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“We actively support the struggle of workers and all oppressed people for economic, political and social reforms, both as a means to improve their conditions and to advance their confidence and fighting strength. But reforms within the capitalist system cannot put an end to oppression and exploitation. Capitalism must be replaced.”
— From the ISO “Where We Stand”
IN 1896, the American socialist Daniel DeLeon gave a speech in Boston titled “Reform or Revolution,” in which he compared social and economic reforms in society to grooming a poodle. No matter how you change the look of a poodle, he argued, “essentially, a poodle he was, a poodle he is, and a poodle he will remain.”
DeLeon might as well have said: Whether a worker is compelled to work a six-hour day or a 12-hour day, she is still exploited. Therefore, as socialists, the hours of the working day are a matter of indifference, since we seek to abolish exploitation, not change its terms.
DeLeon could just as well have said that a poodle is still a poodle, whether he is well-fed or half-starved. If we were to say this, we would rightly be looked on as fools. And yet, it must be acknowledged that, by definition, reforms change society without changing the basic social and economic relations of capitalism. The extension or retraction of a particular reform may ease or intensify the burden that capitalist exploitation and oppression puts on the mass of the population, but it does not change the fact of that exploitation.
DeLeon’s position is static and one-sided, however, because it fails to see any connection between the struggle for reforms and revolution. Hence he argued, “We socialists are not reformers; we are revolutionists. We socialists do not propose to change forms. We care nothing for forms. We want a change of the inside of the mechanism of society, let the form take care of itself.”
According to this approach, socialists have nothing to do in the here and now, but wait with folded arms until revolution comes. This counterposing of social reform and revolution leads to sectarian sterility.
Socialists cannot spread their ideas or hope to win over more and more workers to their cause without participation in the day-to-day battles for economic, political, and social reforms. The thesis on the organizational tasks of socialist parties, written in 1921 by the Communist International, put the question well:
“It is the greatest error for communists to invoke the communist program and the final armed revolutionary struggle as an excuse to passively look down on or even to oppose the present struggles of the workers for small improvements in their working conditions. No matter how small and modest the demands for which the workers are ready to fight the capitalists today, this must never be a reason for communists to abstain from the struggle.
“To be sure, in our agitational work, we communists should not show ourselves to be blind instigators of stupid strikes and other reckless actions; rather, the communists everywhere must earn the reputation among the struggling workers as their ablest comrades in struggle.”
Why we fight for reforms
The struggle for reform is crucial in several ways.
For one, only mass, militant struggle is capable of winning reforms. Indeed, the most far-reaching reforms come precisely when the ruling class feels that its control over society and its institutions are most threatened. Second, it is in the collective fight for reforms that ordinary people are radicalized and infused with a sense of their own power. Thirdly, a mass struggle can, under the right circumstances, pass over into an insurrectionary struggle that challenges for power.
Socialists however, make a distinction between reforms, which they support, and reformism, which they oppose.
Reformism is a political stance that sees the limits of social change as the limits set by the capitalist system itself. Reforms for reformists are ends in themselves. The socialist parties of the Second International, which hoped to achieve socialism through electoral success and gradual reforms were examples of reformist parties.
Historical experience shows that whenever the fight for reforms threatens to “get out of hand,” reformists try to douse it in cold water in order that it remains properly contained within “acceptable” limits—that is, limits acceptable to capitalism. Socialists therefore always wage a struggle against reformism—and to win the working class, in the process of fighting for reforms, to a revolutionary perspective.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin, in an article he wrote in 1913, explained the distinction between reforms and reformism this way:
“Unlike the anarchists, the Marxists recognize struggle for reforms—i.e., for measures that improve the conditions of the working people without destroying the power of the ruling class.
“At the same time, however, the Marxists wage a most resolute struggle against the reformists, who, directly or indirectly, restrict the aims and activities of the working class to the winning of reforms. Reformism is bourgeois deception of the workers, who, despite individual improvements, will always remain wage slaves, as long as there is the domination of capital.”
Reforms—and in particular, the struggle for reforms—while important in and of themselves for improving the conditions of the working class, are crucial in preparing the conditions for a struggle that challenges the capitalist system as a whole. Thus, socialists are never contented with stopping at achieving this or that reform, but are always pushing the movement on to greater conquest, and ultimately to the destruction of capitalism and the erection of a new society.
Some radicals oppose reforms because, they say, the ruling class uses them to induce the working class, by throwing it some crumbs, to renounce radical alternatives.
There is an important element of truth to this. Hence the appeal to the autocrat, heard more than once in world history: if you don’t grant reform from above, the masses will give you revolution from below.
Less dramatically, in capitalist states like the US, the alteration between liberal-reformist and conservative governments can act as a social safety valve, designed to keep discontent within limits acceptable to the ruling class. As the American socialist Hal Draper noted, this alteration is acted out “as a division of labor by different parties of the establishment.”
Nevertheless, the fact that states grant reforms in the hope that they defuse the class struggle does not mean that the granting of such reforms will necessarily achieve that result. Quite often winning a reform through struggle gives people the confidence to fight for more.
There is, in struggle, always a tension between accommodation to what exists and pushing beyond it; but it is only through struggle (and short of revolution, any struggle is always a struggle for reforms) that it becomes possible to move beyond reforms.
Reformism and gradualism (the idea that change should come smoothly and slowly) are twins. Both accept, consciously or not, the limits imposed by capitalism, because no matter how many reforms are accumulated, they cannot by themselves transform capitalism into socialism. For socialism to be achieved, at some point, the fight for reforms must shift qualitatively into a higher form of struggle. As the Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote:
“It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long drawn-out revolution, and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transformation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration, but according to their content.
“The secret of historic change through the utilization of political power resides precisely in the transformation of simple quantitative modification into a new quality—or to speak more concretely, in the passage of an historic period from one given form of society to another.
“That is why people who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society, they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society.”