The Socialist Party neither promotes, nor opposes, reforms to capitalism. We believe that socialists shouldn't work for reforms to capitalism, because only a movement for socialism itself can establish socialism. Those which work for reforms hold either that reforms to capitalism will eventually result in socialism, or that supporting reforms is an appropriate way to convince workers to support socialism. Some put forward a reasonable analysis of capitalism, but then work to give capitalism a human face. Some claim that they want to end capitalism. Their bottom line is, however, just capitalism with reforms.
What are reforms? They are legislative and other enactments forced upon or necessary for governments in running the various forms of capitalism. A typical major one was the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948. It nicely represents the contradictory nature of reforms. For the NHS contributed to raising the standard of living for many workers, but was used by governments to hold down wages and has become a bargaining counter used by the various capitalist political parties ever since. 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 (originally, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reformism meant seeking support for reforms that could specifically lead to socialism). 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 and leads to disastrous Labour governments. But we don’t do this and never have done. Do we oppose reforms? We are opposed to reformism – the policy of advocating reforms, either as a way of 'improving' capitalism or as a means to socialism – but we are not necessarily opposed to individual reforms which may be of benefit to the working class. However we do not advocate any reform, because we hold that to do so would lead to a socialist party changing into a reformist party, attracting the support of non-socialists.
Every organisation has to decide what it is working for, and whether that aim is important. When the first of the parties in the World Socialist Movement was founded in 1904, it decided it was going to work for socialism. Socialists are, of course, not immune to the human tragedies which occur daily, by the millions, and which has generate thousands of reformist groups trying to stem the tide. Socialists made a choice. They chose to use their time and limited funds to work to eliminate the cause of the problems. One can pick any problem and often one can find that real improvements have taken place, usually after a very long period of agitation. Rarely, if ever, has the problem disappeared, and usually other related problems have cropped up to fill the vacuum of destruction or suffering left by the "solution". The mistaken idea that we should devote our energies to improving capitalist society through reforms has led, certainly in absolute terms, to the most destructive century in history. What has been the most pernicious lie of the century? It is that hope for the future lay in the gradual, imperceptible, but certain amelioration of capitalism through the process of reform. The false hope of piecemeal improvement of an essentially cancerous system captured the imaginations of millions, exhausted their energies in the reformist struggle to humanise the profit system, and then left them dumbed by frustration. Whether the changes were to come through the division lobbies of Westminster or by gaining control of local councils or by humanitarian and "green" appeals for a nicer, gentler world, the system which puts profit before need has persistently spat the hope of humane capitalism back in the face of its advocates. The progressive enthusiasm of millions has been stamped out in this way. Dare we imagine how different it would have been if that energy—or even a half or a tenth of that energy—which has gone into reforming capitalism had gone into abolishing it? With a movement great in number, if still a minority, how much stronger would we be if our fellow workers had not experienced that bitter disillusionment of failed reformism and the indignity of abandoning principles for the sake of short-term gains? Should we who struck to undiluted socialist principles- the world for the workers with production solely for use, and nothing less—be the ones to bow our heads in defeat when the policy of reform, not revolution, has so miserably failed? Had we ever abandoned our socialist principles the very idea of a new society based on equality and co-operation would have been lost and that would have only compounded the tragedy. Whilst this is true, and in all circumstances, inescapable, one consequence of our principled stand is that for the most part we do remain alienated from the political life of society.
If there is one thing the employing class is more afraid of than anything else it is the possibility of the workers accepting the idea embodied in the term “the Social Revolution”. Revolutionists are described as wild visionaries, Utopia builders, and so on. In the not-so-distant past the Labour Party did talk in terms of changing society. True, this was only as a long-term prospect, but the idea of an alternative society was there. There was wide consensus among those calling themselves socialists as to what socialism was. Dissent among socialists was mostly not about the nature of socialism but about the best way of achieving it. At that time socialist organisations did not offer reform policies as an end in themselves but rather as strategies that would lead to the eventual overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. Now this has gone and those of us who are left proposing this are denounced as "unrealistic" for continuing to advocate a "big solution" when supposedly there is none. The real casualty of the errors and internecine disputes of the past has been socialism itself. Unfortunately, this has created a graveyard of broken hopes
The World Socialist Movement does not accept the view that nothing but socialism concerns the socialist and in regards to trade unionism has stated that the non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary. When the worker acquires revolutionary consciousness he is still compelled to make the non-revolutionary struggle. We fight in the here and now, where we are and where we can, rather than tell everyone to wait until the revolution comes and that all struggle is a diversion from creating a united Marxian socialist party of the world. It doesn't mean we have to sit around and wait for a revolution. A blanket opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism in the guise of being supportive of working class interests and being true to socialist principles, they would involve actions (or sometimes, inaction) 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). 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. Socialists have to acknowledge that the "welfare" state, the NHS and so on, made living standards for some sections of the working class better than they had been under rampant capitalism and its early ideology of laissez faireHowever, 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. After the Jewish Holocaust, people said "Never Again". But genocide didn't stop. It continued. The conditions promoting genocide didn't go away, and so neither did the genocide. If the reformists had solved the myriad of problems, or were even to be able to say that things were steadily improving, that would argue in favour of their approach to reform. But that is not the case. The same problems continue to appear and re-appear. It is often one step forward, several steps back.
