Why reformism doesn't work

By Allen Myers

A revolution is needed in order to overcome the evils that capitalist society is subject to. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be improved in the meantime. Quite the contrary: struggles for improvements — reforms — can be successful to one degree or another, depending on many different factors. In 19th century Europe, there were socialists who thought that an “iron law of wages” existed in capitalism, and that this made it pointless for workers to try to win wage rises. Marx and Engels clearly and emphatically disagreed with that idea. Workers’ resistance to capitalists’ attacks and their efforts to win reforms were essential parts of the class struggle that will eventually lead to socialist revolution.

However, even in Marx and Engels’ time, there were always sections and leaders of the labour movement, particularly in the wealthier countries such as England, who saw reforms and the effort to win them as something quite separate from socialist revolution. Some thought that the gradual accumulation of reforms would eventually transform capitalism into socialism. Others saw reforms as ends in themselves, changes that would sooner or later make life bearable for working people within capitalism. Either of these views, that reforms can be gradually accumulated to make the world a better place for the majority, is known as “reformism”.

Imperialism’s impact

The consolidation of the imperialist system at the end of the 19th century strengthened reformism in the imperialist countries. The enormously increased profits of the ruling classes in these countries gave them an extra cushion or reserve that they could use to quiet workers’ struggles when they threatened to become too militant. That is, the imperialists could more afford to make concessions than could their competitive capitalists predecessors. And these concessions could convince some workers, at least for a time, that perhaps capitalists weren’t so bad after all, that some of them could be persuaded to “see reason”. Many workers’ union or political leaders found it easy to adopt the same attitude, because it made things much easier and more secure for them.

But there are several good reasons that reformism doesn’t work as a strategy for defending or advancing workers’ interests. First of all, the capitalists make concessions only when they think that doing so is necessary in order to defend their longer term interests. If they know that workers have no intention of going beyond mild reforms, there is much less reason for them to make concessions.

Secondly, whenever the capitalists are forced to grant reforms, they immediately start calculating how to take back the concession or undo its effects. For example, among the reforms won by the heightened militancy of the 1960s was free university education, brought in by the Whitlam Labor government in 1974. But the capitalists were never happy with paying taxes so that workers’ children could get higher education, so a subsequent Labor government abolished free tertiary education in 1988 and began introducing the further changes that make it so difficult for students today.

New conditions

Thirdly, capitalist economy is continually changing conditions in ways that undermine reforms or that introduce new problems and oppressions. If a group of workers manage to win a big pay rise, it’s not very long before there’s a new machine to replace most of them, or a recession strikes and the factory closes unless they agree to a pay cut.

A fourth aspect is that capitalists can and often do grant reforms in ways that tend to divide oppressed and exploited people from each other. If there is more than one union in a workplace, for example, the boss may do a separate deal with one of them in the hope of setting workers against each other. When it was under pressure over its abuse of refugees, the Howard government tried to divide the movement that supported them by granting improvements for some types of refugees but not others.

None of this means that reforms aren’t desirable or that revolutionaries shouldn’t fight for them. But it indicates why socialists should not pretend that this or that reform is going to solve any problem permanently. We will solve problems permanently only when working people take control of the government and society; only after a revolution will permanent reforms be possible.