial regimes.

It is a political delusion to think that one can shelve the case for socialism and still serve the interests of the working class by helping to reform capitalism in its quest for greater efficiency. The interests of the majority can only be served by the elimination of a system that can never be made to operate on their behalf irrespective of how it is manipulated or reformed. Socialist, political energies are channelled solely for the achievement of socialism – we do not concern ourselves directly with the administration of a system whose major social evils are irremovable notwithstanding the nature of the reforms that may be introduced. Reforms leave the fundamental basis of the system unaltered. It is this social and economic core, resting up on the class ownership of the means of production and distribution, that gives rise to the insoluble problems.

In conjunction with this approach, we nevertheless urge our fellow workers to maintain and improve their standards of living through active participation in the Trade Union movement. However, such activity should always be kept in proper perspective with the realization that Trade Unions are limited in their scope. They demonstrate the class struggle in ever-constant action, as distinct from the separate policy of reformism to which we are opposed.

With logic and socialist insight, we advocate peaceful, democratic revolution as the only political course to follow. At the same time, we recognize the necessity for the working class to continuously strive at safeguarding and improving their economic conditions, through appropriate, well-conceived Trade Union activity, in the interim.

Can the working class “relate” to such a policy? We emphatically claim that they can, and should – without delay!

Socialism, of course, can never be established or operated without a socialist majority. Once this fundamental position is fully appreciated it becomes obvious that any so-called socialist party that advocates a policy of reforms would automatically attract to its ranks reformists but not revolutionists. In no time at all any Party which naively attempted to take a dual position of reformation combined with “revolution” would be swamped and outnumbered by the reformists and would be politically castrated as far as socialism is concerned. The Fabian Society, established in January 1884, as a Society and not as a Political Party, and the Social Democratic Federation, which changed its name to the Social Democratic Party in 1908, both originating in England, are examples of reformist organizations that, in addition, purported to advocate socialism. The Fabian Society’s doctrine was “the inevitability of gradualness,” while the SDF referred to their reforms as “stepping stones to Socialism.” A small group of secessionists from the SDF, opposing the reformist approach, formed the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904 with an object and set of principles that uniquely distinguished them as a Socialist Party in every sense of the term.

Rosa Luxemburg in her work entitled “Reform or Revolution” written in April 1899, stated in her Introduction:

“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 the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal – the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”

This statement is fallacious in content and deviates from the significance of her title which poses a choice between reform or revolution.

Another unacceptable aspect supported by Rosa Luxemburg, is the theory that at some stage of development, due to the contradictions of the system, capitalism will “collapse” and that, quoting, “Without the collapse of capitalism the expropriation of the capitalist class is impossible.” We would deny this statement and substitute a vital alternative position: without a socialist working class socialism is impossible! Capitalism has demonstrated its remarkable staying-power and adaptability from crises to crises, through recessions and depressions. And even if a “collapse” occurred, socialism could never be introduced unless the vast majority were already converted to the socialist case and properly organized to attain political power. When this situation happens it would of course be completely unnecessary to wait for a “collapse,” because socialism becomes immediately practical. However, in fairness to Rosa Luxemburg, affectionately called Red Rosa by the SPGB for her heroic class-conscious defense in her trial at Weimar in 1907, she also supported a positive role to be played by the working class, and indicated that the workers might achieve power before the breakdown of the system took place. The socialist position looks for no anticipated crash that would mark the death-throes of capitalism – on the contrary, we emphasize that the socialist revolution depends upon a sufficiency of socialists and we work towards this end.

As and when socialist delegates become elected to the Congresses and Parliaments throughout the world, with a mandate for socialism, they will of course be confronted from time to time with reformist measures, and called up on to either vote or abstain, approve or otherwise. They will be instructed in these matters by their respective Socialist Parties. The guiding principle will revolve around the interests of the working class together with the achievement of socialism. The socialist delegates will therefore act within this framework. They will also never lose any practical opportunity for propagating, at the applicable time, the case for socialism. When the World Socialist Parties finally get representation in the seats of power, we can rest assured that the ruling class and their aides will be churning out a plethora of reforms in order to appease the growing, awakening socialist working class in an effort to delay the inevitable. The foregoing scenario is in no way analogous to the advocacy of reforms as an initial attempt to gain political support’ and vote.catching representation.

With the magnificent, international declaration and enactment that every human being is the common owner, with democratic control, of the means of production and distribution, with free access to all goods and services, a new era commences. Poverty, unemployment, insecurity and war become immediately and irrevocably eliminated. Their cause, the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution by a minority, in a “commodity society,” would have been eradicated. The structure of a socialist society makes their existence an economic and social impossibility.

What reform, or series of reforms, could match, or in any way be comparable with, this position and attainment?

There can be no poverty in a classless society, technologically capable of satisfying the needs of the population, with free access to all goods and services.

There can be no unemployment, or employment, when all men and women are co-owners of the means of production and distribution, giving of their abilities in useful work for society as well for themselves.

There can be no insecurity when all “needs” can be satisfied as the result of “common ownership” and “free access.”

There can be no war when humanity is united as a whole without states, national boundaries, or armed forces; with production and distribution solely for use, and not for profit, eliminating money, wages, exchange, and the “market place.”

Poverty remains endemic in this system however even after the myriad of reforms that have been passed and promises made and broken since the advent of capitalism.

The reformists continue to urge us to join their misery-go-round. Others direct their ingenuity and efforts towards the “minor sores” of society. These have included so-called high taxes, “the economy,” balancing the budget (but not yours), inflation, violence, crime, pollution, premature death and ill-health caused directly by the system, racism, “freedoms” and “human rights.’ And, lest we forget, the “privilege” of working class women having “equal rights” with the men of being exploited on equal terms. Presumably, also, the right to be massacred in the wars, alongside the men, for their masters’ interests – all this in the name of “equality”!

Every major political party in the U.S.A., Europe and elsewhere that has taken on the job of running capitalism has done so on a reformist ticket, failing dismally as far as the interests of the working class are concerned. And it can never be otherwise. Capitalism will always remain a system of perpetual crises, with unending competition and confrontation, both on the social and individual levels, all this impervious to reforms and reformism.

Leo Tolstoy is, of course, well-known as a novelist, but his name is mentioned rarely by the World Socialist Movement. This is not to say that socialists regard his works as devoid of meaningful social comment. Indeed, one of Tolstoy’s parables forms part of the introduction to ‘The Futility of Reformism’ by the late Samuel Leight:

I see mankind as a herd of cattle inside a fenced enclosure. Outside the fence are green pastures and plenty for the cattle to eat, while inside the fence there is not quite grass enough for the cattle. Consequently, the cattle are tramping underfoot what little grass there is and goring each other to death in their struggle for existence.

I saw the owner of the herd come to them, and when he saw their pitiful condition he was filled with compassion for them and thought of all he could do to improve their condition.

So he called his friends together and asked them to assist him in cutting grass from outside the fence and throwing it over the fence to the cattle. And that they called Charity.

Then, because the calves were dying off and not growing up into serviceable cattle, he arranged that they should each have a pint of milk every morning for breakfast.

Because they were dying off in the cold nights, he put up beautiful well-drained and well-ventilated cowsheds for the cattle.

Because they were goring each other in the struggle for existence, he put corks on the horns of the cattle, so that the wounds they gave each other might not be so serious. Then he reserved a part of the enclosure for the old bulls and the old cows over 70 years of age.

In fact, he did everything he could think of to improve the condition of the cattle, and when I asked him why he did not do the one obvious thing, break down the fence, and let the cattle out, he answered:

“If I let the cattle out, I should no longer be able to milk them.”…’