Chapter 8 Can the System be Reformed?

25 December 2020

System Crash: An Activist Guide to the Coming Democratic Revolution.

Neil Faulkner, Phil Hearse, Simon Hannah, Rowan Fortune, and Nina Fortune

How do we respond to the crisis? It is inevitable there will be movements of resistance – protests, direct action, strikes, possibly riots. Where people’s lives are falling apart, they are driven to radical action.

While socialists are active in all progressive movements of protest and resistance, they aim to organise the working class to take the lead and impose an anti-capitalist solution to the crisis. If the problems flow from the nature of capitalism as a system of exploitation and oppression, then it is the working class – the overwhelming majority of humanity – that must create an alternative to the system.

But it is not so simple. People do not automatically reach revolutionary conclusions in a crisis. Initially, they reach for existing ideas and everyday solutions to fix the problems. This is where politics comes in. People can resort to nationalism, racism, populism, and petty violence if they think it will help. Or they can turn to the left, towards socialist ideas.

But left politics itself is full of contradictions. Mostly this is because of the contradictions that exist within capitalism, within our society, in the economy, inside our heads. Workers appear free – free to move jobs, to move house, to live as they please – but this freedom exists within certain limits, certain rules. A central contradiction of life under capitalism is the nature of wage-slavery, where you have an ideology of human freedom, but a reality where the system closes doors to ordinary people on all sides.

The contradictions create confusion. People are encouraged to believe they can ‘get on’ within the system. The core reality of exploitation and oppression is disguised. Revolutionary conclusions are not automatic; even in a crisis, resistance is not guaranteed, and revolution certainly not.

There already exist mass working-class organisations – trade unions and social-democratic parties – and they are adapted to operate within the system, counterposing the idea of gradual piecemeal change as an alternative to radical change from below. This is the great debate between reform and revolution.

A short history of reformism

Marxists use the term reformism to mean one of two things. Reformism originally started as a strategy for socialism, focusing not on revolutionary action but on getting a legislative majority in parliament and passing a series of laws that would bit by bit create a planned economy. But as the 20th century wound its bloody way through time, reformism abandoned this goal and evolved into a way of simply managing capitalism, not ending it.

These two understandings of reformism exist on a spectrum. They are connected and often exist as a form of political consciousness: politicians and activists might believe they are reforming away capitalism, when in fact they are merely pursuing policies to ameliorate the system. They sing the Red Flag at Labour Party Conference, but then support wage restraint across the public sector.

Reformism, then, has evolved from a strategy for achieving socialism through parliament to a modern kind of social-democratic politics that is effectively anti-socialist – anti the radical transformation necessary to achieve a socialist society. The constant conflation of socialism and social-democracy is a damning indictment of the political level of the labour movement. Momentum – the movement inside the Labour Party set up to support the Corbyn leadership – has often exemplified this confusion.

All ideas are embedded in the real lives of human beings and evolve as people struggle to shape the world around them. The idea of socialism goes back to the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century. It arose from the failure of these ‘bourgeois’ republican revolutions to deliver on their promise of general emancipation. When the French ‘Third Estate’ (the commoners) took power in 1789, a sharp split between the propertied elite and the mass of ordinary people emerged. Out of the ‘Fourth Estate’ came the idea of a more far-reaching social revolution.

This idea bore fruit in Britain in 1838 with the launch of the Chartists, the first mass working-class movement in history. The Chartists united around demands for six reforms to parliament that would break the stranglehold of the old aristocrats and the emerging bourgeoisie and empower working men (but not women) to vote. But while they agreed on the demands, they disagreed fundamentally on how to achieve them. The movement was split between a ‘moral force’ wing that sought to persuade and a ‘physical force’ wing that believed those in power would not willingly surrender their position and that things could be changed only by armed struggle.

In the end, all but one of the reforms was passed (the demand for annual parliaments remains unrealised), but there was no revolution. Does this prove that reformist strategies work?

The power of the Chartist movement was rooted in the threat of militant action. Chartist groups up and down the country armed themselves and drilled in the use of weapons. Uprisings by Chartists in Newport (1839) and Halifax (1842), as well as a massive demonstration in Kennington Park in London in 1848, terrified the authorities. This threat, and further militant action in subsequent decades, forced a steady succession of concessions – democratic reforms – over the next century.

