Reforms and Reformism 3/3

After over a century of reform activity, and the sincere efforts of a multitude of reformers, the world is in a greater mess than ever it was. We, socialists, are often accused of being opposed to reforms, social legislation designed to ameliorate some intolerable situation. Not so.

We of the World Socialist Movement are not opposed to reforms on principle, any more than we advocate them. The crucial and vital reformism were won a long time ago, for instance, the vote that gave working people the opportunity to take its fate into their own hands. 

The position of a revolutionary is to reject reformism – the advocacy of reforms – which is not the same thing as opposing reforms themselves. Reformism is the promotion of reforms and it is this that we revolutionaries should not be engaged in. Trying to mend capitalism is incompatible with trying to end capitalism.

For the WSM, radicalisation entails the conscious promotion of the socialist alternative under each and every circumstance thrown up by capitalism. It is an interactive process between thought and practice are driven by a clear and unambiguous conception of what we are to replace capitalism with. Nothing less will do. Unless we know what to replace capitalism with, capitalism will not be replaced. We will be stuck with it. It is literally a case of one or the other

We make a very clear distinction between reformist struggle and other forms of struggle. We are 100 % behind the militant industrial struggle. We fully support militant struggle by workers as a class and as individuals in the economic domain to resist the downward pressures of capital. In fact, in our view, the trade union movement has largely compromised and weakened itself by blurring this distinction as for example in the UK where many unions are affiliated with the capitalist Labour Party. Trade unions should concentrate efforts on the economic battlefield where they operate much better as militant organisations of the working class.

 Reformist struggles are qualitatively different in kind to industrial struggles since they are of a political nature and seek to impact the way capitalism is administered in terms of policies. What those who are essentially advocating is reformism in the belief that it entails some kind of progressive dynamic that will lead us somewhere closer to achieving a socialist society. In fact, all the historical evidence shows that your progressive changes lead to the abandonment of revolutionary socialism and the co-option of erstwhile revolutionary socialists into capitalism In any case it is nonsense to suggest that revolutionary socialism means “standing outside of the political process”. This is a terribly mechanical not to say narrow-minded, concept of what the political process actually is.

Nor can we automatically assume that crises help to radicalise workers. In fact, there is strong empirical evidence to the contrary, recent studies show that a crisis tends to make some workers more fearful of the future, more conservative and more conformist even though it might well radicalise others. One must never forget the lessons of pre-war Germany and the depression which helped to fuel the growth of the Nazi movement. Revolutions are not simply the result of social crises and class struggle, they are mediated by consciousness. The ideas themselves don’t stand alone but are drawn from the class struggle and in turn reciprocally influence the struggle. It’s a two-way interactive process, not a one-way street. As far as a socialist revolution is concerned while we may not know what shape the working class is in when it happens we do know that a significant majority must understand and want socialism in order for a socialist revolution to happen. Socialism absolutely necessitates conscious majority support and therefore a revolution that does not have this conscious majority support will not be a socialist revolution because the outcome will not be socialism. The revolution is effected by the socialist-minded working class seizing power and declaring capitalism null and void. This is fully consistent, with the point about the seizure of political power by the working class is the precondition for revolutionary change.

But in order for working people to seize power and effect a revolutionary change, it has to be substantially socialist-minded in the first place. This is absolutely essential and is integral to the Marxian perspective. Engels points this out in the introduction to Marx’s Class struggles in France:

 “Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for [with body and soul].”

Of course, socialist consciousness comes through struggle not just propagandising. This is not an either/or situation. It is actually mutually reinforcing. The struggle gives rise to the ideas and the ideas in turn help to clarify and strengthen the struggle. Part of the argument against reformism is that it actually weakens the position of workers. It doesn’t radicalise them at all. It ties them politically to capitalism via capitalist political parties that aim to garner support through the advocacy of reforms. This is what workers need to reject. They will actually become much more militant in my view if they completely rejected the reformist illusion that capitalism can be moulded to accommodate their interests and if they came to recognise that the interests of workers are diametrically opposed to the capitalists. This is what revolutionaries should be doing – saying how it actually is not trying to dishonestly socially engineer workers into coming over to them by dangling reforms in front of them which they know full well are not going to modify the position of the exploited class. In the end, if you do not break with the logic of capital completely and in ideological terms, if you do not explicitly advocate a genuine alternative to capitalism, there is no way on earth that you will ever create an alternative to capitalism. You will remain forever stuck in the reformist treadmill going nowhere. Although the ultimate aim of the radical fighting for reform may be the self-emancipation of the working class, it will never ever come to self-emancipation of the working class precisely because fighting for reforms is a trap from which you will never ever escape unless you stop fighting for reforms and raise your sights higher. Capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of workers so fighting for reforms in the interests of the workers is forever doomed.