We argue that the working class should organise for socialism, but that doesn't mean that nothing can be done this side of the revolution. Such things as basic health care came into being because the working class fought for them (even though politicians have since claimed the credit). Without the threat of action we would never have won such things. Strikes, or the threat of them, help to improve wages and working conditions. We have the ability to change things if we act together. The power to transform society lies in the hands of those who create everything - the working class. This is the source of our power, should we eventually use it. The power not to make a few reforms, but to change the whole system, to make a social revolution. The basis of the socialist argument is that the material conditions for socialism exist now but it can only come into being when the working class had matured politically to the point where it could commit itself to the new society. Leading the workers along the path of reform is not equipping them for their revolutionary role but was in fact establishing the contrary idea that capitalism could be made to function in the interests of the class it exploited.
Some reforms e.g. securing freedom of speech, extending the franchise, stopping a war, benefit the entire working class and socialist movement. Democracy is not a set of rules or a parliament; it is a process, a process that must be fought for. The struggle for democracy is the struggle for socialism. It is not a struggle for reforms, for this or that political system, for this or that leader, for some rule change or other—it is the struggle for an idea, for a belief, a belief that we can run our own lives, that we have a right to a say in how society is run, for a belief that the responsibility for democracy lies not upon the politicians or their bureaucrats, but upon ourselves. Our view is to let the upholders of capitalism work for reforms while we put the revolutionary alternative. Socialist MPs and councillors would be mandated to put the case for socialism and to criticise reform activity from the socialist perspective. However, the long-established socialist position is that socialist delegates in such an environment would be duty-bound to consider voting for measures that could benefit the working class as a whole and/or the socialist movement in particular. These issues would be judged on their merits at the time, and could, for instance, involve socialist delegates voting to stop a war, such as the recent war in Iraq. In such a case abstention would not be justifiable. In taking this position, they would still make clear their opposition to capitalism as a whole and to all parties of capitalism and would at no time seek support from the working class on the basis of a reform programme. The Socialist Party does not oppose reformism because it is against improvements in workers' lives lest they dampen their revolutionary ardour; nor, because it thinks that decadent capitalism simply cannot deliver on any reforms; but because our continued existence as propertyless wage-slaves undermines whatever attempts we make to control and better our lives through reforms.
An early article in the Socialist Standard clarifies the position in defining the political approach:
"...Socialism declares that all the social phenomena of our days are the results of capitalism, manifestations of the class war, which will cease only with the disappearance of classes. Therefore the Socialist Party is a party of class and of revolution. On the other hand, the desire for some immediate bettering of his lot is too well engendered in the heart of man for him to lose hope, even against all logic. Logic is weak against the power of an instinctive desire. The political parties promise reforms to their electors just as a nurse promises the moon to a child. The Socialist Party is thus caught between the logic of its scientific principle and the universal desire for an immediate amelioration - ”something now”. It cannot betray its principle, but it is likewise impossible that this party- of men - can escape this human desire for reforms. This contradiction is, however, not without a solution.
The conditions of existence of the wage-workers depends upon their wages. It is not determined by the legal law, but by the economic law of supply and demand...Social realities are outside of parliaments...the Houses of Parliament can do nothing - absolutely nothing - to modify the real wage of the workers. The legal law is of straw; the economic law is of iron. Why change the tax-gathering plate if you do not change what is put into it? To dream of bettering the conditions of existence by political means is Utopia.
Although the bettering of the conditions of existence by way of political reform is impossible, it is not the same as regards the conditions of fighting, and it appears to us to be possible to make easier the struggle of the proletariat against the capitalist middle-class.
To distinguish between the conditions of fighting and the conditions of existence is not to split a hair. The difference is real...