Note that the working class had to threaten to overthrow the bourgeoisie to realise its claim to greater political liberty; it had to threaten revolution to win reform – the democratisation of parliament. Nonetheless, this led Marx and many of his followers to the conclusion that socialism might be achieved in a country like Britain through parliamentary action; that it might be possible to win an electoral majority for the overthrow of capitalism on the basis of working-class votes; and for this to be implemented by a radical government using the existing state apparatus.

Marx died before the new trade unions combined with emerging socialist groups to create mass social-democratic parties, and long before any of these parties came to wield governmental power. He, therefore, did not live to see how electoralism changes the nature of left politics, how it shifts first the tone, then the tempo, and ultimately the direction of the socialist movement.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Marxists across Europe built mass working-class parties, calling them either socialist or social-democratic. They formed them into a ‘Second International’ (following the First International in which Marx and Engels had been involved). These parties built trade unions, sometimes in illegal conditions, in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere. They advocated class war, the socialisation of the economy under workers control, and (at times) revolutionary politics.

In Britain, however, the Marxists were a much weaker force. Instead, it was the trade unions that launched the Labour Party. Marxists at the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 put a proposal for the Labour Party to be based on class struggle and socialism, but Keir Hardie and the union leaders opposed this; the new party was to be the political arm of union functionaries.

The emergence of mass trade unions in the 1880s had been crucial for the developing working class, allowing it to organise in the workplaces both to defend itself against the bosses and to formulate wider demands for improved living conditions. The slogans raised – like ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ – give an indication of the political basis of trade unionism: it was about ‘fair pay’ under capitalism. This is typical of the fog of reformism. ‘Fair pay’ is impossible under capitalism, for the source of profit is the exploitation of labour; if workers were paid the full value of their work, there would be no profit.

Reformism as an ideology – the view that there is a parliamentary route to socialism and that by winning elections socialists can implement laws to socialise the economy – emerged in Britain and Germany at the turn of the 20th century.

In Britain, parliamentary politics was in the DNA of the Labour Party from day one. But in Germany, the route to reformism was more gradual and theoretical. The German Social Democratic Party was initially revolutionary, but its day-to-day work involved a struggle for reforms. Germany was a fast-industrialising and emerging imperialist power able to afford reforms for workers – higher wages, welfare legislation, and so on.

The German SDP ended up building ‘a state within a state’, a network of reading groups, cycling clubs, leisure centres, educational facilities, and much more. Here was the main focus of the SPD: making life more liveable for workers within the system. The intellectuals of the SPD began to theorise the politics they practised, leading to a spectacular row in the party between the revolutionaries, led by Rosa Luxemburg, and the ‘revisionists’, led by Edward Bernstein.

Likewise, in Britain, the richest country in the world at the time, trade unions and Liberal politicians delivered some reforms for workers. In fact, the Labour Party only really began to grow when the Liberals reneged on their promises and Labour became the main advocate of gradual reform.

If you read the journals and newspapers of Social Democratic and Labour parties of this time, they are full of radical-sounding talk, of calls for a crusade for socialism, of a life-and-death struggle against capitalist tyranny. But this was only talk. The key to understanding reformism is always to look at what they do, not what they say.

The leaders of these parties had decided to pursue a path of gradual change, not revolutionary struggle. Many sincerely believed that this was the true road to socialism. The difference between gradualists and revolutionaries seemed minor, theoretical, an abstract argument – until the First World War.

Then, in the crisis of 1914, the European worker’s movement was irrevocably split over whether to oppose or support the war. The Second International (of socialist parties) fell apart. Despite only a few years earlier having solemnly sworn to use any means necessary to prevent an imperialist war, most parties ended up beating the drums of war in the interests of their respective capitalist classes. The result was 15 million dead, the vast majority of them ordinary working people.

In most socialist parties, only a minority opposed the war on internationalist grounds when it began; many of these ended up in prison. In Russia, however, the dominant Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP (Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party) opposed the war, agitated for revolution, and eventually organised the overthrow of a pro-war Provisional Government in Russia in the October Revolution of 1917.

This took Russia out of the war and triggered a wave of revolution from below that spread across Europe and eventually brought the war as a whole to an end. The German Revolution in 1918 ended Germany’s involvement in the war. But the German Social Democratic leaders – elevated to power by that revolution – then used violent right-wing militias to suppress the worker’s movement. Revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg were murdered to preserve German capitalism.

This was an important lesson: it showed that at the moment of revolution, reformism is not merely a different route to the same goal; it is an integral part of the existing social order and can become an actively counter-revolutionary force willing to smash popular movements to defend the system in a crisis.

