Reforms and Reformism 1/3

The political parties of the World Socialist Movement do not advocate reformism, i.e. a platform of legislative reforms with the aim of gradually changing capitalism into a system that works for all. While we are happy to see the conditions of workers improved, reforms can never lead to the establishment of socialism and tend to sap energy, ideas, and resources from that goal. Reforms can, and frequently are, rescinded or watered down.

 Rather than attempting gradual transformation of the capitalist system, something we hold as not possible and that has been proven by the failures of the so-called workers’ parties which have only resulted instead of these parties themselves accepting capitalism. We hold that only socialism can end permanently the problems of our present society such as war, poverty, inadequate and insecure health care, housing, education and environmental degradation.

Trying to change capitalism, or “reformism”, is the political strategy that has been taken by most people who have wanted to improve society. 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, and 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, work conditions and social services.

Socialists have to acknowledge that the “welfare” state, socialised medicine, free basic education and so on, made living standards for some sections of the working class better than they had been under rampant capitalism and its early ideology of laissez-faire of Dickensian Victorian values, although these ends should never be confused with socialism.

However, in this regard, we also recognise that such “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 they dampen their revolutionary ardour; nor, because it thinks that decadent capitalism simply cannot deliver on any reforms; but because our continued existence as wage slaves undermines whatever attempts we make to control and better our lives through reforms.

Our objection to reformism is that 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 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. Such groups on the Left, often have real aims quite different to the reform programme they peddle. 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, though not in the 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, the working class never 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.

It can be summed up in the following:
1 ) The working class has a reformist consciousness.
2 ) It is the duty of the Revolutionary Party to be where the masses are.
3 ) Therefore, to be with the mass of the working class, we must advocate reforms.
4 ) The working class is only reformist minded.
5 ) Winning reformist battles will give the working class confidence.
6 ) So that, therefore, they will go on to have a socialist revolution.
7 ) The working class will learn from its struggles, and will eventually come to realise that assuming power is the only way to meet its ends.
8 ) That the working class will realise, through the failure of reforms to meet its needs, the futility of reformism and capitalism, and will overthrow it.
9 ) That the working class will come to trust the Party that leads them to victory, and come to a social crisis they will follow it to revolution.

It all relies upon a notion of the inherently revolutionary nature of the working class and that through the class struggle this inherently revolutionary character will show itself. Although, it hasn’t.

It is also 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 Trotskyists the only way the working class could come to socialist consciousness is through a revolution is made by the minority with themselves as to 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.

What of the Labour Party?

They did seek to reform capitalism in the hope that perhaps a sudden change will take place and capitalism will prove to be a fair and fulfilling society for all its members. Now, as the natural conclusion to reformism has completely overrun them, they are a simple party of capitalist maintenance, with objectives of some form of the new society being not just shunted into the background but completely out of existence. They are now more than ever dedicated to running the very system that creates poverty, misery, homelessness and war. Keeping the system and trying to make it work against its inherent laws 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. This is what has happened to the Labour Party.

Over decades, millions of workers have invested their hopes in the so-called ‘practical’, ‘pragmatic’, ‘possibilist’ organisations like the Labour Party, hoping against hope that they would be able to neuter the market economy when, in reality, the market economy has successfully neutered them. They have turned out to be the real ‘impossibilists’ – demanding an unattainable humanised, tamed capitalism and it is one of the greatest tragedies, 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 be.

Members of the World Socialist Movement understand the urge to do something now, to make a much-needed 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 should spend our time, energies, and resources educating people to establish socialism rather than waste efforts 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 their masters 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. The campaign, whether directed at right-wing or left-wing governments, 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. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve.

Socialists choose to use our time and limited resources to work to eliminate the cause of the problems. 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 the view remains that the struggle for reforms is worthwhile then imagine just how many palliatives and ameliorations will be offered and conceded by a besieged capitalist class in a desperate attempt to retain 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 now derided as Utopian will become feasible – in an attempt to fob
off the workers. Perhaps, for example, capitalism will provide a batch of services with no price, on the understanding that this is “the beginning” of a free society, but socialists will not be taken in.

Our opposition to reforms and reformism is because their objectives are palliative in nature and are fought for in order to make the system function more smoothly. Though we do not advocate reforms nor fight for reforms, that does not mean that we refuse to accept reforms, as though we could if we wanted to. Historically, reform activities have dissipated the earnest energies of so-called socialists from doing any socialist work, whatsoever. The need for reforms is an all-time job.

Let us define what we mean by reforms. They are efforts to introduce measures into the legal machinery of the state for smoothing out the operation of capitalism. The difficulties that arise from the irreconcilable contradictions of the system require “remedial” measures. Thus the advocacy and fight for reforms, such as nationalisation, social welfare, tax relief, and the host of proposals as can be found in the programs of all the “socialist” and “communist” parties that are geared to the amelioration of the conditions of life with a view to a better administration of capitalism.

