The problem of reformism

Image: Ellie Burgin


Reformism does not differentiate itself by its concerns with so-called reforms. These are the objective of both revolutionaries and reformists

When asked about the historical lessons of the revolutions that occurred in the 20th century, it would perhaps be more interesting to understand the experience of reform and reformism, since we are interested in the historical lessons relevant to the 21st century.

Reformism is always with us, it rarely announces its presence, but when it does, it usually introduces itself by another name and in a friendly manner. Still, it appears to be our main competitor and we need to better understand it. To begin with, it must be clear: reformism does not differentiate itself by its concerns with so-called reforms. These are the aim of both revolutionaries and reformists. It can also be said that we socialists see the fight for reforms as our main objective.

However, reformists are also interested in winning reforms. In fact, to a large extent, reformists share our program, at least in words and theory. They favor higher wages, full employment, a better welfare state, stronger unions, and even a third party. The inescapable fact is that if we want to attract people to a revolutionary socialist banner and turn them away from reformism, it will not be by outdoing the reformists in their programs.

It will be through our theory – our understanding of the world – and, most importantly, through our method and our practice. What distinguishes reformism in everyday life is its political method and theory, not its program. Schematically speaking, reformists argue that although, left to its own devices, the capitalist economy is prone to crisis, state intervention can enable capitalism to achieve long-term growth and stability. They argue, at the same time, that the State is an instrument that can be used by any group, including the working class, in this case for their own interests.

The political basis, reflected in its methods and strategies, of reformism follows directly from these premises. Workers and the oppressed can and should, first of all, devote their efforts to winning elections to gain control of the State and thereby securing legislation to regulate capitalism and, on this premise, improve their working conditions and living standards. .

The paradox of reformism

Marxists have obviously always been opposing their own theories and strategies to those of reformists. However, for revolutionaries it is equally important in combating reformism to understand that reformist theory and practice will be better understood if understood as the particular social forces on which reformism has historically based itself. Particularly, as rationalizations of the needs and interests of official unions and parliamentary politicians, as well as middle-class leaders of oppressed movements.

The particular social basis of reformism is not simply of sociological interest. It is the key to the central paradox that has defined, and persisted, reformism since the origins of the movement, which defined itself within the social democratic parties (evolutionary socialism) around the 1900s. That is, the social forces at the center of reformism and its organizations are committed to political methods (as well as theories that justify them) that end up preventing them from ensuring the very objectives of reform – especially electoral-legislative madness and state-regulated labor relations.

As a result, the best achievements of the reform movement throughout the 20th century have generally required not only breaking with, but systematically fighting against, organized reformism, its main leaders and their organizations. This is so because to achieve such reforms in most cases, strategies and tactics were used that organized reformism does not approve of because they threaten its social position and interests – high levels of mass militant action, large-scale defiance of the law and the formation of ever-widening bonds of active solidarity across the working class – between union members and non-union members, employed and unemployed, and so on.

The reformist vision

The fundamental proposition of the reformists' worldview is that, even prone to crisis, the capitalist economy is subject to state regulation.

Reformists have argued – in various ways – that the cause of the crisis is unregulated class struggle. They have thus often argued that capitalist crises can arise from the extreme exploitation of workers by capitalists in the interests of increased profitability. This causes problems for the system as a whole, as it directly interferes with the balance of capitalism. In other words, it leads to inadequate purchasing power on the part of working people, who cannot buy (back) what they have produced.

Insufficient demand causes “crises of underconsumption” – for example (according to reformist theorists), the Great Depression of the 1930s. Reformists have also argued that capitalist crisis can arise, on the other hand, from workers' strong resistance to capitalist oppression in the factory floor. By blocking the introduction of innovative technology or refusing to work harder, workers reduce the increase in productivity (output/worker). This consequently means slower growth, reduced profitability, reduced investment and ultimately a supply crisis – for example (according to reformist theorists) the current economic slowdown of the late 1960s.

It emerges from this approach that, because crises are the unintended result of unregulated class struggle, the State can ensure economic stability and growth, precisely by intervening to regulate income distribution and capital-labor relations on the factory floor. . The implication is that class struggle is not really necessary, as in the long run it is in the interests of neither the capitalist class nor the working class, if they can be made to coordinate their actions.

