By Paul Gerrard
125 years ago the celebrated revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote her definitive answer to the question with her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution. Here we explain why her ideas are still valid for today.
When you hear the word ‘reform’ be on your guard. The bosses have a very different idea from us about reforms. ‘Reform’, often coupled with the word ‘modernisation’, means there’s an attack coming on working-class people. ‘Reform’ in the NHS invariably means more privatisation; on the railways it means 7-day working; in Royal Mail it means extra workload and Amazon-style conditions. These are counter-reforms, which don’t take our movement forward but actually put the clock back, sometimes to conditions experienced in Victorian times.
Real reforms have to be fought for by our movement, they are concessions that have to be wrung from the capitalist class. Since they have the power in society they will seek to undermine reforms and reverse them if they can. The NHS – medical treatment freely available and free at the point of use – was won in the teeth of opposition from the capitalist class and the medical establishment. 75 years on we see the vultures of the US and UK private health companies circling overhead and each year the private sector makes further inroads into public health.
Starmer’s Labour has traditionally been seen as a party of reform, or reformism, rather than revolution. Labour’s reformists, whether of the right or the left, don’t challenge capitalism and don’t believe it can be abolished. They might call themselves ‘socialists’ but their aim is to use parliament to make capitalism more acceptable, more liveable. Unfortunately, the ruling class gets in the way. Jeremy Corbyn is widely respected as a socialist and he did much to popularise the idea of public ownership. But he didn’t recognise the resistance he would meet from the capitalist class, or from the media, or even from his own MPs, for his programme of reforms.
A democratic mandate from winning repeated leadership elections and two million more votes in 2017 was never going to be enough, because the bosses and their politicians in both main parties will never accept democracy if it goes against them. To carry through his radical programme in the teeth of capitalist resistance it would have been necessary to mobilise the working class with a general strike, mass rallies, workplace occupations etc., in other words using the methods of revolutionary struggle. So why stop there? Why not go the whole way and transform society completely?
That’s why genuine socialists base themselves on an understanding of the class struggle and recognise that what is required to rid society of poverty, injustice and oppression is a revolutionary socialist transformation involving the expropriation of the billionaires and major corporations which dominate the world economy so that an international plan of production can really meet the needs of the working class and downtrodden of the world.
That doesn’t mean that revolutionaries ignore reforms or see them as a distraction. On the contrary we see the fight for reforms as vital to building a mass movement, and it is through fighting for and winning reforms that we build a movement capable of changing society. Not only that but it is the revolutionaries who fight the hardest, using the methods of class struggle, as Kshama Sawant and our US comrades did over rent control in Seattle and our Irish comrades did successfully over abortion rights. These examples show that if we really fight for reforms we can win them.
The debate between reform and revolution has been a central debate among socialists for 150 years. In the nineteenth century the Marxists were known as the Social Democracy and the German Social Democratic Party enjoyed massive and active support of the working class. But the gradual achievement of democratic and trade union rights, plus the increasing strength of the trade union movement in conditions of economic growth, laid the basis for some of the party leaders, notably Eduard Bernstein, to argue that capitalism was changing out of all recognition and revolution was no longer necessary. Rosa Luxemburg, in her famous work Social Reform or Revolution, dismantled Bernstein’s arguments using Marxist economic theory.
Credit, also known as debt, such as bank loans or overdrafts, was seen by Bernstein as damping down the periodic crises affecting capitalism but Luxemburg demonstrates that credit has precisely the opposite effect, and actually exacerbates crises, as we saw in the financial crisis of 2008-09. What she calls Bernstein’s ‘revisionism’, whereby the revolutionary ideas of Marxism become blurred, is the starting-point for reformism in the workers’ movement.
Capitalists have state power
Some reformists will say that ‘we all want the same thing, we just have different ideas about how to get there.’ Not true. Self-styled socialists who believe that the gradual accumulation of reforms will lead us to the emancipation of the working-class are mistaken. The capitalist class have all the cards and will not give up power without a no-holds-barred struggle.
They have the state, which is not remotely neutral in the class struggle, but is an instrument for holding down the working class. Parliament exists to give the illusion of popular control and to silence or seduce the more radical working-class representatives, with the monarchy held in reserve to bar the path to a socialist government, and an army, police force, prisons, judiciary etc to incapacitate, isolate or eliminate those who seriously challenge capitalist power.
So how can the revolutionaries’ arguments prevail over those of the reformists? Through the lived experience of the working class. Starmer will almost certainly come to power in the near future yet he offers little in the way of reforms because he is wedded to the capitalist system which ‘can’t afford’ major reforms. The reformists of the Latin American ‘pink wave’ who won’t challenge capitalism face enormous resistance from the capitalists and landowners.
If they don’t deliver real change for the workers and poor their support will ebb away and the right will see a resurgence unless the working masses take a more revolutionary lead. In France the working class are on the streets, determined to defend the right to retire at 62; Mélenchon makes fiery speeches reflecting their anger but hasn’t set up a member-based political movement which could be the party they need.
For us as revolutionary socialists we will campaign to build a left party of struggle based on the struggles of the working class and oppressed groups. And it will be in the course of those future struggles that we believe our arguments for revolution over reform will win the day.