Reforms and Reformism 2/3

The World Socialist Movement neither promotes nor condemns positive reforms to capitalism. We believe that socialists shouldn’t work for reforms to capitalism, because only a movement for socialism itself can establish socialism. Those who work for reforms hold either that reforms to capitalism will eventually result in socialism, or that supporting reforms is an appropriate way to convince workers to support socialism. Some put forward a reasonable analysis of capitalism, but then work to give capitalism a human face. Some claim that they want to end capitalism. Their bottom line is, however, just capitalism with reforms.

What are reforms? They are legislative and other enactments forced upon or necessary for governments in running the various forms of capitalism. A typical major one was the introduction in the UK of the National Health Service. It nicely represents the contradictory nature of reforms. For the NHS contributed to raising the standard of living for many workers, but was used by governments to hold down wages and has become a bargaining counter used by the various capitalist political parties ever since.

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, 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. But we don’t do this and never have done it.

Do we reject reforms? We are opposed to reformism – the policy of advocating reforms, either as a way of ‘improving’ capitalism or as a means to socialism – but we are not necessarily opposed to individual reforms which may be of benefit to the working class. However, we do not advocate any reform, because we hold that to do so would lead to a socialist party changing into a reformist party, attracting the support of non-socialists.

The World Socialist Movement is not immune to the human tragedies which occur daily, by the millions, and which has generated thousands of reformist groups trying to stem the tide. One can pick any problem and often one can find that real improvements have taken place, usually after a very long period of agitation. Rarely, if ever, has the problem disappeared, and usually, other related problems have cropped up to fill the vacuum of destruction or suffering left by the “solution”.

The mistaken idea that we should devote our energies to improving capitalist society through reforms has led, certainly in absolute terms, to the most destructive century in history. What has been the most pernicious lie of the century? It is that hope for the future lay in the gradual, imperceptible, but certain amelioration of capitalism through the process of reform.

The false hope of piecemeal improvement of an essentially cancerous system captured the imaginations of millions, exhausted their energies in the reformist struggle to humanise the profit system, and then left them dumbed by frustration. Whether the changes were to come through government or by gaining control of local councils or by humanitarian and “green” appeals for a nicer, gentler world, the system which puts profit before need has persistently spurned the hope of humane capitalism. The progressive enthusiasm of millions has been stomped out in this way. Dare we imagine how different it would have been if that energy — or even a half or a tenth of that energy — which has gone into reforming capitalism had gone into abolishing it? With a movement great in number, if still a minority, how much stronger would we be if our fellow workers had not experienced that bitter disillusionment of failed reformism and the indignity of abandoning principles for the sake of short-term gains? Should we who struck to undiluted socialist principles- the world for the workers with production solely for use, and nothing less—be the ones to bow our heads in defeat when the policy of reform, not revolution, has so miserably failed? Had we ever abandoned our socialist principles the very idea of a new society based on equality and cooperation would have been lost and that would have only compounded the tragedy. Whilst this is true, and in all circumstances, inescapable, one consequence of our principled stand is that for the most part, we do remain alienated from the political life of society.

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 “the Social Revolution”. Revolutionists are described as wild visionaries, Utopia builders, and so on. In the not-so-distant past, the Labour Party did talk in terms of changing society. True, this was only a long-term prospect, but the idea of an alternative society was there. There was 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 left 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 World Socialist Movement does not accept the view that nothing but socialism concerns the socialist and in regards to trade unionism has stated that the non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary. When the workers acquire revolutionary consciousness they are still compelled to make the non-revolutionary struggle. We fight capitalism in the here and now, where we are and where we can, rather than tell everyone to wait until the revolution comes and that all struggle is a diversion from creating a united Marxian socialist party of the world. It doesn’t mean we have to sit around and wait for a revolution. Blanket opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism in the guise of being supportive of working-class interests and being true to socialist principles would involve actions (or sometimes, inaction) 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). 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, child employment, work conditions and social security. Socialists have to acknowledge that the “welfare” state, made living standards for some sections of the working class more tolerable. 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. After the Jewish Holocaust, people said “Never Again”. But genocide didn’t stop. It continued. The conditions promoting genocide didn’t go away, and so neither did the genocide. If the reformists had solved the myriad of problems or where even to be able to say that things were steadily improving, that would argue in favour of their approach to reform. But that is not the case. The same problems continue to appear and re-appear. It is often one step forward, several steps back.