...By the very fact of capitalist production the proletariat is at war with the bourgeoisie. This struggle is sometimes hidden, at other times visible to the eyes of all, but it is without truce. Far from becoming less evident, conflicts increase daily. Some reforms would render the attacks of the proletariat more powerful, those of its adversary weaker, and would make the effort easier and more efficient..."
Another early socialist (Bebel) wrote "we avail ourselves of all means for bettering the condition of our comrades the workers. We do not spurn reforms; but what we do refuse, and that in the most explicit manner, is the coming to an agreement with any faction whatsoever of the middle-class [read capitalist class], no matter by what name it may go. An agreement of this kind cannot be of any other consequence than to make Socialism responsible for the oppression which the capitalists exercise over the masses of the working-class..."
It is true that some reforms benefit some workers, but they may also benefit sections of the capitalist class. In the time-honoured squabble as to who should pay for the reforms and upkeep of the working class it is but one between robbers over the cost of the robbery - the robbery of the working class in the field, factory and workshop. That does not, however, prevent our masters, inveigling the workers into the fight. Once the workers are drawn into the controversy a double purpose is served. First, they stop fighting their employers and exploiters – the active enemies; secondly, their assistance is secured in shifting the "taxation burdens” on to other capitalists. Why should we support the manufacturing capitalists against the financial capitalists? The pro-capitalist argument for Family Allowances in the 1940s was that the employer paid the rate for the job (including an increment to cover a wife and children) even when most of the male population were unmarried. The Family Allowances plan was a scheme based on targeting provision on those workers actually with children. This reform allowed employers to make wage reductions for workers without families.
The route of trying to change capitalism is the one that has been taken by most people who have wanted to improve society. Reformism has some attractions over revolution – especially if you lack imagination, don't like confrontation, prefer to think only in the short term, and don't want to be accused of not living in the real world. You are also assured of being in good company because large numbers of people think (or fail to think) as you do. Reformism is a most excellent strategy if you want only small changes in society, and are satisfied with what you get (which is usually substantially less than what you were promised). The idea that capitalism can be humanised and changed by a series of reforms is almost as old as the capitalist system itself. But reforms are implemented by political parties that seek and get a mandate to run capitalism. The motives for reforms may include anxiety to relieve suffering and keenness to promote well-being, but the measures have the effect of serving the system rather than meeting the needs of individuals or groups. However, reformism is futile for two groups of people: those who expect that capitalism can be reformed to operate in the interests of the majority, and those who believe that a programme of reforms will “win the workers for the revolution” and hence make a contribution to the achievement of socialism. Therefore there are two kinds of reformism. One has no intention of bringing about revolutionary change (indeed it may use reforms to stem 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.
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. Hence 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. Since the struggle for reforms cannot alter the slave position of the working class, it ends by bringing indifference and disillusionment to the workers who look to reforms for emancipation. In order to accomplish the revolution nothing is wanted but the revolutionary lever. The BNP, for instance, are the product of the total failure of all the reformist parties to make capitalism a fit society to live in. And this is not the fault of the mainstream parties, for they are controlled by the system and not vice versa despite their claims and promises. When capitalism fails to deliver, when despondency and shattered hopes arise from the stench of the failed promises and expectations that litter the political landscape, is it any wonder that workers fall for the scapegoating lies of fascists and the quick fix they offer?
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. 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 society. Reformers, philanthropic individuals and other well-meaning folk in charities, have all failed. By now most of them realise they will never actually solve the problems they are tackling. They are like medics on a battlefield: all they can do is to keep slamming in the morphine, slapping on the bandages and hope that somehow the slaughter will stop. 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.
Many think that reform is positive, but why should socialists divert their energies to repair and patch up a system they want to end altogether? Doing something is not enough, we need to do the right thing. We need to campaign for socialism. Socialists are revolutionaries: we believe that the establishment of a socialist society will involve a fundamental change in the way people live, and will necessitate the capture of political power by the socialist working class. As revolutionaries, we do not advocate reforms, that is, changes in the way capitalism runs, such as alterations to immigration policy or the health service or the tax system. Reforms, however ‘radical’, can never make capitalism run in the interests of the workers. Nor should supporting reforms be some kind of tactic pursued by socialists to gain support from workers, for workers who joined a Socialist Party because they admired its reformist tactics would turn it into a reformist organisation pure and simple. Socialists must reject reformism as a distraction from the revolutionary goal.
