Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reform or Revolution

Steve Richards of The Independent asks "would we really accept a genuine political revolution?" Alas, he fails to answer question and instead argues that "it is in the Labour Party's self-interest to advance a radical programme of change." John Freedland's "A Whiff of Revolution in the London Air" shows he is similarly misinformed about reformism and revolution. This essay will hopefully provide clarification.

An acceptance of capitalism is indicative of a political approach that must inevitably enmesh itself with the reformation of the system and not with its abolition. Conversely, a genuine opposition to capitalism implies an understanding and knowledge that should preclude any desire to embark on a reformist program, recognizing the futility of such action, irrespective of the merits of the reforms contemplated.

Wherever and whenever there is a program of reforms you will always find the "Leaders" ready and willing to perform, but always unable in the end to properly fulfill the prornises which originally were so artfully dangled. Reforms never live up to their expectations because the very nature of capitalism invariably sabotages the performance of the reformers. Even when certain problems get resolved they are replaced with new ones, generally of an equal or greater magnitude. Apart from the wasted energy and time that reformism engenders, the danger of such activity lies in the inevitable apathy and disillusionment that arises in the aftermath. These are the breeding grounds for dictatorial regimes.

It is a political delusion to think that one can shelve the case for socialism and still serve the interests of the working class by helping to reform capitalism in its quest for greater efficiency. The interests of the majority can only be served by the elimination of a system that can never be made to operate on their behalf irrespective of how it is manipulated or reforrned. Socialist, political energies are channeled solely for the achievement of socialism - we do not concern ourselves directly with the adrninistration of a system whose major social evils are irrernovable notwithstanding the nature of the reforms that may be introduced. Reforms leave the fundamental basis of the system unaltered. It is this social and economic core, resting up on the class ownership of the means of production and distribution, that gives rise to the insoluble probierns.

In conjunction with this approach, we nevertheless urge our fellow workers to maintain and improve their standards of living through active participation in the Trade Union movement. However, such activity should always be kept in proper perspective with the realization that Trade Unions are limited in their scope. They demonstrate the class struggle in ever-constant action, as distinct from the separate policy of reformism to which we are opposed.

With logic and socialist insight, we advocate peaceful, democratic revolution as the only political course to follow. At the same time, we recognize the necessity for the working class to continuously strive at safeguarding and improving their economic conditions, through appropriate, well-conceived Trade Union activity, in the interirn.

Can the working class "relate" to such a policy? We emphatically claim that they can, and should - without delay!

Socialism, of course, can never be established or operated without a socialalist majority. Once this fundamental position is fully apprecited it becomes obvious that any so-called Socialist Party that advocates a policy of reforms would automatically attract to its ranks reformists but not revolutionists. In no time at all any Party which naively attempted to take a dual position of reformation combined with "revolution" would be swamped and outnumbered by the reformists and would be politically castrated as far as socialism is concerned. The Fabian Society, established in January 1884, as a Society and not as a Political Party, and the Social Democratic Federation, which changed its name to the Social Democratic Party in 1908, both originating in England, are examples of reformist organizations that, in addition, purported to advocate socialism. The Fabian Society's doctrine was "the inevitability of gradualness," while the SDF referred to their reforms as "stepping sones lo Socialism." A small group of secessionists from the SDF, opposing the reformist approach, forrned the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904 with an object and set of principles that uniquely distinguished them as a Socialist Party in every sense of the term.

Rosa Luxemburg in her work entitled "Reform or Revolution" written in April 1899, stated in her Introduction:

"The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratie institutions, offers to the Social-Democracy the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goa - the conquest of political power and the suppression of wagelabor. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social-Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim."

This statement is fallacious in content and deviates from the significance of her title which poses a choice between reform or revolution.

Another unacceptable aspect supported by Rosa Luxemburg, is the theory that at some stage of development, due to the contradictions of the system, capitalism will "collapse" and that, quoting, "Without the collapse of capitalism the expropriation of the capitalist class is impossible." We would deny this statement and substitute a vital alternative position: without a socialist working dass socialism is impossible! Capitalism has demonstrated its remarkable staying-power and adaptability from crises to crises, through recessions and depressions. And even if a "collapse" occurred, socialism could never be introduced unless the vast majority were already converted to the socialist case and properly organized to attain political power. When this situation happens it would of course be completely unnecessary to wait for a "collapse," because socialism becomes immediately practical. However, in fairness to Rosa Luxemburg, affectionately called Red Rosa by the SPGB for her heroic class-conscious defense in her trial at Weimar in 1907, she also supported a positive role to be played by the working class, and indicated that the workers might achieve power before the breakdown of the system took place. The socialist position looks for no anticipated crash that would mark the deaththroes of capitalism-on the contrary, we emphasize that the socialist revolution depends upon a sufficiency of socialists and we work towards this end.

As and when socialist delegates become elected to the Congresses and Parliaments throughout the world, with a mandate for socialism, they will of course be confronted from time to time with reformist measures, and called up on to either vote or abstain, approve or otherwise. They will be instructed in these matters by their respective Socialist Parties. The guiding principle will revolve around the interests of the working class together with the achievement of socialism. The socialist delegates will therefore act within this framework. They will also never lose any practical opportunity for propagating, at the applicable time, the case for socialism. When the World Socialist Parties finally get representation in the seats of power, we can rest assured that the ruling class and their aides will be churning out a plethora ofreforms in order to appease the growing, awakening socialist working class in an effort to delay the inevitable. The foregoing scenario is in no way analogous to the advocacy of reforrns as an initial attempt to gain political support' and vote.catching representation.

