Revolution or Reform?

Given all that we have said so far about capitalism, it seems obvious that something must be done. But what? Can capitalism be made to work differently? Or must there be a social revolution to replace capitalism with some other society? This is a debate that has raged for over a century.

The route of trying to change capitalism, or ‘reform,’ is the one 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, child employment, work conditions and social security. 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. 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.

If you are convinced, however, that groups or parties promising reforms deserve your support, we would urge you to consider the following points.

  1. 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.
  2. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary.
  3. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve.

This was summed up by William Morris over a century ago: “The palliatives over which many worthy people are busying themselves now are useless because they are but unorganised partial revolts against a vast, wide-spreading, grasping organisation which will, with the unconscious instinct of a plant, meet every attempt at bettering the conditions of the people with an attack on a fresh side.” For more on William Morris, see William Morris: how we live and how we might live.

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 problem also arise in a society which is changing ever more rapidly, seeking new ways to make a profit.

Our website contains many examples illustrating the problems of reformism. As an introduction to some of the most important, see The problems of reformism.

Profit motive

The profit motive of capitalism is a major cause of the problems we face in today’s society: ever increasing inequality, poverty, alienation, crime, homelessness, environmental degradation—the list could go on and on. There are countless ways in which the working class (and indeed the capitalist class) suffer as a result of the profit system. Unless we organise for an alternative, the profit system will continue on its blind, unswerving path.

But what is the alternative?