In Greek legend the Hydra was a gigantic serpent with multiple heads, the center one being immortal; every time an attacker chopped off one of its outer heads, two others grew in its place. It was killed by Heracles, with the assistance of his charioteer Iolaus. As Heracles chopped off a head, Iolaus would burn its neck cavity to keep new heads from growing. Eventually they were able to reach the center head and sever it from the body. Capitalism resembles the Hydra. Whatever problem a reform solves, a new problem grows in its place. Capitalism is also like the hydra in that it is not easily overcome. Reform attempts directed at its individual “heads” rarely able to produce lasting benefits. Given the hydra-like nature of capitalism, attacking only the effects of capitalism – one at a time or in combination – will likely produce only exhaustion. What is needed is to build a movement directed at capitalism itself.
It is not often we can approvingly quote Stalin, “Reformism regards socialism as a remote goal and nothing more, and actually repudiates the socialist revolution...Reformism advocates not class struggle, but class collaboration.” (Anarchism or Socialism) Reformism is relying on gradual change and making things a little bit better, slowly. It develops out of faith in the fair mindedness of our masters. Reformists feel that they can serve humanity and progress by allying themselves with our class enemy. This is a shaky foundation to build socialism. Reformism slyly serves the ruling class.
Reformism once embodied socialism’s greatest hopes and dominated the labour movement. Workers had been mobilised to be take the path that would lead to the transformation of society which would not be a frontal assault upon the capitalist citadel but a shining future of gradual palliatives and ameliorations pass by Parliamentary legislation. Capitalism would be undermined from within. The only question was how long it would take them to undermine it and reformists began to relegate that time to the distant future. Many socialists eloquently and prophetically denounced all collusion, compromise concessions and conciliation to the capitalists, predicting that workers will be lured into in their snares of moderation and integration. Reformism at best turned its back on the socialist idea or simply betrayed it. It advocates class war without any fighting and a policy of appeasement.
Reformism in its original form, is now a thing of the past. There is no longer any question of implementing a sequence of reforms so as to transform capitalism into socialism by gradual steps. Still less is there any question of abolishing capitalism. Reformism inspired grand hopes but it failed to fulfil its great promise. Its ambitions are most modest, simply to run capitalism more smoothly than laissez faire version of capitalism through government interventions. It is revolutionary impotent, having been emasculated of all radical content. Most reform projects become judged as inopportune. The precious but limited reforms which do not even challenge the capitalist order are beyond the grasp of contemporary reformism. This is a new style of reformism, reformism without reforms, only for the purpose of making election promises to acquire political office, in stark contrast in terms of its early aims of implementing reforms leading to socialism. Reformism is no longer still thought that as a possible weapon of revolution, even in a hypothetical and distant future. Reformers have abandoned any idea of transforming capitalism, other than the State should have a greater role, especially in the economic domain. The Labour Party retains the old reformist label but it remains a directionless and demoralised party, in no sense socialist and which is little more than a programme for modernising capitalism on behalf of sections within the State and the capitalist elite. It raises brief hopes but always fails to deliver.
The Socialist Party rejects all gradualist illusions. Experience confirms that nowhere, in any country, has the ruling class has had its economic and political power diminished by the path of reformism other than cosmetic superficial changes. Daniel De Leon called the reformist bureaucrats the “labour lieutenants of capital”. This is correct. Reformism was designed to prevent the limited workers’ organizational independence from the capitalist class from progressing to political independence and the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society. Reformism is an ideology, to contain class struggle, to deny its importance, to compensate for it and finally to break it. Reformism is no gain for the working class at all.
Reformism and reforms are two different things and there exists a battle between reformism and revolution. Reformists are interested in winning reforms but to attract people to our revolutionary socialist banner and away from reformism, cannot be accomplished through outbidding reformists in terms of a reform programme. Reformists argue that through State intervention capitalism can achieve long-term stability and growth. They argue that the State is a neutral institution that can be used by any group, including the working class, in its own interests. In this view, the State is an autonomous apparatus of power capable of being used by anyone. It follows that workers should try to gain control of it for the purpose of regulating the economy so as to secure economic stability and growth and, on that basis, win reforms in their own material interests.
Reformism's basic political strategy is that working people should devote themselves primarily to secure legislation to regulate capitalism and, on that basis, to improve workers' conditions and living standards. The core proposition of the reformist world view is that the capitalist economy is, in the end, subject to state regulation. The implication is that class struggle is not really necessary, for it is in the long term interest of neither the capitalist class nor the working class, if they can be made to coordinate their actions. It flows logically that workers should concentrate on electing reformist politicians to office. because state intervention by a reformist government can secure long-term stability and growth in the interests of capital, as well as labour, so there is no reason to believe that employers will stubbornly oppose a reformist government. Such a government can ensure fairness to all. We do not deny that capitalist governments will ever make reforms. Especially in periods of boom, when profitability is high, capitalists and the State are often quite willing to graciously grant improvements to working people in the interests of uninterrupted production and social order. Yet in periods of recession, when profitability is reduced and competition intensifies the cost of paying (via taxation) for such reforms can endanger the very survival of firms and reforms are rarely yielded without very major struggles in the workplaces and protests in the streets. Equally to the point, in such periods, governments will end up attempting to restore profitability by seeing to it that wages and social spending are cut, that capitalists receive tax breaks, and so forth. virtually without exception, the reformist parties in power not only failed to defend workers' wages or living standards against employers' attack, but unleashed powerful austerity drives designed to raise the rate of profit by cutting the welfare state and reducing the power of the unions. There could be no more definitive disproof of reformist economic theories and the notion of the autonomy of the state. Precisely because the state could not prevent capitalist crisis, it could not but reveal itself as supinely dependent upon capital.
The Socialist Party has rejected the reformists' tactic for the simple reason that it can't work. So long as capitalist property relations prevail, the State cannot be an independent entity. It is because whoever controls the State is brutally limited in what they can do by the needs of capitalist profitability and because the needs of capitalist profitability cannot be reconciled with the interest of working people. In a capitalist society, you can't get economic growth unless you can get investment, and you can't get capitalists to invest unless they can make what they judge to be an adequate rate of profit. This is not because the state is always directly controlled by capitalists. Even governments that want to further the interests of the exploited must make capitalist profitability in the interest of economic growth their first priority. The old saying that "What's good for business is good for everyone,' unfortunately contains an important grain of truth, so long as capitalism continues.
Marx in 'Wages, Price and Profit', says: “To clamour for equal or even equitable retribution on the basis of the wages system is the same as to clamour for freedom on the basis of the slavery system. What you think just or equitable is out of the question.” Reformism directs attention toward confused abstract ideals of justice and away from concrete revolutionary goals. ‘From each according to ability, to each according to needs!’ — is not a principle of distributive justice.