The theory and practice of reformism

The initial aim of reformist socialism was simple: to use the existing state machinery – parliament, elections, the judiciary, the civil service, local government – to implement socialism. It was based on the view that the state is relatively neutral, and that just as the capitalist class uses its machinery to pursue its political agenda, so too might the working class. It was really a question of arithmetic: how many workers’ representatives could you get elected to the legislature?

The socialist MPs would propose laws to nationalise the economy, to create workers’ co-operatives, to democratise the running of public services, and they would simply out-vote the Tories, Liberals, and others. Then the civil service and local government would loyally implement the new laws, because that is how democracy works, and if there was any unlawful opposition to the new laws, the police would be there to suppress it.

Reformists imagine the state to be like a car. If the bosses are driving, it goes in the wrong direction. If socialists take the wheel, they can turn it around.

But the state is not like a car. It is an administrative and repressive apparatus staffed by members of the ruling class and their loyalist functionaries. It is deeply embedded within the existing social order and is suffused with its values, protocols, and procedures. It is an instrument of capitalist class rule, not a neutral device to be repurposed to achieve its overthrow.

The contradiction embedded within mass working-class organisations is between the actuality of the class war and the political compromise of the leaders of those organisations. The working class has no interest in capitalism and will continue to be exploited and oppressed so long as the system survives. But most workers live their lives simply trying to get by; few draw revolutionary conclusions from their experiences of class society; often enough they do not even think of such experiences – wage cuts, rotten contracts, bullying supervisors, hospital waiting lists, underfunded schools, racist police, rip-off landlords, and so much more – in class terms at all.

If their boss sacks them, they look for a new job. If they cannot pay the rent, they look for somewhere cheaper. If times are hard and ‘everyone’ needs to tighten their belts – it never is everyone – people grudgingly go along with it. If the government says austerity is necessary because of too much debt, people assume it must be so. They grumble and complain, but they see these things as part of normal life. What can one do? Some workers join trade unions to get protection at work, but the unions themselves are reformist organisations: they negotiate a modest wage increase or slightly improved terms and conditions, but they do not seek to end the capital-wage relationship itself.

This contradiction – between the interests of the working class and the conservatism of working-class organisation – is also evident in the social role of the bureaucrats and functionaries of both unions and social-democratic parties. The officials are often relatively well paid, have a great deal of influence, and form a bureaucratic caste shielded from criticism by members. Reformism is not just an ‘idea’; it has a material basis in the worldview and interests of this stratum of people.

Because reformist ideology is focused on passing laws in favour of the working class, it is inseparable from the electoral and parliamentary systems of the various capitalist states. This leads to both electoral fetishism (obsessing over whether policies will be popular with voters) and nationalism (because the nation-state becomes the centre of political action). This reduces internationalism to tokenistic slogans or appeals for solidarity; only the electoral/parliamentary struggle on the national terrain really matters.

A party like Labour suffers from what Ralph Miliband termed ‘parliamentary cretinism’ – a dogmatic fixation on parliament as the sole institution of genuine power in the country. Getting more MPs elected on a slightly more left-wing basis is the raison d’être of the Labour Party, including the Labour Left (and, at a local level, getting more councillors elected). This parliamentary fixation explains why MPs have always enjoyed a wide measure of political independence from their party: they are required to play by the rules of a political system rooted in the capitalist state and quite alien to the traditions of working-class democracy.

Their parliamentary fetishism involves reformist parties in following strictly constitutional methods. The law in a capitalist state can be a powerful weapon for use against the working class; anti-union laws are an obvious example. This means workers must break the law to wage effective class struggle – ‘when injustice becomes law, defiance becomes duty’ – but the Labour Party regards law-breaking as anathema. Since MPs use parliament to enact reforms, they feel obliged to respect the legislative process, even when they oppose the laws being passed. This can lead to situations where Labour actively opposes mass movements of resistance.

Reformism in crisis

Until the 1980s, there had been decades of economic growth in the advanced capitalist countries from which many workers benefitted. Increasing productivity led to higher wages and Keynesian state intervention helped soften the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. But from the 1980s onwards, capitalist classes across the world, led by Britain and the USA, shifted policy and unleashed all-out class war against trade unions, the working class, and the oppressed.

The scope for reforms was thereafter severely curtailed. The old social-democratic consensus was broken, replaced by neoliberalism, corporate power, and the enrichment of the 1%. In Britain, Labour has not won a national election on a social-democratic platform since 1974. Its three victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005 were under the leadership of Tony Blair, a neoliberal supporter of privatisation (and imperialist war) opposed to his own party’s social-democratic tradition; Labour under Blair was a party of ‘counter-reforms’.