The State as a neutral apparatus

The reformist theory of the State fits well with its political economy. In this aspect, the State is an autonomous apparatus of power, in principle neutral, capable of being used by any (class or social group). In this way, workers and the oppressed must try to gain control of the State, with the purpose of regulating the economy, as well as ensuring stability and economic growth and, on this basis, achieving reforms for their own material interests.

The political strategy of reformism follows logically from its vision of the economy and the State. Workers and the oppressed must focus on electing reformist politicians to government. Because state intervention by the reformist government can ensure long-term stability and growth in the interests of capital as well as labor, there is no reason to believe that employers will persistently oppose the reformist government.

Such governments can avoid underconsumption crises by implementing redistributive fiscal policies and avoiding supply crises by establishing state regulation through worker management committees in the interest of increasing productivity. Using growth and an increasingly productive economy as a basis, the State can continually increase spending on state services, while regulating bilateral agreements (between employer and employee) in order to ensure equity for all parties.

Reformists would maintain that workers would need to remain organized and vigilant – especially in their unions – and prepared to move against capitalists disinterested in the common benefit: ready to undertake strike action against employers who refuse to accept mediation at the company level, or in the worst case, rise up en masse against reactionary capitalist groups who are unable to cede government power to the vast majority and seek to corrupt the democratic order.

However, for reformists such battles would remain subordinated to the electoral-legislative struggle and would become progressively less common since the policy of the reformist State would be placed not only in the interests of workers and the oppressed, but also of employers, although the latter do not realize this. at first.

A response to reformism

Revolutionaries have classically rejected the reformists' political method of believing in the electoral-legislative process and in state-regulated bilateral agreements for the simple reason that they cannot be realized. So as long as capitalist property relations continue to prevail, the State cannot be autonomous. This is not because the state is always directly controlled by capitalists (social democratic and labor governments, for example, often are not).

And yes, because whoever controls the state is brutally limited in what they can do by the needs of capitalist profitability and because, over any longer period of time, the needs of capitalist profitability are very difficult to reconcile with reforms in the interests of of the working people.

In a capitalist society, you cannot achieve economic growth unless you can achieve investment, and capitalists will not invest unless they judge the rate of profit to be appropriate. Since high levels of employment and increased state services (dependent on taxation) in favor of the working class happen in one form or another at times of economic growth, even governments that wish to go further in the interests of the exploited and the oppressed governments – for example social democratic and labor governments – must make capitalist profitability their priorities. The old saying that “what is good for General Motors is good for everyone” unfortunately contains a grain of truth, as long as capitalist property relations continue to prevail.

This, of course, is not to say that capitalist governments will never reform. In boom periods, especially, when profitability is high, capital and the state are often quite willing to grant improvements to working people and the oppressed in the interests of uninterrupted production and social order. However, in periods of slowdown, when profitability is reduced and competition intensifies, the cost of paying (via taxation) for such reforms can endanger the survival of companies, and therefore they are rarely guaranteed without major struggles on the ground. work and on the streets.

Equally pertinent, in such periods, governments of all types – whether representing capital or labor – while committed to capitalist property relations, will end up trying to restore profitability, causing wages and social spending to be reduced, which capitalists receive tax incentives, and so on.

The centrality of crisis theory

It should be self-evident because, for revolutionaries, much depends on their argument that long periods of crisis are part of the capitalist system. From this point of view, crises arise from the inherently anarchic nature of capitalism, which constructs a path of capital accumulation that is eventually self-contradictory or self-destructive. Because by nature a capitalist economy operates in an unplanned manner, governments cannot prevent crises.

This is not the place for an in-depth discussion of capitalist crisis theories. However, it can at least be noted that capitalist history has justified an anti-reformist point of view. Since the end of the 1850th century, if not before, any type of government that has been in power, and that through long periods of capitalist boom (1870-1890, 1913-1940, 1970-1870) has always been succeeded by long periods of capitalist depression (1890-1919, 1939-1970, XNUMX to the present day). One of Ernest Mandel's fundamental contributions in recent years was to emphasize this pattern of capitalist development through long waves of boom and bust.

