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R is for Reformism and Revolution

23 September 2018
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One banner from a National Union of Mineworkers’ branch in Yorkshire, used to be a regular on demonstrations in the 1980s. It showed a large picture of the houses of Parliament and underneath was written, “The Hope of the Workers.”

The banner’s meaning was obvious – the only hope for a radical change in the life of workers was to elect a Labour government. It expressed the dominance of reformism inside the working class.

The reformist strategy rests on three fundamental beliefs:

The idea that what is wrong with capitalism is how it distributes the wealth it creates;

that political reforms can ensure a redistribution of wealth and transform capitalism into a society in which injustice, inequality and the social conflict they generate will cease;

Given parliamentary democracy, all these changes can be brought about legally and without violence.

Each of these ideas is fatally flawed. Unequal distribution is a result of unequal, private ownership of the main means of creating wealth. As long as that remains, attempts to share out the capitalists’ wealth will always be sabotaged by lay-offs, pay cuts or even the closure of plants.

As for reforms transforming capitalism into a just society, the idea is ridiculous. Nowhere have the capitalists allowed reforms that have altered the basic structure of their system.

Finally, the idea that the capitalists will give up their wealth as a result of a vote in parliament is a very sick joke. In 1973, in Chile, a left reformist government did attempt to carry through major reforms as part of a peaceful road to socialism. The bosses used a bloody military coup to overthrow the government and smash to pieces the legal workers’ movement. The workers paid for the reformist strategy in blood.

Faced with a serious threat to their power, the British bosses would act just as viciously as those in Chile. They could do this because real power lies not in parliament but with the police and army high command, in the secret services and with the unelected judges and civil servants – the capitalist state machine which exists for the purpose of guarding the capitalist system.

For all these reasons, revolutionary socialists reject the reformist strategy, not because we are indifferent to reforms but because we do not believe that reforms, however extensive, can end capitalism. The capitalists have an enormous stake in their system. They will not sit back and see that stake seized from them.

Only a revolution can abolish their system. Only a revolution, in which the working class organise their own power – their own democratic councils and their own militia – to paralyse and destroy the power of the capitalist state machine, will open the way to a socialist society.

Only workers’ power can begin the transition to socialism, because only such power could enforce the decisions to use the economy in the interests of the majority.

Reformists will tell you that this is pie in the sky, that revolutions never work, that they don’t change anything. But this is a lie. Every “democracy” that exists today – Holland, Britain, France, Germany, the USA, not to mention numerous states throughout the “Third World” – has been created courtesy of a revolution. Virtually every significant reform has been a by-product of revolution or the threat of revolution.

In 1917 the Russian working class conquered power for themselves in a revolution that swept away the monarchy and capitalism. It was a marvellous achievement. But it was strangled – from outside by the pressure of international capitalism and from inside by a bureaucracy led by Stalin who made peace with capitalism.

Nevertheless, that revolution, in its early days, created the most democratic society the world had ever seen. It showed that a workers’ revolution could be made and that such a revolution was the living alternative to the reformist utopia of reconciling workers and capital.

In the early 20th century ago a former Marxist, Eduard Bernstein, concluded that revolution was utopian and advocated a reform strategy instead. He remains the theoretical father of reformism.

A Polish revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, replied to him in a brilliant pamphlet called ‘Reform or Revolution’. In it, she answered the reformists’ objections to the revolutionary strategy and concluded that revolutionaries and reformists did not simply have different ways of achieving the same goal, but had different goals. The revolutionaries wanted to overthrow capitalism, the reformists to live comfortably within it. As Luxemburg wrote:

“That is why people who pronounce themselves in favour 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 modification of the old society.”

Bernstein’s politics were summed up in his famous dictum, “the final goal is nothing; the movement is everything.” Luxemburg showed how this rejection of the goal of working class power must lead the reformists to dissolve the working class movement itself.

If all that matters is what can be won peacefully by negotiation in the short term, then “the movement” must not limit itself to working class goals but try to appeal to the “middle classes”.

And this is exactly what reformism does – it begins by redefining the socialist goal and ends by rejecting socialism altogether. As new millennium witnesses waves of workers’ struggles and revolutions around the world, it will be revolutionary socialism that will triumph, and R for revolution will replace R for reformism.

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