Economic theory underlies our case against reformism. A revolution is the work of a class which 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 reformismis 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 which 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.
Reforms are beyond question, apparently.
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 friendly to revolution but is really calculated to frustrate it is “the time is not yet ripe” argument. Many people have sympathy 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, brought in after World War Two, provided state pensions and medical treatment for almost the whole 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 by members of the Abortion Law Reform Association. Reforms in education, sanitation and housing are others for which Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians have vied with each other to claim credit. Yet it is clear that the schooling received by the children of most wage and salary earners merely fits them for their role as workers. Improved sanitation reduces the threat of epidemics which 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 their 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 lot 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 on the mistakes of the past and present on certain leaders, this simply adds to the argument against leadership. In any case, the leader as a individual is irrelevant. Knocking one leader out of 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 struggle for reforms and transitional demands is now the indicated way the British working class and the labour movement can revive is the old argument, advanced by Trotsky in his founding manifesto for the "Fourth International" in 1938. That socialist consciousness will develop out of the struggle for reforms within capitalism: when workers realise that they can’t get the reforms they have been campaigning for they will, Trotsky declared, turn to the "cadres" of the Fourth International for leadership. Quite apart from the fact that this has never happened, this argument has always been more of a rationalisation of their reformist practice by shamefaced reformists who want to imagine that they are revolutionaries.
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, co-operative 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 who founded our Party realised the absurdity of this tactic a long time ago.
Reformism has been a failure, the more evident this become to people the better are our chance of achieving our goal, quickly.