From International Socialism, No.57, April 1973, pp.18-19.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
In his article in IS 54 (Do we support reformist demands?) Duncan Hallas correctly argues that ‘the whole question of transitional demands, whether they are possible and what they are, depends on the economic and political balance of forces, on perspectives.’ Yet he begs important questions when he turns to ‘reformist demands’. From a Marxist standpoint what are real reforms? Must they be measures which strengthen capitalism?
It is not sufficient to reply that in some periods reforms strengthen capitalism and in others weaken it. This obscures the dividing line between reforms won by working-class organisation, and reforms given by progressive capitalism. The latter have the clear objective of adjusting the system in order to perpetuate capitalism; the former have a much more contradictory character.
The dividing line between revolutionary socialist, reformists and progressive capitalists, can only be found in their different relationships to the class struggle. Revolutionaries wage the class struggle within capitalism with the aim of organising the working class to smash the bourgeois state and to overthrow capitalism. Reformists however, participate in the class struggle in order to win real gains for the working class within capitalism.
Reformist movements organise workers to improve and protect their conditions of life, thereby shifting the balance of the class struggle in favour of the working class. To the extent that they are successful they create supporters within the working class which then look to their organisations for leadership and use those organisations to struggle for further reforms. But because the reformist aims only at reform within capitalism, he compromises even in the most limited struggle. In a revolutionary crises, the reformist movement splits. Its leadership goes over to the bourgeoisie, taking part of the membership with it, and serves as the direct agent of progressive capitalism, introducing large-scale reforms at the height of the crisis in order to divert the revolutionary upsurge.
The attitude of revolutionaries to reformism, and to reformist demands, is quite clear. In so far as reformists organise the working class, revolutionaries support them, and use their organisations as the springboard for revolutionary activity. But in so far as the reformists disorganise and betray the interests of the working class, limiting the development of the class struggle, they are opposed.
Further, the touchstone by which we answer the question – is this a progressive reformist movement? – is not the passing of this or that individual reform but whether or not the movement actually shifts the balance of class forces in the direction of the working class. By this criterion, the Labour Party was a reformist party, and is now a progressive capitalist party, while the trade unions are and always have been, reformist.
Even the 1945 Labour government was partly reformist. It repealed the 1927 Trades Disputes Act which had outlawed solidarity strikes; at the same time it attempted to ‘manage’ capitalism by imposing a wage freeze, and by codifying the welfare reforms of the Second World War without redistributing wealth.
But the 1964 and 1966 Labour governments proposed In Place of Strife to weaken shopfloor trade-union organisation. They succeeded in placing the Redundancy Payments Act on the statute book which, along with the productivity deal offensive, operated to increase unemployment and ‘rationalise’ British capitalism. This Labour administration was quite clearly operating as a ‘progressive capitalist’ government, with the object of weakening working-class organisation in the interests of capital.
By the same criterion of organisation, the trade unions remain the most effective reformist movement in Britain, organising large sections of the working class and providing a structure within which shopfloor organisation can take place. The shop steward system, combine and district committees, branches and trades councils are clearly all forms of reformist organisation, which grew out of demands for better wages and better conditions.
It is the connections which remain between the trade unions and the Labour Party that limits the distance the latter can travel in an anti-working class direction, and thereby shed a deceiving reformist light over Labour, particularly in opposition. It is because remnants of its trade union base remain that we urge the slogan ‘Vote Labour without Illusion.’
On a much less effective scale, the small British Communist Party is also a reformist organisation, coupling its aspirations to a ‘parliamentary road’ to British socialism with occasional initiatives such as the 8 December 1970 one-day stoppage against the Industrial Relations Bill, and the organisation of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions.
Because today the trade unions alone provide a base for shifting the balance of the class struggle back to the working class, IS constantly strives to establish rank-and-file organisations and papers, to build discussion groups around our weekly Socialist Worker, and to establish a mass rank-and-file movement in the trade unions. In all spheres of this activity our order of priorities is clear: first, we fight to maintain and extend working-class organisation; second, we fight for conditions; third, for money.
