Reformism: A Waste of Precious Time

From the July 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

The part of the case that separates socialists most firmly from all other attitudes is our insistence that reform will not do. It is the cause of the most pressure and argument by those who want our energy given to their causes: there are struggles going on for innumerable things, and we should be in all that flailing-about. And to many whose hearts rule their heads it is continually unpalatable. With the world full of misery and suffering, surely — they say — attempts at alleviation must be made; the efforts may be foredoomed, but the compunction at not making them is too great.

Reform means legislation seeking to overcome the problems and defeat the grievances of capitalism. The arguments for it are of four kinds.

 First, the conviction that in whatever situation “something must be done”. This is less a theory than a compulsive sentiment, but like all sentiments it is inevitably rationalized and grounds shown to plead for each particular case.

Second, the proposition that every reform is an erosion of the present order; given an accumulation of tiny changes, we shall wake up one day to find that a new society has come by stealth.

Third, the belief that while working for socialism in the long term, campaigns on various issues will bring short-term advantages.

Lastly, there is the activist slogan “people are changed by struggle”, which means constant rallying on this and that account in hopes that rebellion may become a habit of mind.

A Bit of History

It should be said at the outset that the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed precisely because reformism had taken hold of the existing movement. The Social-Democratic Federation was the first party in Britain to exist as a partly-Marxist organization, proclaiming the class struggle and the need to overthrow capitalism. (That is not to ignore the old International Workingmen’s Association in which Marx himself played an active part; but it was an association aiming to foster and stabilize revolutionary thought chiefly among trade unionists, not a political party as such.) However, as the SDF grew and laid down fresh policies, considerations of expediency were posed more and more against those of socialism. While it aimed still at “The Establishment of a Free Condition of Society”, it sought also “measures called for to palliate the evils of our existing society … for immediate adoption”.

Thus, the free society became a remote objective and “something for now” the actual one. The immediate demands, because they were immediate, required attention all the time not only in propaganda but in tactics too, and the Federation became prepared to ally itself anywhere, anyhow, for its temporary ends. Eventually there appeared a body of dissidents determined to return to Socialist teaching, to independent political action based on class-consciousness and the excision of reformism; and these became the founders of the Socialist Party in 1904. What happened to the SDF was no anomaly, but the inexorable fate of all would-be revolutionaries who open the door to reform. 

An Unamenable Society

The basic question is that of the nature of capitalism. Here again, a vague idea leads nowhere; the policy of socialists has always been to insist on proper definition of terms, so that what we are talking about is clear. Capitalism is the social system in which the means of living are owned by a section only, leaving the great majority having to work for wages to live. The wages are the price of the commodity sold, i.e. labour-power; like all prices, they depend fundamentally on the commodity’s content — which means that people get what it costs to support them, from buyers who say they cannot throw money about. What must be noted and emphasized is that this is not an exchangeable state of affairs, but the way capitalism has to run. The position of the majority as wage-workers, their differentials only degrees of financial desperation, is unalterable under this system.

More follows. Social problems galore — housing, health, literacy, racial tension, the plight of old age, etc.—are simple consequences of working-class poverty. In addition to them there are the recurrences of war and economic crises, which also are consequences of the production for and competition in markets that is capitalism’s existence; the weight of these catastrophes too falls on the working class, to whom the victories and recoveries mean nothing. In the face of the organic nature of these problems it should seem obvious that attempts to treat them while the cause remains intact are absurd. That is the view Socialists take; but plenty of people make such attempts their vocation. It might be salutary to look at “reform” etymologically as re-form, and consider its activity in that light.

Progress and Commerce

Is all this to say that nothing has changed since capitalism began, or can change? Of course not. Examples to the contrary abound. If one assumes that being alive is a good thing, the expectation of life has grown remarkably. Barefooted children, or children with their legs in irons from malnutrition, have ceased to be a common sight within living memory. Despite the headlines and Mrs. Whitehouse’s obsession about “mugging”, there is nothing like the violence which was taken for granted in everyday life before 1939. Up to the last generation, to have a carpet on the floor, or to possess a car or eat in a restaurant or have regular holidays, was thought luxurious; now those and many other things are commonplace.

However, enthusiasm for apparent benefits should be reserved. Though electioneering parties claim credit for improvements in physical well-being, the fact is that none of the instances given above comes from benevolent legislation. In a broad sense they can be put down to “progress”. But, by itself, that will not do. What “progress” means is that technical and medical knowledge are applied to social life if they are marketable or serve political needs for capitalism. It used to be said that after missionaries had denounced the un-Christian nudity of African tribeswomen, clothing salesmen were the next to arrive. Likewise, to have shoeless children and homes without wallpaper or electricity is to dam up a market. On the other hand, research which finds children poisoned in the streets by traffic fumes is damnably subversive, at least until it provides some selling-point. Nor is this cynical speculation. The pouring of welfare foods down infants’ throats began in this country with the alarm over future military needs: to the drug firms’ delight.

