Wednesday, January 11, 2017

'Successful' Reforms



 Given the apparent futility of reform campaigning to remove the social problems and economic difficulties capitalism creates, socialists know that a revolutionary change in the basis of society is necessary. However, does this mean that all reforms are doomed to failure and do not really make a difference to workers' lives? Of course not - there are many examples of 'successful' reforms in such fields as education, housing, child employment, conditions of work and social security. Indeed, the Socialist Party does not oppose all reforms as such, only the futile and dangerous attempt to seek power to administer capitalism on the basis of a reform programme - reformism.

 Any socialist elected to Parliament or to local councils would be delegated by the Socialist Party to treat individual reforms that came to their attention on their merits, principally as to whether they would benefit the working class at large, or indeed, the movement for socialism in particular. At all times, however, socialists would refrain from advocating specific reforms of capitalism or supporting organisations wanting to reform this or that aspect of the system.

 This is because while there have been some 'successful' reforms, none of them have ever done more than keep workers and their families in efficient working order and, while reforms have sometimes taken the edge off a problem, they have very rarely managed to remove that problem completely. There have been some marginal improvements, but the social problems that the reformers have set out to deal with have generally not been solved - hence the need for an uncompromising socialist party to pursue revolutionary change.

 Let us take some examples of 'successful' reforms. If we look at education, we can see that despite the 1870 Education Act, the introduction of comprehensive schools and now grant-maintained schools, it is arguable whether the education most children receive is adequate to their needs or conducive to their wellbeing.
  It is mostly designed to prepare them, conveyor-belt fashion, for the job market.

 In housing, successive governments have brought in measures claiming to solve the housing problem and the majority of wage and salary earners are indeed better housed than ever before. Yet official figures show that there are tens of thousands of homeless people, many in 'bed-and-break-fast' accommodation or sleeping rough on the streets, while millions of homes are either unfit to live in or require substantial repairs.

 Concerning the welfare of children, the suffering many underwent in chimneys, mines and factories in the last century was eventually ended by government legislation. Nevertheless, twenty years after the beginning of the 'welfare state' there were still enough children living in deprived conditions to merit the setting up of the Child Poverty Action Group. When it was first formed, its members were so certain that the problem would be solved within the year that they did not even open a bank account. That was in 1965 . . .

 More generally, reform legislation has meant that employers can no longer impose unlimited hours of work on their employees and are officially obliged to provide minimum conditions of safety. It has meant that sick, unemployed and old people no longer generally have to rely on charity to live. Yet for all this, many people are forced to work long hours of over-time to make ends meet, accidents and deaths at work run into many thousands annually, government figures show that more than one in five families live on or below the official poverty line, and many old people die each winter through not being able to afford adequate heating. Increased stress means that one in four workers will suffer mental health problems during their lives.

 The problems remain, then. What we have is an education system to provide better trained and more skilful workers, work regulations to make sure that we are not driven beyond endurance, a health service to patch us up quickly so that we can return to work, and social security schemes to ensure that our working ability does not degenerate too much in periods of unemployment.

 What reformers have to ask themselves is whether it is worthwhile campaigning for reforms when, as we have seen:
  • their campaign, whether directed at a 'right-wing' or a 'left-wing' government, can only hope to succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system;
  • their campaign, whether directed at a 'right-wing' or a 'left-wing' government, can only hope to succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system;
  • the measure they have supported, even if implemented, may well have consequences they did not foresee and would not have wanted;
  • any reform can be reversed or eroded later if a government finds it necessary;
  • any number of reforms bearing on a problem rarely, if ever, actually solve that problem.
 How can the increasing number of people involved in reform activity, and clearly concerned with the problems that affect society and their own lives, most usefully direct their energies? The answer lies in a recognition of the uselessness of appealing to governments to bring in benevolent reforms, and of the necessity of democratic political action to get rid of the very need for governments.

 The institution of government does not feel threatened by appeals to it to act on single issues - even if those appeals take the form of mass public protests. On the contrary, government only feels a sense of power and security in the knowledge that the protesters recognise it as the supreme authority to which all appeals must be made. As long as people are only protesting over single issues they are remaining committed to supporting the system as a whole.

 But government will take quite a different view when large numbers of people confront it not to plead from a position of weakness for this or that change or addition to the statute book, but to challenge the whole basis of the way we live - in other words to question the inevitability of buying and selling and production for profit, and to actively work from a position of political strength for its replacement by the socialist alternative.

 In such circumstances, the governments aim will be to buy off the growing socialist consciousness of workers. In other words, reforms will be much more readily granted to a large and growing socialist movement than to reformers campaigning over individual issues within the present system.

 Not of course that the growing movement will be content with the re-forms the system hands out. All the reforms the system is capable of are paltry compared with the worldwide satisfaction of needs and the fully democratic, self-organised activity that a society of common ownership and free access will have to offer.

 True, in some countries living standards have improved over the years for the majority of people. However, the proper comparison is not between conditions now and conditions 50, 100 or 200 years ago, but between the way we have to live today and what life could be like in socialism.

 To those who still say that, while they ultimately want socialism, it is a long way off and we must have reforms in the meantime, we would reply that socialism need not be a long way off and there need not be a meantime. If all the immense dedication and energy that have been channelled into reform activity over the past 200 years had been directed towards achieving socialism, then socialism would have been established long ago and the problems the reformists are still grappling with (income inequality, unemployment, health, housing, education, war. etc.) would all be history.

 To say that we should spend our time on reforms while waiting for socialism is effectively to dismiss the idea of socialism altogether. If everyone followed that line, no one would ever get down to working for socialism. It would never get to being on the agenda. Even the argument that we should strive for both revolution and reform simultaneously is a way of putting off revolution.

 Promised 50-50 activity always ends up in practice as 100 per cent reformism, as the history of the workers' movement shows.

 It is only when people leave reformism behind altogether that socialism will begin to appear to them not as a vague distant prospect, something for others to achieve, but as a clear, immediate alternative which they themselves can - and indeed must - help to bring about.

Edited from a pamphlet The Market System Must Go 

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