Monday, January 10, 2022

Reforms change little

Eugene Debs once said, “It's better to ask for what you want and not get it, than ask for what you don’t want and get it.” 

If you really want socialism, join the Socialist Party. Ask for what you do want.

After over a century of reform activity, and the sincere efforts of a multitude of reformers, the world is in a greater mess than ever it was. We, socialists, are often accused of being opposed to reforms, social legislation designed to ameliorate some intolerable situations. Not so. We of the World Socialist Movement are not opposed to reforms per se, any more than we advocate them. The really vital reforms of capitalism were won a long time ago, for instance, the vote that gave the working class the opportunity to take its fate into its own hands. The position of a revolutionary is to reject reformism - the advocacy of reforms - which is not the same thing as opposing reforms themselves. Reformism is the promotion of reforms and it is this that we revolutionaries should not be engaged in. Trying to mend capitalism is incompatible with trying to end capitalism. For ourselves, radicalisation entails the conscious propagandistic of the communist alternative under each and every circumstance thrown up by capitalism. It an interactive process between thought and practice are driven by a clear and unambiguous conception of what we are to replace capitalism with. Nothing less will do. Unless we know what to replace capitalism with, capitalism will not be replaced. We will be stuck with it. It is literally a case of one or the other

We make a very clear distinction between reformist struggle and other forms of struggle. We are 100 % behind the militant industrial struggle. fully support militant struggle by workers as a class and as individuals in the economic domain to resist the downward pressures of capital. In fact, in our view, the trade union movement has largely compromised and weakened itself by blurring this distinction as for example in the UK where many unions are affiliated with the capitalist Labour Party. Trade unions should stick to the economic domain where they work much better as militant organisations of the working class. Reformist struggles are qualitatively different in kind to industrial struggles since they are of a political nature and seek to impact the way capitalism is administered in terms of policies. What those who are essentially advocating is reformism in the belief that it entails some kind of progressive dynamic that will lead us somewhere closer to achieving a socialist society. In fact, all the historical evidence shows that your progressive changes lead to the abandonment of revolutionary socialism and the co-option of erstwhile revolutionary socialists into capitalism In any case it is nonsense to suggest that revolutionary socialism means "standing outside of the political process". This is a terribly mechanical not to say narrow-minded, concept of what the political process actually is.

Nor can we automatically assume that crises help to radicalise workers. In fact, there is strong empirical evidence to the contrary, recent studies show that a crisis tends to make some workers more fearful of the future, more conservative and more conformist even though it might well radicalise others. One must never forget the lessons of pre-war Germany and the depression which helped to fuel the growth of the Nazi movement. Revolutions are not simply the result of social crises and class struggle, they are mediated by consciousness. The ideas themselves don't stand alone but are drawn from the class struggle and in turn reciprocally influence the struggle. It's a two-way interactive process, not a one-way street. As far as a communist revolution is concerned while we may not know what shape the working class is in when it happens we do know that a significant majority must understand and want communism in order for a communist revolution to happen. Communism absolutely necessitates conscious majority support and therefore a revolution that does not have this conscious majority support will not be a communist revolution because the outcome will not be communism. The revolution is effected by the communist minded working class seizing power and declaring capitalism null and void. This is fully consistent, with the point about the seizure of political power by the proletariat being the precondition for the "historical process of revolutionary change". But in order for the proletariat to seize power and effect a revolutionary change, it has to be substantially communist-minded in the first place. This is absolutely essential and is integral to the Marxian perspective. Engels points this out in the introduction to Marx's Class struggles in France "Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for [with body and soul]."