Doubtful Bounties

It may be thought that the gains, nevertheless, are there. Certainly that was true of major reforms when capitalism was still forming its apparatus in the 19th century. The vote and popular education were given by the ruling class for its own requirements, but are indispensable weapons in the struggle to abolish capitalism. The changes in living standards can be traced back to the beginning of the era of relative surplus-value when technical changes brought about, as Marx puts it:

“…the fact that the same amount of values represents a progressively increasing mass of use-values and enjoyments to the extent that the capitalist system of production carries with it a development of the productive power of social labour, a multiplication of the lines of production, and an increase of products.” (Capital, Vol. Ill, pp. 256-7) 

What the benefits have conveyed, then, is a fresh phase of exploitation. Portraying in “The Man with the Hoe” the mute, brutalized labourer of the 19th century, Edwin Markham asked:

“O masters, lords and rulers in all lands.
How shall the future reckon with this man?”

The masters, lords and rulers answered by giving him a council flat and Hai Karate after-shave; the future remains to be reckoned with.

For all the changes in detail that can be seen, in broad sweep there has been none. The situation of the working class and the major problems it is faced with have not altered. Indeed, to compare circumstances today with those of forty, sixty, a hundred years ago is to accept the wrong yardstick. The comparison should be between life as it is and life as it could be; the development of society’s powers, and the restraint from enjoyment of them. By that standard, reform is an idiot’s struggle to get miniscule silk purses out of the monstrous sow’s ear of capitalism.

Reforms at Work

One other thing not realized by reformists is that measures arc granted on the basis of their worth to capitalism: for practical considerations, not sentimental ones. This is why an ideal so often turns sour. The good intentions which furnish support for a project are one thing, the terms in which it is legislated usually another. The outstanding example in our time is that of the Welfare State. As planned by Beveridge, it sought greater State control of the economic system and manpower; giving priority of claim to sick workers and their children over the non-productive old; and the damping- down of wage claims. Yet, presented as the great promise of the post-war world, it was hailed as such by thousands who wanted insecurity abolished but had not read even the moderately small print. There is general agreement in the Left that the Tories must go and a Labour government be brought in to enact something different; but no-one is asking what, and whether the alternative will be acceptable either.

Some reform is fat-headed, actuated by limited vision of the consequences. Labour’s limitation of office-building, which was a flourish at quelling the speculators and did them a good turn by creating scarcity prices. Farther back, the zeal of prison reformers in having every convict enclosed in his own neat cell, thus creating one of the most dreadful of deprivations — that of human company. And some reform is cynical. The varying of censorship laws can be seen thus, pretending liberal thought or moral concern when the issue is invariably a practical one; and present-day penal reform, preoccupied with the finances of keeping men in prison while the correspondence columns irrelevantly debate justice. One might add reforms in other “moral” matters, like the legalization of abortion and homosexuality; it would be hard to imagine measures like these considered except in times when population growth was conceived as a serious problem.

But, whatever its motivation, the policy of reform does not change the essential nature of society. That is not a matter for argument: the history of social problems, and attempts to deal with them, demonstrates it absolutely. Promises, endeavours and lamentations over the housing problem, for example, can be traced back almost endlessly. “Disgraceful condition of the dwellings inhabited by the poorer sections” (1851); “better housing for workers” (1895); “London’s shame — the slums” (1933); “a million slum houses” (1955) — and so on, to the Shelter reports of today. What other indictment is needed of the futility of reformism?

Where we Stand

The socialist case follows the logic of the facts. We oppose the patching-up of capitalism, and work only for its abolition and replacement with a system based on common ownership of the means of living. It is part of our case to analyze reform measures and point out their effects — favourable, if and when that can be discerned, as well as otherwise. What matters, however, is not the statements of good intent but the actual legislation; perhaps that is why the socialist view is so constant an irritation to reformers, since it involves saying “Told you so”, continually.

We do not advocate any reform. It is possible to think of measures which we would welcome for our own benefit — say, a change giving minorities the TV and radio facilities now monopolized by the main parties, or an end to the legislation which stops us selling literature at meetings in public parks. But if a case were seen for wanting this or that to be done, the fact is that there are thousands of people and organizations already in the business of reform. To join it means only adding to, in some other words of Marx, “the length and weight of the golden chain the wage-worker has already forged for himself”. Our business is revolution.

Robert Barltrop