To Reform or Not To Reform?
Socialists are frequently asked where the party stands on various reforms and the questioner is usually amazed to hear that we don’t advocate reforms. This does not necessarily mean that we oppose them. What we do oppose is a policy of reformism which is quite a different matter.
There are different kinds of reforms; some are of the immediate, bread and butter kind, e.g. medicare, minimum wage, forty-hour week, safety legislation in the workplace; some affect democratic rights such as the extension of the franchise, freedom of the press and of assembly. Others are similar, but on a broader, more humanitarian level, e.g. civil rights, an end to discrimination in the workplace, the right to abortion, equal rights for gays. The list of reforms both proposed and enacted is almost endless, but there is one common thread – they make life more bearable within capitalism. This is also in the interests of the capitalist class. Contented and healthy workers are less likely to disrupt the system and more likely to be more productive in the process of exploitation and fit to fight the bosses’ wars.
However, different and competing sections of the capitalist class will have different priorities. In the last forty years, during which the upholders of neo-liberal capitalism have mostly held power, there has been a general trend by those politicians, (Thatcher, Reagan,) to remove or water down reforms. The habolition of medicare would create business for the private health insurance companies who pour fortunes into politicians’ election expense funds.
We of the Socialist Party do not oppose measures that are beneficial, however, temporary the benefit may turn out to be. What we oppose is any party that offers a program of reforms. This is because no amount of reforms will change the fundamentals of society as presently constituted, i.e. the ownership of the tools of production by a small minority and the consequent wage enslavement of the majority, leaving capitalism to stumble and blunder along from one crisis to another.
Many parties of the Left have argued that socialist consciousness grows out of the struggle to satisfy immediate needs. If there were any credence to that theory, we would have socialism now, or at least a movement for socialism millions strong.
When any party claiming to be socialist advocates a reform or supports one being advocated by an avowedly capitalist party, they attract new supporters and voters. These may or may not support, or even understand, socialism, but they are primarily interested in the reform of their choice. If too many join they become a majority and the party becomes a reformist one. It may be interesting to review the performances of our critics on the Left in this regard. There are many examples of them falling into the reformist trap. There were many socialists in the early days of the British Labour Party, The Socialist Party of America (SPA), and the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth Party (the forerunner of the New Democratic Party). The philosophy of these parties was, ‘We want socialism but it will take a long time to convince millions of people and since conditions are so bad now, we need something in the meantime’.
The problem was ‘in the meantime’ became forever. Nobody would say these parties are socialist now, including the parties themselves! What may not have been obvious in the early years of these groups, but has become so with the passing years, is that if one wants reforms the avowedly capitalists parties will be only too happy to pass them if there is a pressing need and it is popular to do so or when socialist ideas start taking hold.
The Second International, that contained many brilliant socialist writers, fell into the reformist trap to such an extent that our companion party in Britain refused to affiliate. After the Russian Revolution, some of these parties fell into another trap, that of state capitalism, which is just another way to administer capitalism. Trotskyist groups have campaigned against unemployment without regard to its cause, and in the US worked hard in the Civil Rights movement, oblivious to the fact that white people do not even have equality with each other. There can be no equality within a capitalist society. At the last federal election in Canada, the so-called communist party published a manifesto of their policies, all of which were reformist. A typical example was that they would heavily tax the major corporations, thus indicating that corporations and the capitalist system would still exist if they won power.
The International Socialists Organization (Socialist Workers’ Party in the UK) are in the forefront of campaigning for reforms, believing it will lead workers to draw socialist conclusions. Not only are they unsuccessful, but have become elitist thinking that the working class cannot by itself arrive at socialist understanding but would need them (the ISO) to organize a coup and establish it from above, which any knowledgeable socialist knows would be a disaster.
For socialism to be established, it would have to be the democratic act of the immense majority who understand what it is and don’t need leaders to tell them. The Socialist Labor Party has insisted for years that they are not reformist, but in the presidential election of 1896, they presented a whole platform of reforms. A Few years later, Teddy Roosevelt took all these ideas and used them as the platform of his newly formed ‘Bullmoose Party’. Nor have they changed much. In the last issue of their now-defunct journal, “People”, they advocated campaigning for the repeal of the US Immigration Act. If one fights against a reform, one is still attacking the effects of capitalism.
All of the above organizations have criticized the Socialist Party and its companion parties for never advocating reforms, yet all of them have fallen into the trap of attempting to grapple with the worst effects of capitalism, which is all reforms do, and by doing so, knowingly or not, they are working for the continuation of capitalism. Time and energy spent in such activities is time and energy not spent working for socialism. Since the Industrial Revolution we have had two hundred years of reforms and still poverty is rampant, still industrial plants pollute the air, ground, and waters, still, wars rage killing millions.
We of the World Socialist Movement stand alone in advocating the immediate dissolution of the capitalist system and thus putting an end to its disastrous effects for mankind. Only by gaining control of the tools of production and the world’s resources and managing them democratically in the interests of all humans, can we have a society where there will be no need for reforms.
So, why don’t we advocate reforms? Because we have something better in mind.