Of course, socialist consciousness comes through struggle not just propagandising. This is not an either/or situation. It is actually mutually reinforcing. The struggle gives rise to the ideas and the ideas in turn help to clarify and strengthen the struggle. Part of my argument against reformism is that it actually weakens the position of workers. It doesn't radicalise them at all. It ties them politically to capitalism via capitalist political parties that aim to garner support through the advocacy of reforms. This is what workers need to reject. They will actually become much more militant in my view if they completely rejected the reformist illusion that capitalism can be moulded to accommodate their interests and if they came to recognise that the interests of workers are diametrically opposed to the capitalists. This is what revolutionaries should be doing - saying how it actually is not trying to dishonestly socially engineer workers into coming over to them by dangling reforms in front of them which they know full well are not going to modify the position of the exploited class. In the end, if you do not break with the logic of capital completely and in ideological terms, if you do not explicitly advocate a genuine alternative to capitalism, there is no way on earth that you will ever create an alternative to capitalism. You will remain forever stuck in the reformist treadmill going nowhere. Although the ultimate aim of the radical fighting for reform may be the self-emancipation of the working class, it will never ever come to self-emancipation of the working class precisely because fighting for reforms is a trap from which you will never ever escape unless you stop fighting for reforms and raise your sights higher. Capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of workers so fighting for reforms in the interests of the workers is foredoomed. It is simply a treadmill that will never lead on to anything else. "Radicalisation" is the result of an interaction between material struggles - workers organising on the industrial and social terrain - and communist ideas. Above all, it involves the explicit and conscious embrace of the communist goal - a non-market non-statist alternative to capitalism. This is what truly constitutes radical in the sense of a root change.

There is no real evidence that it does lead to a communist outlook. Many radicals ultimately end up in the ghetto of worthy liberal causes which only serve to fragment working-class solidarity in a plethora of separate struggles each demanding attention at the expense of others. Or they become disillusioned old cynics in later life and join the establishment. We don't say socialists need to stand on the sidelines and tell workers to drop their illusions and follow us. Firstly we reject the whole principle of vanguardism and leadership. Secondly, we don't say we should stand on the sidelines. No revolutionary ever is on the sidelines anyway. This is a meaningless way of looking at this anyway. We are all involved in the class struggle whether we like it or not or whether we are aware of it or not. As workers, we will join with our fellow workers in a union to fight the bosses in the industrial field. We are simply members of the working class who has come to communist conclusions. We don't exist in some sense outside of the working class telling the working class what to do. This is an elitist Leninist perspective which we abjure. As communist workers, we will therefore put across communist ideas - about communism, about rejecting nationalism, racism and sexism and so on and so forth. Spreading ideas are essential. Everybody without exception believes their ideas are the right ones - otherwise, they would not hold or express them. Its got nothing to do with "leadership". It's what human beings do - talk, discuss, argue. If it is elitist in and of itself to express an idea then what you are trying to say is that we really should not express ideas at all. We should keep mum about our political views. That is quite absurd. If everyone followed that advice there would be a discussion about anything. People do develop their ideas as a result of hearing other ideas. This is not "idealist". Materialism does not deny the role of ideas, what it denies is the "independent" role of ideas, that social developments are completely explicable in terms of the impact of ideas alone. This is false but nevertheless, it is quite true that all social developments involve an exchange of ideas between historical actors and could not happen without that.

Radicals talk of the need to have the ear and confidence of the working class. They want to say to workers "yeah, great carry on with your reformist struggles. We're with you all the all way" even though in their heart of hearts they know that this is a recipe for failure. This is not honest and dishonesty does not pay in the end. It is far better to say what you really think and feel to be the case however unpopular or out of touch, it might make you seem at the time. Workers will not thank you for trying to lead them up the garden path and you will certainly not gain their confidence as a result. You stand to lose their confidence completely and this is in fact the story of the Left in general. It has marginalised itself precisely because of its opportunistic relationship with the working class.

Some on the Left have a kind of fetishised view of "action" that there is something latent or inherent in the acts one carries out that somehow drives one forward into becoming a communist. This is wrong. Strikes, protests demonstrations and all these sorts of activities don't carry any necessary communist implications whatsoever. It is the interaction of ideas and actions which is what is needed. This is the point we are trying to make about radicalisation. If you ignore the importance of ideas and the necessity for a clear and explicit alternative to capitalism you will never ever pose a serious threat to capitalism. Never. Reformist struggle does not necessarily imply a passive working class. This is the point. Workers can be actively engaged in reformist struggles to get governments to introduce measures that they perceive to be in their economic interests. But in the end, they actually help to weaken not strengthen the working class by tying it ideologically to capitalism, fostering the illusion that capitalism can be run in the interests of workers and entrenching their dependence on capitalist governments to do it for them.

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