With the magnificent, international declaration and enactment that every human being is the common owner, with democratic 'ontrol, of the means of production and distribution, with free access to all goods and services, a new era commences. Poverty, unemployment, insecurity and war become immediately and irrevocahly eliminated. Their cause, the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution by a minority, in a "commodity society," would have been eradicated. The structure of a socialist society makes their existence an economic and social impossibility.

What reform, or series of reforms, could match, or in any way be comparable with, this position and attainment?

There can be no poverty in a classless society, technologically capable of satisfying the needs of the population, with free access to all goods and services.

There can be no unemployment, or employment, when all men and women are co-owners of the means of production and distribution, giving of their abilities in useful work for society as well IS for themselves.

There can be no insecurity when all "needs" can be satisfied as the rresult of "cornmon ownership" and "free access."

There can be no war when humanity is united as a whole without states, national boundaries, or armed forces; with production and distribution solely for use, and not for profit, eliminating money, wages, exchange, and the "market place."

Poverty remains endemic in this system however even after the myriad of reforms that have been passed and promises made and broken since the advent of capitalism. A classic example is the history of the still extant Child Poverty Action Group.

"Beginning a letter to Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson on 22 December 1965, AF Philip, Chairman of the newly-formed Child Poverty Action Group wrote: “There is evidence that at least half a million children in this country are in homes where there is hardship due to poverty.” He ended his plea on behalf of Britain’s deprived minors thus: “We earnestly beg you to see that steps are taken at the earliest possible moment to help these families.” So confident that child poverty would be quickly eradicated by the amazing magical wand that Wilson often wielded, Labour suggested the CPAG would be obsolete within a year, the problem it was set up to help eradicate a thing of the past."

Today, one in two children in the world exist in poverty, some 640 million live without adequate shelter, 400 million have no safe water to drink and 270 million lack health services. In 2003 alone, 10.6 million children died before they reached the age of 5 (circa 29,000 children per day). Almost half the world — over 3 billion people — exist on less than $2.50 a day. And yet the reformists continue to urge us to join their misery-go-round. Others direct their ingenuity and efforts towards the "rninor sores" of society. These have included so-called high taxes, "the economy," balancing the budget (but not yours), inflation, violence, crime, pollution, premature death and ill-health caused directly by the system, racism, "freedorns" and "human rights.' And, lest we forget, the "privilege" of working class women having "equal rights" with the men of being exploited on equal terrns. Presumably, also, the right to be massacred in the wars, alongside the men, for their masters' interests - all this in the name of "equality"!

Every major political party in the U.S.A., Europe and elsewhere that has taken on the job of running capitalism has done so on a reformist ticket, failing dismally as far as the interests of the working class are concerned. And it can never be otherwise. Capitalism will always remain a system of perpetual crises, with unending competition and confrontation, both on the social and individual levels, all this impervious to reforms and reformism.

(The original version of this essay appears in 'The Futility of Reformism' by Samuel Leight)


Mike Morin said...

You do a good job of debunking reform and all arguments for it.

Yet your pronouncement in favor of "peaceful, democratic revolution" appears to be a hollow one.

How dose such differ from reform? Are you suggesting "taking over the economy" by "voting in the work-place"?

I don't understand. I want to. I seek the same results as you. I know there are no simple answers, if any at all, but can we make some progress about how to carry out a "peaceful, democratic revolution" without restructuring (how does that differ from reforming?) the economic and political process? I know the WSM answer to the political process is to "dismantle governments" and much of that, aside from "safety net" programs does need to occur. But, can you not envisage an associated "government" of inter-syndicalist and inter-community faciltators?

I will be looking forward to your response.

Thank you.

ajohnstone said...

gI think you misconstrue slightly the scope of the SPGB's attitude to the revolutionary process.

Parliament and local councils , to the extent that their functions are administrative and not governmental , can and will be used to co-ordinate the urgent immediate measures to transform society when Socialism is established .
But what matters most is a conscious socialist majority outside parliament, ready and organised to take over and run industry and society; electing a socialist majority in parliament is essentially just a reflection of this. It is not parliament that establishes socialism, but the socialist working-class majority outside parliament and they do this, not by their votes, but by their active participating beyond this in the transformation of society.
The SPGB assumption has always been that there would be a "conscious" and active Socialist majority outside Parliament, democratically organised both in a mass Socialist political party and, at work, in ex-trade union/neo-syndicalist one big union type organisations ready to keep production going during and immediately after the winning of political control.

Anarchists for instance have to envisage some means of expressing the popular will/public demand other than a parliament elected by and responsible to a socialist majority amongst the population. But what, exactly? It would have to be something like the Congress of Socialist Industrial Unions or a Central Council of the Federation of Workers Councils . This is not to deny that it could be one of these (because bodies such as these will exist at the time), but would any of these bodies be more efficient and more effective (and even more democratic) in controlling the State/central administrative machinery than a socialist majority elected to Parliament by universal suffrage in a secret ballot.

Hope that answers your query and that i understood your questions correctly