We live in a critical period for civilisation and we are now living in the shadow of annihilation from climate change. In the midst of this, people still show a stubborn adherence to reforms, a belief in the possibility of major improvement of conditions under capitalism, and a rejection of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Why is this so? Why the general political apathy and rejection of revolutionary changes in society, when humanity as a whole is in the grip of life and death struggle? It is now difficult to imagine that the term ‘social democracy’ once embodied workers' greatest hopes. There was a desire to bring about a profound social change and to abolish capitalism itself by gradual means. Then came the patriotic jingoism of World War One. Everything changed. From now on, social democracy saw the state not as something to be overthrown but instead as one of the principal instruments of its reformist policy. Socialism came to be re-defined. The major tendencies within the labour movement began to see its objectives as gaining more parliamentary power, initiating state-run public services, appointing more 'socialist' ministers to implement ‘left-wing progressive’ social legislation under the auspices of the state. 'Socialist' aspirations were integrated into the state apparatus. Their 'socialism' had been diluted by a programme which is in no sense socialist.
Reformism presented an outward semblance of radical aims and theory, but becomes in fact directed towards the goal of securing the maximum benefits for the working-class within capitalism. Reformism's basic political method is that working people should devote themselves primarily to voting for suitable politicians to win elections to become the government and so to pass legislation to regulate capitalism and, on that basis, to improve their working conditions and living standards. The implication is that class struggle is not necessary. If a reformist government can secure stability and growth in the interests of capital, there is no reason to believe that employers will oppose a reformist government. However, so long as capitalist property relations remain the bed-rock of the economy, the state cannot be neutral and an honest broker. This is not because the state is always directly controlled by openly pro-capitalist parties. It is because whoever controls the state is brutally limited in what they can do by the needs of capitalist profitability and because the needs of capitalist profitability are very difficult to reconcile with the interest of working people. In capitalism, you cannot accumulate capital by economic growth unless you can get investment, and you can't get capitalists to invest unless they can make what they judge to be an adequate rate of profit. Since high levels of employment and increasing state services in the interest of the working class (dependent upon taxation out of the employers share of surplus value) are predicated upon economic growth, even governments that want to further the interests of the exploited for example left-wing governments must make capitalist profitability its first priority.
Reformists viewed genuine socialism as a far-off goal and little more. Revolution was a possibility but not in the foreseeable future. Reformism pushes aside the revolutionary aspirations in the working class. When reforms fail, a series of new reforms becomes the expected course of events. Our fellow-workers become their own reformist advocates. The role of the Socialist Party is to generalise the lessons drawn from the day-to-day class struggles to resist reformism. For reformists capitalist crises and accompanying social problems can be cured within the system with palliative policies; for revolutionary socialists they can not. The acceptance of gradualism is the acceptance of the dominance of bourgeois institutions to be negotiated with and not challenged. The reformist’s method is one in which the self-activity of the working-class is necessarily minimised, its militancy curtailed. To accommodate reformist theories is to assist in turning the labour movement away from socialism itself. Reformist tactics are the effective enemy of revolutionary strategy. When movements of revolt arise and begin to march, the reformists are obliged to reject them as a hinderance to its own baby-steps towards improving conditions. It expresses no revolt of their own and cannot acknowledge other revolts. Again and again we have witnesses the spectacle of reformist politicians limiting the scale of protest, and then telling people that the failure to make gains shows that such action cannot work. Reformism always shies away from social conflict.
Reformism as a powerful ideology within the workers’ movement is far from dead. The hold of reformist ideas among people remains strong. Reformism is always with us, but it rarely reveals its presence and usually goes by another name, Despite its friendly manner it is our main political foe and we should understand that. If we wish to attract people to our socialist banner and away from reformism, it will not be through outbidding reformists in terms of palliative policies and amelioration programmes. It will be through our understanding of the world.