R.Biel in The New Imperialism writes:
“The organised left has itself opted for a mode of action which downplays (without completely rejecting) the idea of directly challenging the system…The left has had to retreat for a time from organising an alternative political economy, and is working instead on the terrain of capitalism”
“Working on the terrain of capitalism” is a euphemism for reformism. There are two implications in what Biel is saying. One is that there was a time when the left – or at least part of it – was working for socialism. The other is that, since the retreat was only “for a time”, there will be a time in the future when working for socialism will come to the top of the agenda instead of being downplayed.
"Direct action" is merely a method, a tactic, not an end in itself and can in fact be employed for different ends. In the present political context it is being advocated as a better way to get reforms than elections. May be it is, but maybe it isn't. One powerful argument as to why it might not be has just been demonstrated: those with the biggest vehicles can reclaim the streets more effectively than those without. In other words, with direct-actionist, pressure group politics, those who can exert the most pressure will tend to come off best, and it is the more powerful who can generally exert the most pressure. Our view is that those who concentrate on trying to obtain reforms within capitalism—whether by direct action or through the electoral process—are on the wrong track. What is needed is precisely what most of them refuse—and in fact have consciously rejected doing—and that is raising the issue of an alternative society as the only framework within which the problems for which they are seeking short-term relief can be solved.
Our objection to reformism is, then, that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the workings of the wages system. All that effort, skill, energy, all those tools could be turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our common mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing struggle. Socialists understand well the urge to do something now, to make a change. That makes us all the more determined, however, to get the message across.
Going directly for revolution, refusing to settle for anything less than the full monty of socialism, is a policy that will take time to bring results. Many people will have to be weaned off the superficial attractions of “achievable” reforms. But going for revolution isn't just a long-term policy – it is also a good short-term one. Faced with an electorate who refuse to vote for capitalism-supporting candidates, confronted by a majority who no longer believe “there is no alternative”, challenged by a growing socialist movement that says revolution is possible and shows how life and society could be so much better, what else can those who wish to support capitalism do than concede as much as possible, in effect to narrow the gap between the old and new systems?
No Labour government can rule under capitalism without making itself the slave of commercial interests at home and abroad. Those individuals who picture a working-class administration under capitalism cautiously and tentatively experimenting in social legislation while the employing class remains dominant in the industrial field, are the real utopians. Your Labour government only exist within the present system by helping to run the system. The capitalists still rule. Attempts to reform capitalism, whether through parliament or dictatorship, have failed. This leaves conscious majority revolution as the only way forward. Instead of Labour governments gradually transforming capitalism into socialism, the opposite happened. The experience of governing capitalism (in 1924, in 1929, in 1945, in 1964 and in the 1970s) gradually transformed Labour into the open party of capitalism and proud friend of the City and Business that it is today. So its political managers are reduced to arguing out differences which are mostly minor or sham, about how best to spend the money that comes to them, depending on their luck with the economy. And those who set out to change society through winning political power and reforms have had to accept what was always inevitable, that reformism is a graveyard for such hopes. This happens not because reforms have never made a difference to the way the system works. For anyone wishing to bring about a new and better world, reformism requires a pact with the devil where the forming of a government means being sucked into running the system. This is what has happened to Labour. It has fallen victim to a corrupting process in which the allurements of government power have ruled out any realistic sense of what can be done with such power. As a consequence, the Labour Party not only accepts the capitalist system but it is now fully committed to managing its continued development. We wish we had been wrong in our analysis of the situation. We wish the Labour Party and the Social Democratic parties elsewhere and their myriad of Left-wing supporters had succeeded in chipping away at the fortress of capitalism, had demolished it and created a sane socialist society.
Many have ridden the roundabout of reformism and, having enjoyed the ride, want to go round again, but socialists want no part in this fraud. Social happiness, common ownership, free access, democratic control; all can be achieved by the working class. Promising crumbs off the master's table has diverted attention away from the attempts by definite socialists to secure the whole loaf, the bakery, the flour-mills and the wheat fields.