Given that reformism strengthens the organisation of the working class for the struggle within capitalism, it is possible to ask also: Do all reforms necessarily strengthen capitalism? In our Draft Programme there are clearly two types of demands: those that are organisational, and those that are concerned with conditions and money. It is inconceivable that the organisational demands – for building shop stewards’ combine committees, tenants’ associations, etc – could strengthen capitalism. And in each critical situation, it is these demands we raise at an ever more generalised level – ‘General Strike Now’, ‘For Councils of Action’ – with a specific content: in order to repeal the Industrial Relations Act, fight unemployment, fight rent rises, restore the welfare system.
It is the second type of demand – on conditions and money – abstracted from the question of organisation and the class struggle, that leads some Marxists to confuse reformism and progressive capitalism. This confusion leads one IS critic to write:
now, if the Labour Party is no longer a reformist party, the question of course arises – what is it? What, then were the Redundancy Payments Act. the nationalisation of the steel industry, the 1965 Rents Act?
The answer given is that these measures (progressive capitalist to the core) were indeed reforms and, therefore, the Labour Party must still be reformist. We must not demand reforms, the argument continues, because capitalism can give them.
Yet there is all the difference in the world between reforms that are won through the class struggle, and shift the balance of forces in that struggle, and reforms that are given. The former are tied unalterably to organisational advances which cannot strengthen capitalism in either the long or short term. Further, when we demand reforms in the systems of health, education and conditions, we demand that these be paid for out of a redistribution of wealth; when we demand higher wages, better conditions, we tight to lower the rate of exploitation. Neither the redistribution of wealth nor lowering the rate of exploitation would serve to strengthen British capitalism vis-à-vis other national capitalisms. They would only strengthen capitalism in the long run if adopted by all national capitalisms; otherwise they merely increase the contradictions within international capitalism.
Finally, Lenin’s solution to the separation of the ‘minimum’ programme of limited reforms from the ‘maximum’ programme of socialism is characterised by an emphasis on organisation and strategy. Luxemburg and Trotsky, on the other hand, both underestimated the role of organisation, thus overestimating transformation of working-class consciousness in a revolutionary crisis, and the possible impact of such a transformation. Luxemburg, faced with an ossified centrist German Social Democratic Party, believed that the job of bridging the gap between limited reformist demands and the revolutionary seizure of power would be achieved spontaneously, in the ‘mass strike’, where all demands – political, economic, organisational – would develop in rapid succession. She argued:
‘If once the ball is set rolling, then social-democracy, whether it wills it or not, can never bring it to a standstill.’
Trotsky, facing the omnipresent Stalinist parties, was convinced by 1938 that the transitional programme could be the bridge:
‘The old “minimal programme” is superseded by the transitional programme, the task of which lies in systematic mobilisation of the masses for the proletarian revolution.’
‘The class consciousness of the proletariat, does not develop uniformly throughout the whole proletariat, parallel with the objective economic crisis ... with the result that the standpoint of the proletariat and its reaction to the crisis is much less violent and intense than is the crisis itself.’
Only revolutionary organisations with deep roots inside the working class can bridge the economic crisis and the revolutionary seizure of power. Both Luxemburg in 1906 and Trotsky in 1938 lacked the organisations to translate their analysis of their epochs in to a practical transformation of those epochs.
For Lenin the question of the relationship of reform and revolution solved itself in practice at two levels. First through the building of a democratic centralist party, organising the vanguard of the proletariat, and preparing to lead the working class in struggle both within and against capitalism. Second, through the work of the party within the mass organisations of the class. Thus in 1917 the complete transitional programme of the Bolsheviks was ‘Land, Peace and Bread’ and ‘All Power to the Soviets’.
At all levels of the struggle against capitalism – the fight for reforms and the fight to smash the bourgeois state – the organised capacity of the working class to wage that struggle remains the main object of revolutionaries’ propaganda and agitation.
Last updated on 15.2.2008