Socialism has traditionally been associated with two conflicting ideas. On the one hand there is a package of social welfare goals: universal health care, old age pensions, a social safety net, infrastructure spending, public schools and other institutions, and various rights at work. On the other there is a vision of social revolution, where workers control the economy and create a new, more democratic society. Which of these is socialism, and how do they relate to the situation we find ourselves in today?
For Marxists, there is no question: socialism is the second idea. All Marxist literature beginning with the Communist Manifesto is clear on this. The interests of the working class and the capitalist class are irreconcilable. Only a socialist revolution, in which the means of production (factories as well as auxiliary areas such as distribution) are taken over by the workers and managed for the benefit of all, can resolve this.
Yet historically many socialists have abandoned this final goal of social revolution, trying instead to bargain for a better position within the capitalist system. The first major deviation in this direction was among the parties of the Second International, a socialist group formed in the 1890s by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The SPD was originally a revolutionary Marxist party in name, but over time it became a party fighting only for reforms in the parliamentary system.
Reformism, as a tendency, has followed this pattern. As socialists have gained influence in trade unions and parliaments, they have opted for the “respectable” parliamentary road. And this makes sense – as an officialdom grows, it gains a level of comfort and security that it no longer wishes to risk on the overthrow of capitalism. This is similar to the conservatism that grows in the trade union bureaucracy as workers’ interests stop aligning with those of the union leaders. In the face of actual revolution, such as occurred in Germany in 1919, reformist parties can become outright counter-revolutionaries. It was at the word of the SPD leadership that revolutionary thinker Rosa Luxemburg and other members of the Spartakusbund were murdered.
Why can’t capitalism be reformed away?
When socialists become reformists, they imply that capitalism can be tamed by reforms. This may have seemed like a compelling argument in the period after World War II, when mass social democratic parties in Europe and a mass labor movement in the United States had won significant concessions in the forms of more or less robust social programs and steady union jobs with high benefits. But the so-called neoliberal period, from the late 1970s to the present, has been an unrelenting attack on everything gained in that era.
None of this is a coincidence, and this fact is rooted in the nature of the state. For reformists, the state is seen as a neutral tool that can be used to advance workers’ interests as well as those of the capitalist class. But Marxists see this differently. The state, far from being neutral, is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. The state is controlled, directly or indirectly, by the ruling class, and it protects their interests above all. This is clearest in the United States, where both the Democrats and Republicans represent moneyed interests. But it is still true when working class parties take power in a parliamentary republic. At the end of the day, the police and military are defenders of big business and not a particular government.
These governments, such as Labour in Britain, the SPD in Germany, and the Parti Socialiste in France, all take power under strict agreements with the capitalist classes. In the past, the capitalists allowed them to go so far – setting up a welfare state and so on – but never any further to challenge their power. When these parties came to power without agreeing with the capitalists, they would be undermined, or worse – as Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile learned when the military overthrew it in 1973.
Now, even the reform carrot is no longer available. In neoliberalism, all that has been allowed to these bourgeois workers parties has been to be the administrators of austerity, at best trying to limit the damage that is done to workers and the social programs as budgets are tightened. This has completely discredited these parties, to the point where many workers would rather vote for the openly bourgeois parties and come under the influence of far-right populists.
Can revolutionaries fight for reforms?
If reformism doesn’t work, should revolutionaries oppose every fight for reform measures? Marxist thinkers have consistently argued that, in fact, a revolutionary party needs to fight for partial measures. But if this is true, what separates the revolutionaries from the reformists?
There are two factors: the demands of the program and the methods of struggle. In the program, revolutionary socialists try to go beyond the burning demands of the moment and create a bridge toward a socialist future. This is seen, for instance, in demands that go beyond a higher general wage, toward a full employment society where hours are adjusted until everyone who wants a job can have one. Participating in the reform struggle but raising these elevated demands gives Marxists a basis to win workers over to revolutionary socialism.
At the same time, we try to build using methods that strengthen the working class and its institutions. Building links with and between trade unions as well as mass fightback organs – whether issue-specific movements, united fronts, working class parties, or even defense guards – in the course of the struggle for immediate reforms ensures that there is a basis to go forward beyond them. This also is reflected in struggles of the oppressed, where we work consciously to build links with women, people of color, people with different sexual and gender expressions, and all people oppressed and exploited in the capitalist system to build a broader united front.
The united front is one of the most important methods of revolutionary work. It is a form of unity that leaves each organization independent to manage its own affairs, while putting aside differences to work toward common aims. In the united front, revolutionaries and reformists find common ground and work toward the good of workers and the oppressed, and in the process have a greater impact than the smaller organizations could when going it alone.
This requires a balance of two forces. The revolutionary socialists, organized in a revolutionary party or as a current in a broader organization, must keep in vital contact with the working class. At the same time they must maintain a program that has its eye on the socialist revolution. The greatest program in the world means nothing if it is disconnected from actual mass struggles. The followers of Daniel De Leon, a pioneering American Marxist, kept their program “pure” and so dwindled into a semi-religious sect, and many would-be revolutionary groups have followed.
But losing track of the program’s revolutionary content is just as bad of a crime. The once-great socialist movements of the past lost this vitality because they had the sincere desire to stay closer to the masses of workers, and it took the disaster of World War I to show how bad the rot had become. It is only by walking the road – staying in touch with the class and keeping the final goal in our sights – that we can navigate the way out of the capitalist system.