One of the most frequent criticisms of the Socialist Party is that while the policy of advocating socialism is useful and necessary for the ultimate solution of working-class problems, it is nevertheless a short-sighted and unrealistic policy to neglect to support measures of social reform designed to improve the conditions of the workers whilst capitalism is still in existence. It is urged that a socialist party should wage a guerrilla warfare with the capitalists in order to gain benefits, even if only temporary and minor, and that in doing so it would rally to the cause of socialism many workers who otherwise would not be prepared to support an organisation which appeared to have an excellent programme for the future but not for the present. Our reply to that criticism has been that the task of a socialist party is to establish socialism, and that as this can only be brought about by a working population possessing an understanding of the issues involved, our propaganda at all times must be directed at spreading the essential socialist knowledge. Further we have argued that a socialist party which advocated reforms would attract non-socialist support from those interested in all or some of the reform measures, and that the non-socialist support would sooner or later (and in all probability sooner) swamp the socialist elements and the party would become just another reformist organisation with no better claim to working class support than that of the Labour Party, "Communists" and so on. We have pointed to the records of these “socialist” organisations which have adopted the policy of “getting something now” to show the futility of attempting either to build up a socialist movement with a reformist programme, or even to reform out of existence some of the minor disabilities suffered by the workers under capitalism. In this latter connection it can be said that the reform measures that have been passed have generally been instituted by self-confessed capitalist organisations which have recognised the need to adjust capitalism in the light of changing conditions. The usual process has been for the so-called workers’ parties to agitate (often for a considerable period) for particular measures of social reform and then in the end, when the capitalists can no longer resist the agitation, for these (or watered-down versions of them) to be brought about by the Liberal or Conservative governments, which have thus been able to steal the limelight which the workers’ organisations have sought to obtain, and use it to their own advantage. This in its turn has increased the confusion in the minds of the workers, who feel that there can be very little wrong with capitalism when capitalist parties themselves are prepared to adopt what have been proclaimed to be “socialist” proposals.
Critics of the Socialist Party are already telling us that here at last is something concrete that is worthy of the efforts of socialists and that the workers should get together in order to force the government to implement a host of reforms. We remain unimpressed. The great problem remains and that problem is the the poverty of the working-class, and not just the additional burdens in time of unemployment, old age and sickness. The poverty of the working-class is due to the private ownership by the capitalists of the means of production and distribution. Socialism alone can end that poverty. We shall not be diverted from our task in order to chase the shadows, but we shall continue to strive for the substance, socialism, which will abolish for ever the conditions which bring into being the evils of the modern world. Reformers do not create a new world of hope, but simply re-arrange and re-distribute the misery. The concept of class struggle and of revolution is alien to the rose-tinted reformists of the British left characterised by the Labour Party who are content to see every gain as the building of barriers against the tide of capitalism only to see them smashed down with the next tide.
As a socialist party we tend to be hostile to the activities of reformers. This has a simple logic. In one way or another reformists are supporters of capitalism. We are opposed to capitalism. Therefore we are opposed to the activities of those offering palliatives. However, what we find is that we share many of the basic hopes and intentions of many thousands of people who are active in all kinds organisations. Socialists do not hold a monopoly on social concern. For example, many people are concerned with the plight of millions of starving people and they try to do something about it. We share that concern, this is something that we have in common with them. So it is not true that we are hostile to all reformers. So how can we be more engaged with these people with whom we share some common ground?
They are in organisations like Oxfam. They work voluntarily collecting money and running charity shops to finance workers in the field in many places, doing what they can to provide seeds, tools and equipment and small scale irrigation schemes and things like fresh water wells. Others are in organisations such as the United Nations Association in the hope that agencies like the Food and Agricultural Organisation could do more to help the starving. We are quite right to say that these efforts do not stand a chance of ever being able to solve a problem that is getting worse. But rather than be hostile to the activities of these people we should adopt a much less alienated approach. Instead of emphasising the futility of their activities; instead of shouting abstract slogans at them such as common ownership, democratic control and production for use; we could argue from a basis where we have set out how existing world wide organisation already exists for dealing with the problem of world hunger. This more engaged approach would be to describe how the principles of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use could be applied in practical ways. This would convert the higher abstractions of economic analysis into proposed lines of practical activity. This would in turn project what people in Oxfam are trying to do into a different social context in which their work could be more successful in solving the problem. This would draw their attention more directly to the need to alter the present economic and political framework which is so destructive of their efforts. This more engaged approach would be to acknowledge that they are doing what they can to lessen world hunger but the problem is getting worse, and then say, "The action to solve this problem must include action to bring about a society where you will have the freedom to act more effectively and this is how it could actually work. The work of solving the problem and the work of creating the conditions in which it can be solved go together." And of course the same approach could be directed at other organisations, for example, the many environmentalists.
Socialists should build on our economic and political analysis and apply its logic to the development of all the socially useful factors of modern world society in setting out how socialism could operate. Then armed with this set of practical proposals we make every attempt to be more positively engaged with the many non socialists with whom we share common ground of concern and indignation and the need to establish a world of equality, democracy and co-operation.