We argue that the working class should organise for socialism, but that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done on this side of the revolution. Such things as basic health care came into being because the working class fought for them (even though politicians have since claimed the credit). Without the threat of an action, we would never have won such things. Strikes, or the threat of them, help to improve wages and working conditions. We have the ability to change things if we act together. The power to transform society lies in the hands of those who create everything – the working class. This is the source of our power, should we eventually use it. The power not to make a few reforms, but to change the whole system, to make a social revolution. The basis of the socialist argument is that the material conditions for socialism exist now but it can only come into being when the working class had matured politically to the point where it could commit itself to the new society. Leading the workers along the path of reform is not equipping them for their revolutionary role but was in fact establishing the contrary idea that capitalism could be made to function in the interests of the class it exploited.

Some reforms e.g. securing freedom of speech, expanding the vote, stopping a war, benefit the entire working class and socialist movement. Democracy is not a set of rules or a parliament; it is a process, a process that must be fought for. The struggle for democracy is the struggle for socialism. It is not a struggle for reforms, for this or that political system, for this or that leader, for some rule change or other—it is the struggle for an idea, for a belief, a belief that we can run our own lives, that we have a right to a say in how society is run, for a belief that the responsibility for democracy lies not upon the politicians or their bureaucrats, but upon ourselves.

 Our view is to let the upholders of capitalism work for reforms while we put the revolutionary alternative. Socialist MPs and councillors would be mandated to put the case for socialism and to criticise reform activity from the socialist perspective. However, the long-established socialist position is that socialist delegates in such an environment would be duty-bound to consider voting for measures that could benefit the working class as a whole and/or the socialist movement in particular.

These issues would be judged on their merits at the time, and could, for instance, involve socialist delegates voting to stop a war, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In such a case abstention would not be justifiable. In taking this position, they would still make clear their opposition to capitalism as a whole and to all parties of capitalism and would at no time seek support from the working class on the basis of a reform programme. The Socialist Party does 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 propertyless wage-slaves undermines whatever attempts we make to control and better our lives through reforms.

Socialism declares that all the social phenomena of our days are the results of capitalism, manifestations of the class war, which will cease only with the disappearance of classes. Therefore the World Socialist Movement is an organisation of the class and of revolution.

On the other hand, the desire for some immediate bettering of their lot is too well entrenched in the heart of workers for them to lose hope, even against all logic. Logic is weak against the power of an instinctive desire. The political parties promise reforms to their electors just as a nurse promises the moon to a child.

The World Socialist Movement is thus caught between the logic of its scientific principle and the universal desire for an immediate amelioration – ”something now”.

It cannot betray its principle, but it is likewise impossible that this party- of men and women – can escape this human desire for reforms. This contradiction is, however, not without a solution.

The conditions of existence of the wage-workers depend upon their wages. It is not determined by the legal law, but by the economic law of supply and demand. Social realities are outside of parliaments and they can do absolutely nothing to modify the real wage of the workers.

The legal law is of straw; the economic law is of iron. Why change the tax-gathering plate if you do not change what is put into it? To dream of bettering the conditions of existence by political means is Utopia.

Although the bettering of the conditions of existence by way of political reform is impossible, it is not the same as regards the conditions of fighting, and it appears to us to be possible to make easier the struggle of the proletariat against the capitalist middle-class.
To distinguish between the conditions of fighting and the conditions of existence is not to split hairs. The difference is real. 