Activities such as resistance to the encroachments of capital and the fight for civil liberties are equated with reforms, as though they were synonymous terms. Just two illustrations will suffice:

1. Workers going out on strike over wages, hours, work-shop conditions, Their objective is to resist increased exploitation. This is not a reform activity. The economic phase of the class struggle, unionism, is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a reform. It is undeniable that many unions do engage in reform activities. But unions and unionism are not synonymous terms. Workers are compelled to organise into unions by the very conditions of capitalism, i.e., the division of the new value produced by the workers into its two component parts: variable capital (the workers’ share) and surplus value (the capitalists’ share). Through the mechanism of unionism, the workers, over the long run, sell their commodity, labour-power, at its value. Value, Price and Profit are invaluable on this question. One quote will suffice:
“They [the workers] ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects and not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement but not changing its direction…”

2. Socialists fighting for civil liberties, the right to free speech, to publish and spread literature. Such measures as free speech, removing restrictions from the electoral laws and similar activities strengthen the workers’ movement to get rid of capitalism — and have nothing to do with reforming the system. The strength of the socialist movement is that it is the task of the vast majority. Democratic procedures are the essential conditions for the social change we are working for; they themselves are the special products of the material conditions of the 20th century. Civil liberties are revolutionary weapons in the hands of socialists and the socialist majority. This is not a reform activity.

The fight by workers for their economic interests within the framework of capitalism is the economic phase of the class struggle. The fight for civil liberties within the framework of capitalism is a manifestation of the highest expression of the class struggle, its political phase.

The acid test: neither of these two illustrations has as their objective legislative enactments to administer capitalism. Reforms have no significant meaning in any other context.

For years we have witnessed the “success” of a procession of practical efforts to rally workers to socialism by clever policies. We have seen the transformation of these advocates of socialist goals into supporters of the status quo — rebels who have been converted into supporters of the system. Their trademark has become reforming, improving and administering capitalism. Rebels become transformed into administrators of capitalist states, recruiters for capitalist wars. They have emasculated and compromised socialist principles.

When elected, they have actually administered capitalism is the only way it can be administered, in the interest of the capitalist class, even to the extent of supporting capitalist wars and crushing workers on strike. They have complained that capitalist parties have stolen their planks.

Question: Where are the convinced socialists they were going to make? Where are the socialist masses? Their practical, realistic policies have proven worse than illusory. They have failed to make socialists.  Yet they continue to scorn and sneer at the World Socialist Movement for our small numbers. With smug omniscience, they dismiss the WSM as “ivory tower utopians,” “dogmatic sectarians,” “impossiblists,” etc. The real question is – Who have ignored the lessons of experience?

We have been confronted and challenged by those who fight for something “in the meantime” and who are actively participating in the “workers’ struggles.” The lure and fascinations of protest demonstrations and making demands is very attractive. (In a sense, it indicates how deep-rooted discontent with capitalism really is, and it demonstrates the latent strength of socialism once the masses wake up to the need for changing the system instead of adjusting to it.) But — and this is the vital point — these activities are not in harmony with the immediate needs of our time: the making of socialists. The lack of socialists is all that stands in the way of socialism, now.

In turn, we now put the liberal progressives on the spot by asking: Where are the socialists you have obtained by your efforts?

Their vaunted “fresh approaches” have proven to be very stale and dated indeed. For years the Labour Party with their enthusiasm for gradualist policies, the Bolsheviks with their “revolutionary” programmes, the Trotskyists with their “transitional demands”, promised progress but have they actually gained victories on such plans. All those left-wing governments merely wound up administering capitalism for the capitalist class.

 The lessons of experience and history have proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Left has not remotely convinced the workers of the need for socialism.

 From the activities carried on in the name of socialism, the one thing conspicuous by its absence has been any mention of the socialist case. In common, the efforts of left activists — ranging from anti-war demonstrators, through to militants for equal rights, to the administrators of both the social-democrat and “communist” varieties — have been geared to an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism. They have expressed contempt at the workers for their political backwardness. Yet it has been such groups that have been guilty of disillusioning the workers about real socialism. The great indictment of these activists is that they divert the workers from the genuine socialist movement, and have hampered the growth of socialism for many years. Were all that tremendous energy and enthusiasm harnessed in the genuine socialist work of making socialists, how much more the movement would have been advanced? The “practical realist” has proven to be an impractical utopian.

If anything has been amply demonstrated over the years, it is that “reforms” by the “workers” parties have not been able to change the real conditions of the working class. These “practical realists” with their “in-the-meantime” activities have sidetracked the movement into dead-ends from anything truly meaningful. All those dedicated energies have diverted overwhelming numbers of workers from genuine socialism. Had all these efforts and all that enthusiasm been devoted to socialist education, just imagine how much further advanced and inspiring the movement would be today.