During the first two decades of the postwar period, it seemed that reformism had finally vindicated its political worldview. There was an unprecedented boom, accompanied by – and apparently caused by – the application of Keynesian measures to subsidize demand, as well as the increase in government spending associated with the welfare state. All advanced capitalist economies have had not only rapid wage growth, but a significant expansion of social services on behalf of the working class and the oppressed.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed to many that the way to ensure continually improving conditions for working people was to pursue (and wage) the “class struggle within the State” – the electoral-legislative victories of Social -Democracy, Labor and the Democratic Party in the United States.

However, the next two decades would prove just the opposite. The decline in profitability has brought a long-term crisis in growth and investment. Under these conditions, one reformist government after another in power – Labor in the late 1970s in England, and the socialist parties in France and Spain in the 1980s, as well as the Swedish Social Democratic Party also in the 1980s – found themselves themselves unable to restore prosperity through demand-subsidized methods, and concluded that they had little choice but to increase profitability as the only means to increase investment and restore growth.

As a result, virtually without exception, the reformist parties in power have not only failed to defend workers' wages or living standards against employer attacks, but have unleashed rigorous austerity policies to raise the rate of profit by cutting the welfare state. being social and reducing the power of unions. There could be no more definitive proof of the failure of reformist economic theories and the notion of state autonomy. Precisely because the State could not prevent capitalist crises, it would end up revealing itself as heavily dependent on capital.

Why doesn't reformism reform?

The question remains: why do reformist parties in power continue to respect capitalist property rights and seek to restore capitalist profits. Why don't they instead seek to defend working class livelihoods and working standards, if necessary through class struggle? If this perspective leads capitalists to refrain from investing or there is capital flight, why could it not then happen that industries are nationalized and move towards socialism? We return to the paradox of reformism.

The answer is found in the social forces that dominate reformist politics, especially the official unions and politicians from social democratic parties. What distinguishes these forces is that, although they depend for their existence on organizations built by workers, they themselves are not part of the working class.

Above all, they are off the factory floor. They find their material base, their way of life, in the union itself or in the political party. It's not just that they get their salaries from the union or the party, although that is important. The union or political party defines their entire way of life – what they do, who they meet – as well as the trajectory of their careers.

As a result, the key to surviving fluctuations in their social and material positions lies within the union and party itself. Therefore, as long as the organization is viable, they can have a reasonable way of life and career. The gulf between the working-class way of life and even the lowest-level paid employee is enormous. The economic position – wages, benefits, working conditions – of the ordinary working class directly depends on the course of the class struggle in the workplace and within industry. Successful class struggle is the only way for them to defend their living standards.

The union official, in contrast, can generally fare quite well in cases of repeated defeats in the class struggle, as long as the union organization survives. It is true that in the long term the survival of the union organization is dependent on the class struggle, but this is rarely a relevant factor. More important is the fact that in the short term, especially in periods of profitability crisis, class struggle is probably the main threat to the viability of the organization.

Since militant resistance to capital can provoke a response from it and the state that threatens the organization's financial condition or even existence, union officials often seek carefully to avoid it. Unions and reformist parties have historically sought to avoid confronting capital by reaching agreements with it.

They have assured capital that they accept the capitalist property system and the priority of profitability in the operation of the company. At the same time they have sought to make sure that workers, inside or outside their organizations, do not adopt radical, illegal, working-class-wide forms of action that could appear too threatening to capital and provoke violent responses. .

Above all, with relentless class struggle ruled out as a means to achieve reforms, official unions and parliamentary politicians have seen the electoral/legislative path as the fundamental political strategy left to them. Through passive mobilizations of an electoral campaign, these forces hope to create the conditions to achieve reforms, while avoiding too much confrontation with capital in the process.

This does not mean adopting the absurd view that workers are generally eager to fight and are being held back by their reformist leaders. In fact, workers are often as “conservative” as their leaders, if not more so. The point is that, unlike union or party officials, the rank and file of the working class cannot, over time, defend its interests without class struggle.

Furthermore, in those moments when workers decide to take matters into their own hands and attack the capitalists, union officials can constitute a barrier to their struggles, seeking to divert or distort them. Naturally, trade union and party leaders are not at all averse to class struggle, and sometimes they initiate it themselves. The point is simply that, given their social position, workers cannot be counted on to resist. Therefore, no matter how radical the rhetoric of leaders, no strategy should be based on the assumption that they will resist.

It is the fact that trade union officials and social democratic politicians cannot be counted on to combat the class struggle, since they have greater material interests that are endangered in confrontation with employers, that provides the central justification for our strategy of building grassroots organizations that are independent of the officials (although they can work with them), as well as independent working class parties.

