What is reformism?
For more than a hundred years the socialist movement has debated the issue of reform or revolution. Some people say the debate is ‘old hat’ and ‘boring’ and we should ‘move beyond it’.
In fact many recent developments, including the election of the Syriza government in Greece followed by its capitulation to the demands of the EU, and now the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party, have shown that the question remains relevant.
So what is the debate about? It is NOT about whether it is necessary to campaign for reforms i.e. for immediate and concrete changes that will improve the lives of working class people, such as housing for the homeless or the abolition of water charges or a wage increase at work.
EVERY serious socialist and revolutionary – Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Connolly, Larkin – all of them, fought for reforms and so does Socialist Worker today. No the real debate is about whether it is enough to fight for reforms and how and within what perspective we fight for reforms.
Reformists limit themselves to campaigning for reforms. Revolutionaries campaign for reforms as part of and stepping stones to building a revolutionary movement to overthrow the capitalist system.
There are two main kinds of reformism: right-wing or ‘mainstream’ reformism and left reformism. Mainstream reformism accepts the basic structure of capitalist society but aims to improve the running of the system by various laws and measures. Their claim is that they will be able, if they are elected, to manage capitalism in a more humane, progressive way than the mainstream right. Crucially, if they are a traditional reformist party like British Labour and Irish Labour (before it went into coalition with Fine Gael), they claim that they will protect working class interests while doing this.
Historically there are many examples of this kind of reformism – Willy Brandt and German Social Democracy since 1914, the French Socialist Party under Mitterand and Hollande, the British Labour Party for most of its history, and Dick Spring and Eamonn Gilmore and Irish Labour in the past.
Left reformism, aims or claims to aim to transform capitalism into socialism by means of reforms and without a revolution. They say if elected they will pass laws and make such changes as will gradually alter the basic structure of society in a socialist direction. Importantly Left reformists usually call for mass movements and trade unions to mobilise to back them in this endeavour.
Examples of left reformism range from German Social Democracy before the First World War and Salvador Allende and Popular Unity in Chile (1970-73), through Tony Benn in British Labour to Syriza, Podemos and Jeremy Corbyn today.
Left reformism can sound much more radical than ordinary reformism and the pro-system politicians and media usually fiercely denounce it as ‘extremist’, ‘loony left’ and communist as they are doing now with Corbyn. But Left reformism and mainstream reformism share two important things in common.
First they both propose to change society for people, on their behalf, rather saying that working people must do it for themselves. Second they both propose to use the existing state structure – parliament, administration, civil service, courts, police, armed forces etc – to carry out this change.
Quite often Left reformists qualify this by calling for mass movements to exert pressure from below on the state by means of demonstrations and so on. And sometimes they say they will gradually transform the state by using one bit of it, parliament, to change other bits of it – civil service, police, judges etc.
Does it work
The reason revolutionaries differ from this strategy is not that we don’t want reforms, nor that we are too impatient to wait for gradual change, still less that we have a yearning for violence. On the contrary if a left-wing government could transform capitalism into socialism through parliament that would be wonderful. It is that experience has shown time and time again that the reformist strategy doesn’t work.
The MOST that happens is that when the capitalism is booming reformism makes a few very limited improvements while the system with its exploitation, class divisions inequality and unfairness remain intact. When the system is having problems or in crisis, as at present, not even these limited reforms are achieved even by the most left-wing reformists.
Sometimes, as with Allende in Chile in 1973, the reformist experiment is smashed. More often, as with Syriza and Tsipras in Greece, the reformists are pressured into collaboration with the system. And they give way to this pressure. Moreover, the reformists often act as a break on the very movement from below which is supporting them.
What the revolutionary alternative is to this dismal scenario will be outlined in this column in next month’s issue of Socialist Worker.