By the very fact of capitalist production, the workers are at war with the employing owning class. This struggle is sometimes hidden, at other times visible to the eyes of all, but it is without truce. Far from becoming less evident, conflicts increase daily. Some reforms would render the attacks of working people more powerful, those of its adversary weaker, and would make the effort easier and more efficient.

 We avail ourselves of all means for bettering the condition of our comrades the workers. We do not spurn reforms; but what we do refuse, and that in the most explicit manner, is coming to an agreement with any faction whatsoever of the capitalist class, no matter by what name it may go. An agreement of this kind cannot be of any other consequence than to make socialism responsible for the oppression which the capitalists exercise over the masses of the working-class.

It is true that some reforms benefit some workers, but they may also benefit sections of the capitalist class. In the time-honoured squabble as to who should pay for the reforms and upkeep of the working class, it is but one between robbers over the cost of the robbery – the robbery of the working class in the field, factory and workshop. That does not, however, prevent our masters, inveigling the workers into the fight. Once the workers are drawn into the controversy a double purpose is served. First, they stop fighting their employers and exploiters – the active enemies; secondly, their assistance is secured in shifting the “taxation burdens” onto other capitalists. Why should we support the manufacturing capitalists against the financial capitalists?

The route of trying to change capitalism is the one that has been taken by most people who have wanted to improve society. Reformism has some attractions over revolution – especially if you lack imagination, don’t like confrontation, prefer to think only in the short term, and don’t want to be accused of not living in the real world. You are also assured of being in good company because large numbers of people think (or fail to think) as you do. Reformism is a most excellent strategy if you want only small changes in society, and are satisfied with what you get (which is usually substantially less than what you were promised). The idea that capitalism can be humanised and changed by a series of reforms is almost as old as the capitalist system itself. But reforms are implemented by political parties that seek and get a mandate to run capitalism. The motives for reforms may include anxiety to relieve suffering and keenness to promote well-being, but the measures have the effect of serving the system rather than meeting the needs of individuals or groups. However, reformism is futile for two groups of people: those who expect that capitalism can be reformed to operate in the interests of the majority, and those who believe that a programme of reforms will “win the workers for the revolution” and hence make a contribution to the achievement of socialism. Therefore there are two kinds of reformism. One has no intention of bringing about revolutionary change (indeed it may use reforms to stem such change.) The other kind cherishes the mistaken belief that successful reforms will somehow prepare the ground for revolution. Reforms are seen as necessary first steps on the long road to eventual revolution.

A revolution is the work of a class that 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. Hence 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. Since the struggle for reforms cannot alter the slave position of the working class, it ends by bringing indifference and disillusionment to the workers who look to reforms for emancipation. In order to accomplish the revolution nothing is wanted but the revolutionary lever. Right-wing extremism, for instance, is the product of the total failure of all the reformist parties to make capitalism a fit society to live in. And this is not the fault of the mainstream parties, for they are controlled by the system and not vice versa despite their claims and promises. When capitalism fails to deliver, when despondency and shattered hopes arise from the stench of the failed promises and expectations that litter the political landscape, is it any wonder that workers fall for the scapegoating lies of neo-fascists and the quick fix the extreme right offer?

What we are opposed to is the whole culture of reformism, the idea that capitalism can be made palatable with the right reforms, By that, we mean that we oppose those organisations that promise to deliver a programme of reforms on behalf of the working class, often in order that the organisation dishing out the promises can gain a position of power. Such groups, especially those of the left-wing, often have real aims quite different to the reform programme they peddle. In this, they are being as dishonest as any other politician, from the left or right. The ultimate result of this is disillusionment with the possibility of radical change. In other words, although individual reforms may be worthy of support, the political strategy of reformism—promising to win reforms on the behalf of others—is a roundabout that leads nowhere. Those wanting to improve society should seriously question whether capitalism offers enough scope for achieving lasting solutions to the vast range of social problems to which it gives rise. Of course, some improvements are made and some problems are alleviated. Yet new kinds of problems also arise in society.