Reformism today and regrouping

Understanding reformism is not a mere academic exercise. It affects almost every political initiative we take. This can be seen quite clearly with regard to both today's strategic tasks of bringing together anti-reformist forces within common organizations (regrouping) and creating a break with the Democratic Party.

These days, as in previous years, Solidarity's best hope for regrouping with organized left forces comes from those individuals and groups who see themselves as opposing left reformism. The fact remains that many of these leftists, explicitly or implicitly, still identify with a political approach that might roughly be called the “popular front.” Despite having been formed completely outside the field of organized social democracy, “the popular front” takes reformism to the system level.

The Communist International first promulgated the idea of ​​the popular front in 1935 to complement the Soviet Union's foreign policy of seeking an alliance with the powers of “liberal” capitalism to defend itself against Nazi expansionism (“collective security”). In this context, the Communist International promoted the idea that it was possible for the working class to forge a broad alliance between social classes, not only with the liberal middle classes, but with an enlightened sector of the capitalist class, in favor of democracy, civil liberties and reforms.

The basis of understanding of this vision was that a sector of the capitalist class preferred the constitutional order to an authoritarian one. Furthermore, enlightened capitalists were willing to accept greater government intervention and egalitarianism in order to create the conditions for liberalism as well as ensure social stability. Like other reformist doctrines, the popular front was itself based, in economic terms, on the underconsumerist theory of the crisis. The theory of underconsumerism was indeed receiving widespread attention among liberals; like radical socialists, during the cycles of the 1930s, they received a particularly strong boost with the dissemination and popularization of Keynes's ideas.

In the United States, the implication of the popular front was entry into the Democratic Party. The Roosevelt administration, containing progressive policies, was seen as an archetype representing enlightened sectors of capitalism. And the imperative to ally with the Democrats was greatly heightened by the sudden rise of the labor movement as a force in the country.

The communists had originally been in leadership of the CIO organization and had, in fact, achieved spectacular success in the automobile sector due to the adoption, for a brief but decisive period (from 1935 to early 1937), of a strategy very similar to Solidarity today. This strategy had, at first, found its parallel in the communists' refusal to support Roosevelt. But in 1937, shortly after the adoption of the popular front with its need not to move away from the Roosevelt administration, the PC opposed the militant work (sitdown strikes, wildcats) radical, in favor of the classically social-democratic policy of allying with the “left” wing of the official unions.

The implication of this policy was to reject the notion that the labor civil service represented a distinct social layer that could put the interests of its organizations ahead of the interests of workers – a notion that had been at the core of the politics of the left wing of social democracy in the pre-World War I (Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, etc.) and the Third International since the days of Lenin. Instead, union leaders were no longer differentiated in social terms from the rank and file and began to distinguish themselves (from each other) only by their political line (left, center, right).

This approach fits very well with the communists' strategic goal of getting newly emerging unions into the Democratic Party. Naturally, many of the union leaders were only too happy to emphasize their political function within the emerging reformist wing of the Democratic Party, especially in comparison to their much more dangerous economic function of organizing union members to fight employers.

The dual policy of allying with “left” leaders within the labor movement and seeking reforms through electoral/legislative means within the Democratic Party (hopefully alongside progressive labor leaders) has to this day remained powerfully attractive to many on the left.

A worker perspective

In the unions, during the 1970s, representatives of trends that eventually led them into Solidarity were forced to contrast the idea of ​​a grassroots movement independent of union leaders with the idea of ​​a popular front held by many leftists to support the existing progressive leadership. This meant, firstly, going against the idea that progressive union leaders would be obliged to define themselves as left-wing and oppose employers, even if it was to defend their own organizations.

Revolutionaries argued the opposite, precisely as a result of the cruelty of employers in their movements, most union leaders would be willing to make concessions in order to avoid confrontation with the capitalists. They would thus allow the virtual and indefinite weakening of the labor movement little by little.

The latter perspective has been more than confirmed, as union leaders have generally stood idly by as the concessions movement reached violent proportions and the proportion of workers in unions fell from 25-30% in the 60s. to 10-15% these days. In this way, revolutionaries in the union movement had to counter the popular front's idea that union leaders were to the left of the worker base. If you talk to many leftists of that period, sooner or later they would argue that the foundations of the labor movement could be considered conservative.