It is simply a treadmill that will never lead on to anything else. “Radicalisation” is the result of an interaction between material struggles – workers organising on the industrial and social terrain – and communist ideas. Above all, it involves the explicit and conscious embrace of the socialist goal, a non-market non-statist alternative to capitalism. This is what truly constitutes radical in the sense of a root change.

There is no real evidence that it does lead to a socialist outlook. Many radicals ultimately end up in the ghetto of worthy liberal causes which only serve to fragment working-class solidarity in a plethora of separate struggles each demanding attention at the expense of others. Or they become disillusioned old cynics in later life and join the Establishment. The World Socialist Movement doesn’t say socialists need to stand on the sidelines and tell workers to drop their delusions and follow us. Firstly, we reject the whole principle of vanguardism and leadership. Secondly, no revolutionary ever is on the sidelines anyway.

This is a meaningless way of looking at this. We are all involved in the class struggle whether we like it or not or whether we are aware of it or not. As workers, we will join with our fellow workers in a union to fight the bosses in the industrial field. We are simply members of the working class who has come to socialist conclusions. We don’t exist in some sense outside of the working class telling the working class what to do. This is an elitist Leninist perspective which we abjure. As socialist workers, we will therefore put across socialist ideas about socialism, rejecting nationalism, racism and sexism and so on and so forth. Spreading ideas is essential.

Everybody without exception believes their ideas are the right ones – otherwise, they would not hold or express them. Its got nothing to do with “leadership”. It’s what human beings do – talk, discuss, argue. If it is elitist in and of itself to express an idea then what you are trying to say is that we really should not express ideas at all. We should keep mum about our political views. That is quite absurd. If everyone followed that advice there would be a discussion about anything. People do develop their ideas as a result of hearing other ideas. This is not “idealist”. Materialism does not deny the role of ideas, what it denies is the “independent” role of ideas, that social developments are completely explicable in terms of the impact of ideas alone. This is false but nevertheless, it is quite true that all social developments involve an exchange of ideas between historical actors and could not happen without that.

Radicals talk of the need to have the ear and confidence of the working class. They want to say to workers “yeah, great carry on with your reformist struggles. We’re with you all the all way” even though in their heart of hearts they know that this is a recipe for failure. This is not honest and dishonesty does not pay in the end. It is far better to say what you really think and feel to be the case however unpopular or out of touch, it might make you seem at the time. Workers will not thank you for trying to lead them up the garden path and you will certainly not gain their confidence as a result. You stand to lose their confidence completely and this is in fact the story of the Left in general. It has marginalised itself precisely because of its opportunistic relationship with the working class.

Some on the Left have a kind of fetish view of “action” that there is something latent or inherent in the acts one carries out that somehow drives one forward into becoming a communist. This is wrong. Strikes, protests demonstrations and all these sorts of activities don’t carry any necessary communist implications whatsoever. It is the interaction of ideas and actions which is what is needed. This is the point we try to make about radicalisation. If you ignore the importance of ideas and the necessity for a clear and explicit alternative to capitalism you will never ever pose a serious threat to capitalism. Never. Reformist struggle does not necessarily imply a passive working class. This is the point. Workers can be actively engaged in reformist struggles to get governments to introduce measures that they perceive to be in their economic interests. But in the end, they actually help to weaken not strengthen the working class by tying it ideologically to capitalism, fostering the illusion that capitalism can be run in the interests of workers and entrenching their dependence on capitalist governments to do it for them.

If there is one generalisation that could be applied to the Bolsheviks, Social Democrats, those anarchists who supported World War I, or on the issue of Fascism versus Democracy, and those “socialists” who supported both World Wars, it is that they stood for their pet “burning issue”’ and socialism. We used to be told and are still being told, that we must fight for some “priority” issue and we revolutionary socialists should join their ranks. Note the result which is capitalism is being administered by “socialists” often in the name of “socialism.” There it is, in all its stark nakedness. Had all devoted, sincere, sacrifices that had been made was instead harnessed for socialism, what a movement — or society — we would now have.