Across Europe, social-democratic parties have faced declining membership, low poll ratings, and being locked out of power for decades. Many social-democratic parties embraced globalisation and neoliberalism in the 1990s and ended up attacking their own working-class base, demoralising their supporters, and driving increasing numbers to the right – even towards nationalism and fascism.

Socialist strategy starts from the belief that the working class can (and must) organise to fight the bosses, the landlords, and the state that backs them, and from the belief that this elemental class struggle can evolve into a struggle against the system as a whole, with the possibility of the overthrow of the capitalist class and the establishment of a new system based on revolutionary democracy from below.

Reformists, on the other hand, propose waiting for the next general election and the chance to win a majority of reform-minded MPs. Rather than socialism being based on the self-activity of workers in the pursuit of their own interests, it is about electing politicians to do things for us.

Reformist social-democrats like to project an image of themselves as practical, as ‘serious’ about politics. They are not shouty, placard-waving protestors, but people engaged in the real business of winning elections and gaining power. But the reformist, parliamentary route to socialism is far from practical; in fact, it turns out to be utterly utopian, for the following reasons:

a) It assumes that the state is neutral when it is not.

b) It assumes that the capitalist class will surrender power peacefully when it will not.

c) It assumes that the drip-drip of quantitative change will eventually lead to social transformation, which it will not.

d) It assumes that class oppression can be eliminated by legislation and regulation from on high, which it cannot.

Labour under Corbyn appeared to represent a partial break with this tradition of social-democratic reformism, of parliamentary socialism, but the break seemed radical only because of the legacy of Blairism; it was, in fact, merely a return to the more overtly reformist tradition of the 1970s and 1980s.

Some of the Labour front bench were to be seen on picket lines, but the party remained wedded to its electoral/parliamentary strategy. There was some hope at the beginning that Momentum might act as an organiser of political protests and class resistance, but that idea was rapidly dropped and it became little more than a top-down platform for waging a faction fight inside the party.

This fixation on internal politics and electoral prospects meant that Labour – even when run by the Left – did nothing to build trade unions, to promote active solidarity, to support resistance to job losses, low pay, high rents, and so on.

Reformism has failed: revolution is necessary

Reformism has been highly successful in winning the support of working people because it appears to conform to a living reality. For many, life seems to get better over time. You start off working in low-paid jobs, but you work your way up. You rent a small flat when you are young, but eventually, you get to buy somewhere of your own. Most manage to get by, and many see things improve as they get older. And in this context, in so far as change is necessary, the easiest way to get it looks like being through elections and parliament. We usually leave such things to professional politicians while we get on with our lives. This is the foundation for mass reformism as a political current.

But there are moments in history when the system breaks down, society is torn apart, and people’s lives fall apart. Then it is no longer a matter of simply getting by; it becomes a matter of survival. Trade unions struggle to provide basic protection – of jobs, wages, and terms and conditions. And social democracy discovers that the space for reform shrinks to nothing as the system demands austerity and repression.

Millions can be radicalised in a systemic crisis; millions can be driven to take militant action because they have become desperate for a way out. Then there is a need for revolutionary organisation to capture the moment: to canalise the discontent, fan the flames, and turn mass social despair into an active revolutionary force.

This does not mean a sudden end to reformism. Many will retain illusions in parliamentary socialism. Many will cling to the idea that the Left can regain control of the Labour Party, win a general election on a radical platform, and legislate for a socialist transformation. Revolutionaries do not believe that this is possible, but they must work alongside those who retain such illusions. What matters is unity in the struggle to defend the interests of the working class and the oppressed, and unity in the struggle to change the world, and that struggle will provide us all with a sure test of alternative strategies for socialism.

But our view is clear: the whole history of 120 years of Labour reformism has shown its grave limitations, and now we face what is perhaps the greatest crisis of all when revolutionary solutions seem more imperative than ever before. Labour under Starmer is hopelessly incapable of responding effectively to the scale of the crisis now unfolding – a systemic and compound crisis, with ecological, economic, social, and political dimensions, that poses an existential threat to the whole of humanity. Reformism is limited at the best of times; it is quite useless in the face of climate catastrophe, societal breakdown, and surging fascism.

Anti*Capitalist Resistance will soon be publishing this new book on the world crisis and the popular resistance in print format. Because of the urgency of the political situation, however, we will be publishing the book chapters as a series of long-read online articles over the next month or so. This is the eighth chapter.

Join the discussion