After all, many “progressive” union leaders opposed US intervention in Central America (and elsewhere) more strongly than did (union) members, in addition to being in favor of the Welfare State, unlike their members, and, on several occasions, they even thought about building a Labor Party. Our response to this argument was to contrast what “progressive” union leaders were willing to do verbally, “politically,” where relatively little was at stake, with what they were willing to do to actually fight the bosses, where virtually everything could be at risk.

For example, little was at stake for the well-known head of the IAM, William Winpisinger, in being a member of the DSA and promulgating a virtually perfect social democratic worldview on issues such as economic reconversion, national health care, and the like. However, when the class struggle became real let us remember that Winpisinger was not only clearly against the truckers for a Democratic Union, but also sent his train drivers to break the picket line in the crucial PATCO (flight controllers) strike.

Over the past decade, many leftists have broken with the Soviet Union or China and agreed to reexamine their entire political vision of the world. However, this does not mean that they will automatically move towards us. For its popular front political strategy corresponds, in a central way, to a still (relatively) powerful and coherent political tendency – that is, social democratic reformism.

If we want to win over these comrades, we will have to demonstrate to them, systematically and in detail, that their traditional popular front strategy of acting with the union “left” and joining the Democratic Party is self-defeating.

Independent Political Action (API)

At various points during the election campaign, key members within the leadership of the Black Movement, the Feminist Movement, and even the labor movement announced that they would like to see a viable political alternative to the Democratic Party. His statements seemed to make the API project suddenly much more real. These people are indispensable, at this moment, for this third way to become possible, for the simple reason that the vast majority of black people, women and workers turn their gaze to them and to no one else, for political leadership. But are they really serious about the API?

Thus, it is clear that all these forces require independent political action. The Democratic Party has long sought increasingly to improve capitalist profitability and done less and less for workers, women and oppressed minorities. It has, therefore, been useless for the union leaders, the black people, and the feminist movements who, after all, work within the party, primarily, to achieve something for their “represented” (voters, constituents).

The official leaders of the movement would therefore certainly approve the existence of a third way (third party or organization). However, it is the paradox of their social class and their reformist politics that prevents them from doing what is necessary to create a third party, another alternative.

It is difficult to see how these conditions can be achieved, except through the revitalization of social movements, especially the labor movement – ​​with the growth of militant struggle and for unity of struggle within the union and outside it. Notably, a energized mass movement could provide the material basis, so to speak, for the transformation of political consciousness that could bring to life an electorally successful third party.

On the other hand, in the absence of a massive rupture in the activity and consciousness of mass movements, it becomes absolutely meaningless for the leaders to break with the Democratic Party. These people take the electoral system extremely seriously; for them, it is the main means of ensuring gains for their “represented” (voters, constituents). And the sine qua non for achieving gains (for workers) through electoral means is very evident: it is electoral victory. Without electoral victory nothing is possible.

The problem is that, in the near future, no third party will have a chance of winning elections. Political awareness is not there yet. Furthermore, third parties are especially harmed since the winner has the entire electoral system under their control.

In this situation, the established leaders of the unions, the Black Movement, and women face a double problem: they cannot break with the Democrats until the conditions for the possibility of a real third-party electoral victory are present; but they cannot create the conditions for the third party without abandoning, probably for a substantial period, their already established methods of achieving gains via the electoral path.

Unfortunately, it is not at all surprising that the most assiduous advocates of a break towards a third party within the established leadership of the movements – which is found within the women's movement – ​​have shown themselves to be much less interested in “their own” political parties. 21st century than with the Democratic Party candidacies of Carole Moseley Braun, Barbara Boxer, and even Dianne Feistein.

Just as any recovery of the workers' movement, social movements [black, feminist, LGBTQIA+], and the left will have to depend on a rupture – and confrontation – with the political and social forces that sustain reformism, the same will happen in the project of construction of a third party to the left of the Democratic Party.

*Robert Brenner is a professor in the Department of History at the University of California-Los Angeles and a member of the Editorial Board of the New Left Review. Author, among other books, of The Boom and the Bubble (All time lap record). []

Translation: Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza & Lais Fernanda Fonseca de Souza

Originally published in the magazine Against the Current, March/April, 1993.

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