 It is easy to forget that human beings are also part of the material conditions and that they play an active role in social change. All those “socialist governments” merely wound up administering capitalism for the capitalist class. And that is all that Labour radicals and the Trotskyist militants will be able to do if they gain their objectives.

What is the task of those dedicated to arousing their fellow workers to become socialists? It is, first of all, to help uproot superstitions and to spread knowledge and understanding. Only the workers can emancipate themselves. The only factor in all the material conditions of today standing in the way of socialism is the political ignorance of the workers. Our opposition to reforms and reformism are just 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.

Conditions are now ripe for socialism, i.e. production for use and where all mankind cooperate in the common social interests. In a sane world fit for human beings the social forces breeding wars disappear. It is time for a breakthrough to society in harmony with the tremendous technological developments of the last 100 years. The WSM is not going to do anything for the working class except to arouse their fervour, determination and enthusiasm for socialist objectives. The aroused class-conscious workers will use their party as the lever of emancipation.

To summarise: All such activities still leave the job left to be done, the only job worthwhile and meaningful: making socialists. The bond that makes us as one and inspires us is the recognition that capitalism can no longer be reformed or administered in the interest of the working class or of society, and the understanding that conditions are now ripe for socialism, which is the solution for society’s problems. All that is lacking is a socialist majority. This is the essence of our principles.

Let’s define a socialist. It is not how scholarly one may be in Marxism. A person may never have read a word of Marx or seen socialist literature. Someone simply needs to realise that: 

  1.  Capitalism can no longer be administered or reformed in the interest of the working class or of society.
  2.  Capitalism is incapable of eliminating poverty, wars, crises, etc. 
  3.  Socialism can solve the social problems confronting society today, since the material conditions are ripe for socialism, save the lack of a socialist majority.

Capitalism cannot be reformed or administered in the interest of the working class or of society. Capitalism, as a social system, is in the interest of the ruling class. Socialism is the solution to the social problems and irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism. Socialism cannot be rammed down the workers’ throats against their wishes. The socialist victory is dependant upon the enthusiasm of the determined, conscious socialist majority.

The characteristics of a socialist are the coupling of the head and the heart, theory merged with action. A socialist calls for the arousing of the majority to become socialists.

Socialism is possible, necessary and practical the day the moment the great majority become conscious of their interests. The notion that the workers are too stupid is hogwash. It still remains the case that, aside from the feeble voices of the World Socialist Movement, the great majority of the workers are not exposed to socialist fundamentals.

 The greatest ally we have is capitalism itself. The greatest teacher of all is experience. Eventually, all the blind groping and mistaken diversions into futile efforts of reforming and administering capitalism will run their course. People learn from their mistakes. Necessity is the latent strength of socialism. Truth and science are on the side of socialism. Nothing is stronger than an idea comes of age. It is easy to be cynical of socialist efforts. But, with the world facing the alternative of socialism or chaos, you don’t have to be a pessimist to realise that we are on the eve of significant social changes. Already, you have seen indications in this direction in the thinking of people everywhere. Our task is to be a catalyst, the triggering agent that transforms majority ideas from bourgeois into revolutionary ones. What more glorious task faces people than forever putting an end to poverty and privilege. And all the time, we have a powerful ally: capitalism itself provides the lessons of experience.

 There are many organisations claiming to meet the requirements of a workers’ party so we are not the only organisation calling ourselves socialist. Anyone seeking to understand what is wrong with present-day society will have come across others, all having some such word in their names as “socialist”, “workers”, “revolutionary” or “communist”. Most of these will be of the Labourite, Leninist or Trotskyist origin and have aims, theories and methods which are not shared by the World Socialist Movement. By fostering wrong ideas about what socialism is and how it can be achieved these parties are delaying the socialist revolution, reaching an accommodation with capitalism and endeavouring to reform it. 

Economic theory underlies our case against reformism. 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. 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. 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’ (we also recognise that such ‘successes’ have in reality done little more than to keep workers and their families in efficient working order and rarely managed to remove the problem completely.)

What we are opposed to is the whole culture of reformism, the idea that capitalism can be made palatable with the right reforms, We oppose those organisations that promise to deliver a programme of reforms on behalf of the working class in order that they gain a position of power (some 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. The struggle for reforms cannot alter the slave position of the working class, it ends by bringing indifference to the workers who look to reforms for emancipation.