Reformers, philanthropic individuals and other well-meaning folks in charities, have all failed. By now most of them realise they will never actually solve the problems they are tackling. They are like medics on a battlefield: all they can do is to keep slamming in the morphine, slapping on the bandages and hoping that somehow the slaughter will stop. In addition, advocating a reform programme would attract the support of non-socialists and because a voluntary, cooperative society like socialism can only ever be created by a majority of convinced, conscious socialists, this would be counter-productive.

Many think that reform is positive, but why should socialists divert their energies to repair and patch up a system they want to end altogether? Doing something is not enough, we need to do the right thing. We need to campaign for socialism. Socialists are revolutionaries: we believe that the establishment of a socialist society will involve a fundamental change in the way people live, and will necessitate the capture of political power by the socialist working class. As revolutionaries, we do not advocate reforms, that is, changes in the way capitalism runs, such as alterations to immigration policy or the health service or the tax system. Reforms, however ‘radical’, can never make capitalism run in the interests of the workers. Nor should supporting reforms be some kind of tactic pursued by socialists to gain support from workers, for workers who joined a socialist party because they admired its reformist tactics would turn it into a reformist organisation pure and simple. Socialists must reject reformism as a distraction from the revolutionary goal.

The Leftists have opted for a mode of action that downplays the idea of directly challenging the system. The Left has had to retreat from organising an alternative political economy and is working instead on the terrain of capitalism. 

“Direct action” is merely a method not an end in itself and can in fact be employed for different ends. In the present political context, it is being advocated as a better way to get reforms than elections. Maybe it is, but possibly it isn’t. One powerful argument as to why it might not have just been demonstrated: those with the biggest vehicles can reclaim the streets more effectively than those without. In other words, with direct-actionist, pressure group politics, those who can exert the most pressure will tend to come off best, and it is the more powerful who can generally exert the most pressure. Our view is that those who concentrate on trying to obtain reforms within capitalism—whether by direct action or through the electoral process—are on the wrong track.

What is needed is precisely what most of them refuse—and in fact, have consciously rejected doing—and that is raising the issue of an alternative society as the only framework within which the problems for which they are seeking short-term relief can be solved.

Our objection to reformism is, then, 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. Socialists understand well the urge to do something now, to make a change. That makes us all the more determined, however, to get the message across.

Going directly for revolution, refusing to settle for anything less than full socialism, is a policy that will take time to bring results. Many people will have to be weaned off the superficial attractions of “achievable” reforms. But going for revolution isn’t just a long-term policy – it is also a good short-term one. Faced with an electorate who refuse to vote for capitalism-supporting candidates, confronted by a majority who no longer believe “there is no alternative”, challenged by a growing socialist movement that says revolution is possible and shows how life and society could be so much better, what else can those who wish to support capitalism do than concede as much as possible, in effect to narrow the gap between the old and new systems?

No Labour government can rule under capitalism without making itself the slave of commercial interests at home and abroad. Those individuals who picture a working-class administration under capitalism cautiously and tentatively experimenting in social legislation while the employing class remains dominant in the industrial field, are the real Utopians. A Labour government only exists within the present system by helping to run the system. The capitalists still rule. Attempts to reform capitalism, whether through parliament or dictatorship, have failed. This leaves conscious majority revolution as the only way forward. Instead of Labour governments gradually transforming capitalism into socialism, the opposite happened.

The experience of governing capitalism gradually transformed Labour into the open party of capitalism and proud friend of the City of London and Big Business that it is today. So its political managers are reduced to arguing out differences which are mostly minor or sham, about how best to spend the money that comes to them, depending on their luck with the economy. And 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. This happens not because reforms have never made a difference to the way the system works. 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 Labour. It has fallen victim to a corrupting process in which the allurements of government power have ruled out any real sense of what can be done with such power. As a consequence, the Labour Party not only accepts the capitalist system but is now fully committed to managing its continued development.

