Britain  •  Education

Which road: reform or revolution?

01 September 1998

By Karen Petrie

FOR MORE than three decades Marx and Engels argued that a revolution was the only way workers could achieve a socialist society. For them revolutionary crises emerged inevitably out of the conflict between classes in capitalist society. Capitalism creates the possibility and necessity for revolution. In the form of the “proletariat”, it also creates its own “grave-diggers”.

Marx and Engels did not reject a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism out of some demonic bloodlust but because they recognised that no ruling class in history had ever ceded its power and wealth without a fight. Modern capitalism itself triumphed over the old feudal order in a series of violent revolutions (notably in England and France).

There is, however, a tradition with deep and powerful roots in the workers’ movement which has often claimed the goal of socialism but argued that the path to it was the gradual transformation of society through reforms. Its supporters have maintained that capitalism’s worst aspects could be tamed and eventually modified into a new kind of society that favoured workers’ interests.

This political ideology has many advocates and several variants, both left and right-wing. It also has a name: reformism.

Capitalism has known periods of expansion and boom when many workers have seen their living standards rise. Probably the longest such period stretched from the end of the Second World War until the early 1970s. But capitalism, despite such periods; is a highly unstable economic system that plunges society into periodic crisis. The profit system creates such fierce competition between capitalist corporations and nation states that trade wars and, eventually, military conflicts erupt. Many reformists accept that capitalism is a system prone to crisis. But they argue that it is possible to use a parliamentary majority and government office to pursue reforms that will alleviate such a crisis.

Measures such as regulating competition, nationalising some industries, injecting more public spending into the economy and the partial redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor by taxation used to be at the core of the reformist programme.

In the reformist schema the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy means that, despite opposition from sections of the ruling class, change can still come about peacefully. Enabling acts and ministerial decrees replace the need for violent revolution.

Social Democratic party

Ironically, this strategy gained its clearest expression at the end of the 19th century in a mass working class organisation Marx and Engels had helped to found; the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). ln the 1880s and 1890s capitalism was enjoying a period of expansion and relative stability. Colonial conquests in Asia and Africa and the beginning of the imperialist stage of capitalist development had delivered super profits and improved living standards for many European workers.

German industry grew rapidly during these years. Trade unions and parties like the SPD organised hundreds of thousands of workers in struggles for better wages, public health provision and democratic rights, resulting in tangible gains for the working class. At the same time they gained parliamentary representation. These developments underpinned the emerging view inside the SPD and other workers’ parties, that capitalism could be reformed from above. In Britain, this perception shaped the programme and practice of the Labour Party.

In Germany, Eduard Bernstein, a very influential SPD thinker, explicitly abandoned the struggle for revolutionary socialism, claiming that Marx and Engels were fundamentally wrong about capitalism’s tendency to crisis and declaring that the revolutionary road was utopian. He promoted the view that Germany would continue to prosper and that workers, under the paternal guidance of the SPD’s parliamentary leadership, could move towards a gradual socialist transformation.

A battle of ideas developed within the SPD that would profoundly influence the socialist movement internationally. The Polish-born Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, launched a defence of basic Marxist principles against Bernstein in her pamphlet, Reform or Revolution.

World war

Despite Luxemburg’s battles within the SPD, Bernstein’s reformism gained influence and served to justify many an SPD retreat. When capitalist stability gave way to the catastrophic First World War, the SPD leadership supported the German state’s war effort. The SPD’s programme had, in fact, strengthened capitalism by directing workers’ anger away from the bosses’ system itself into a doomed attempt to make it more humane. Reformist logic—the commitment to managing capitalism inexorably leads to the defence of that system—led the German SPD leadership to support their bosses when they plunged Germany and Europe into a frenzy of inter-imperialist carnage. Luxemburg had clearly anticipated the danger of this logic. She recognised that whether workers struggle to reform the capitalist state or overthrow it is not a question of different paths on the same road or towards the same goal:

“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.”

She was proved right not only by the SPD leadership’s becoming recruiting sergeants for German imperialism in 1914 but by their attitude to the workers’ revolution in Russia, led by the Bolsheviks, in 1917. These leaders declared themselves to be the sworn enemy of this revolution, of its soviets which acted as a real democratic alternative to parliament, and its militia which was the direct opposite of the hierarchical capitalist army that the SPD now regarded as its own.

After four years of war, and with Germany defeated, the German workers wanted revolutionary change as well. The Spartakists, a party formed by Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, became the vanguard of the revolution of late 1918. The SDP leaders revealed where their real class loyalties lay. They crushed the revolution, and briefly silenced the voice of revolutionary socialism. In January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were brutally murdered on orders from the SPD leadership, their bodies dumped into a Berlin canal.

Reformism revealed itself as no longer a strand of opinion within the workers’ movement but as the agent of the ruling class within that movement dedicated to counterrevolution and willing to contemplate only those reforms that capitalism could afford.

Reformism in Britain

The radical variant of the reformist strategy in a country like Britain, embodied most famously by Tony Benn, argues that the struggle for reforms should be conducted on a wide front, but fundamental social change should be brought about primarily in the House of Commons. Extra-parliamentary struggle is an adjunct, not an alternative, in Benn’s version of the peaceful road to socialism. Benn’s case is based on the idea that parliament is the key location of power in Britain and other western countries. This is his first and most important mistake. Of course, governments can tinker with the system, increase taxes a little and introduce the odd reforming law. But the capitalists have been very careful over many years to ensure that their real political power is located outside of parliament, in places where it will not fall into untrustworthy hands.

Any reform that seriously challenges the property rights of big business will be met with resistance by the real power of the capitalist state—the unelected civil service, judiciary, the armed forces, secret services and the police. It will be met by the economic sabotage of big business and the banks. They will order flights of capital to cripple a government if they think it is overstepping their boundaries.

The state apparatus defends ruling class power and privilege against the threat of working class revolt. A major strike or workers’ demonstration will be met with the full repressive force of this state yet capitalists will be protected by it even when they are busy sabotaging government policies, carrying out mass sackings or enforcing pay cuts.

The experience of every attempt to utilise parliamentary means in the struggle for socialism has highlighted the crucial significance of the state apparatus. In Russia after the February 1917 overthrow of the Tsar, the workers looked to the Provisional government to meet their needs. When the peasants demanded land and the workers the factories, the government suddenly proved powerless confronting the landowners, the bosses and the military.

While one wing of the movement—the Mensheviks—put their faith in peaceful reform, the Bolsheviks recognised that only the armed might of workers’ and peasants’ militias combined with the power of workers’ councils (soviets) could secure the basis for a socialist society.

The insurrection in October 1917 was able to take power from the capitalists precisely because the workers had built their own alternative power structures. Without these alternatives, without a revolutionary party leading a revolution reformism will always fill the gap.

And Reformism’s strategy can have far more tragic consequences than just a missed opportunity. In 1973 in Chile, after Salvador Allende’s left-wing government attempted to implement a programme of radical reforms, the bosses launched a bloody coup against the workers. The workers were left defenceless and the socialist government powerless. All their decrees came to nothing. The real power of the bosses’ state was revealed in all its brutal horror in a Santiago football stadium where army troops murdered thousands of workers and radical students.

We have to ensure that this lesson is learnt once and for all by the majority of the working class. The century now ending has seen countless opportunities to rid the globe of capitalism squandered by reformist leaders, all too often ending in tragedy.

This is why the necessity for revolutionary force, organised by the mass of workers with the unambiguous aim of smashing the military power of the capitalist state and replacing it with the power of the workers militia, based on the democracy of workers’ councils, is the only strategy that can secure a socialist victory.

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