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. 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

There are two kinds of reformism. One has no intention of bringing about revolutionary change – indeed it may use reforms to oppose 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. The idea that capitalism can be humanised and changed by a series of reforms is almost as old as the capitalist system itself.

The motives for reforms may be to relieve suffering and to promote well-being, but the measures have the effect of serving the system rather than meeting the needs of individuals or groups. The role of hegemony – that powerful combination of ruling ideas filtered through conventional education, the mass media, and a culture of consumption – is important in understanding how reformism is actually carried out by members of the working class. Concerned as they are to maintain the profit system, they persuade themselves to do what is best for “the economy”. Also to be considered is that certain reforms will please some workers but enrage just as many more. Yet while reformism is a disastrous way forward individual reforms aren’t always intrinsically divisive to the working class, such as securing freedom of speech, extending the franchise do not serve to intrinsically divide the working class in any meaningful way but are individual reforms that could conceivably benefit the entire working class and socialist movement.

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.

Reformism is never a contribution to the achievement of socialism – it is a diversion of energies working for that goal. The offer of unity proposed by the reformer to the revolutionary is always a poisoned chalice: “Join us today to promote…[a small but achievable reform]…and tomorrow we’ll start the revolution together.

But, of course, tomorrow never comes.

Another line of thinking that presents itself as sympathetic to revolution but is really calculated to frustrate it is the “the time is not yet ripe” argument. Many people side 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. It may, at first sight, seem that certain reforms are motivated by humanitarian concern on the part of governments. The ‘welfare state’ legislation, for example, provided state pensions and medical treatment for all the population. It may seem that public agitation for reforms also does a lot to help, as when abortion was legalised in 1967 after many years of campaigning. Reforms in education, sanitation and housing are others for which Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians have vied with each other to claim the credit. Yet it is clear that the schooling received by the children of most people merely fits them for their limited role as workers. Improved public health reduces the threat of epidemics that 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.

Socialists should know the history of the Labour Party if only to be able to refute the claim that it was ever a socialist party and to demonstrate its failure to gradually transform capitalism into something better. the Labour Party has now abandoned its goal of those days of legislation favourable to trade unions and workers generally and has become Tweedledee to the Tories’ Tweedledum—which is what the Liberal Party was in 1900. They are not even an independent trade union pressure group in Parliament, but an openly pro-capitalist party. Today, not too many would refuse to admit that the Labour Party is anything other than a political party of capitalism. Like any other party of capitalism, it has made promises to better the conditions of the workers, establish comfort and equality, do away with crime, and bring peace and security to the population. Like any other party of capitalism, it has failed to deliver. How often have disillusioned Labour supporters and voters cried “betrayal”? Why has this been the case, that when the Labour Party have been in power, they have been obliged to continue to treat the working class badly?

It’s a simple matter of understanding economic systems. Since its birth, the Labour Party has been committed to running capitalism, and it has continued to do so. The social and economic problems we face are due to the capitalist system, not to some individual leaders being less benevolent than others. As for those old Labourites who blame all the mistakes of the past and present on certain leaders, this simply adds to the argument against the leadership. In any case, the leader as an individual is irrelevant. Knocking one leader out of the office and replacing them with another won’t change the system, and it’s the system that all attention should be focused on if we desire a radical change in the way we live. Instead of gradually changing capitalism, it was capitalism that gradually changed them. Nowadays, they don’t even claim to be aiming at socialism, only to be able to manage capitalism in a more efficient way.

The socialist position is indeed that all reformism needs to be opposed and that socialists do not seek to attract support by advocating reforms, as no series of reforms can ever solve the problems inherent to capitalism. 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.

Any socialists elected to parliament would consistently expose reformism for its inability to solve the problems of capitalism but may be prepared to consider on their merits particular, individual reforms (however rare in occurrence or few in number) that clearly benefited the working class or socialist movement, but always under democratic direction from the wider movement and without ever giving support to reformist organisations. But a blanket opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism. And to put it bluntly, in the guise of being supportive of working-class interests and being true to socialist principles, they would involve actions (or sometimes, inaction) that was expressly contrary to the interests of the working class. This 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). The men and women within the World Socialist Movement realised the absurdity of this tactic a long time ago.

Reformism has been a failure, the more evident this becomes to people the better are our chance of achieving our goal, quickly.