Many have ridden the roundabout of reformism and, having enjoyed the ride, want to go round again, but socialists want no part in this fraud. Social happiness, common ownership, free access, democratic control; all can be achieved by the working class. Promising crumbs off the master’s table has diverted attention away from the attempts by definite socialists to secure the whole loaf, the bakery, the flour mills and the wheat fields.

One of the most frequent criticisms of the World Socialist Movement is that while the policy of advocating socialism is useful and necessary for the ultimate solution of working-class problems, it is nevertheless a short-sighted and unrealistic policy to neglect to support measures of social reform designed to improve the conditions of the workers whilst capitalism is still in existence. It is urged that a socialist party should wage guerrilla warfare with the capitalists in order to gain benefits, even if only temporary and minor, and that in doing so it would rally to the cause of socialism many workers who otherwise would not be prepared to support an organisation which appeared to have an excellent programme for the future but not for the present. Our reply to that criticism has been that the task of a socialist party is to establish socialism and that as this can only be brought about by a working population possessing an understanding of the issues involved, our propaganda at all times must be directed at spreading the essential socialist knowledge. Further, we have argued that a socialist party that advocated reforms would attract non-socialist support from those interested in all or some of the reform measures and that the non-socialist support would sooner or later (and in all probability sooner) swamp the socialist elements and the party would become just another reformist organisation with no better claim to working-class support than that of the Labour Party, “Communists” and so on. We have pointed to the records of these “socialist” organisations which have adopted the policy of “getting something now” to show the futility of attempting either to build up a socialist movement with a reformist programme or even to reform out of existence some of the minor disabilities suffered by the workers under capitalism. In this latter connection, it can be said that the reform measures that have been passed have generally been instituted by self-confessed capitalist organisations which have recognised the need to adjust capitalism in the light of changing conditions. The usual process has been for the so-called workers’ parties to agitate (often for a considerable period) for particular measures of social reform and then at the end, when the capitalists can no longer resist the agitation, for these (or watered-down versions of them) to be brought about by the Liberal or Conservative governments, which have thus been able to steal the limelight which the workers’ organisations have sought to obtain, and use it to their own advantage. This in its turn has increased the confusion in the minds of the workers, who feel that there can be very little wrong with capitalism when capitalist parties themselves are prepared to adopt what have been proclaimed to be “socialist” proposals.

Critics of the WSM  tell us that here at last is something concrete that is worthy of the efforts of socialists and that the workers should get together in order to force the government to implement a host of reforms. We remain unimpressed. The great problem remains and that problem is the poverty of the working-class, and not just the additional burdens in times of unemployment, old age and sickness. The poverty of the working-class is due to the private ownership by the capitalists of the means of production and distribution. Socialism alone can end that poverty. We shall not be diverted from our task in order to chase the shadows, but we shall continue to strive for the substance, socialism, which will abolish forever the conditions which bring into being the evils of the modern world. Reformers do not create a new world of hope, but simply re-arrange and re-distribute the misery. The concept of class struggle and of revolution is alien to the rose-tinted reformists of the British left characterised by the Labour Party who are content to see every gain as the building of barriers against the tide of capitalism only to see them smashed down with the next tide.

As a socialist party, we tend to be sceptical to the activities of reformers. In one way or another reformists are supporters of capitalism. We are opposed to capitalism. Therefore we are opposed to the activities of those offering palliatives. However, what we find is that we share many of the basic hopes and intentions of many thousands of people who are active in all kinds of organisations. Socialists do not hold a monopoly on the social concern. For example, many people are concerned with the plight of millions of starving people and they try to do something about it. We share that concern, this is something that we have in common with them. So it is not true that we are hostile to all reformers.