Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Case for and against Reformism (1986)

From the January 1986 issue of the Socialist Standard

The case for reformism
I think I'll become a reformist. Change society a bit at a time. Erode the edifice of social misery, gradually but surely, and make the world a better place to live in.

It's all very well these revolutionary socialists telling me that the only way to end working-class problems is to abolish the whole system of world capitalism and introduce socialism, but I can't wait for that. Something needs to be done now. If we sit around trying to persuade workers of the need to abolish the cause of their suffering it could take ages. No, I want action now. Tomorrow morning I'm going to sign up in the heroic struggle to reform this evil system.

What shall I start with? I know, I'll begin by dealing with the worst problems and then work my way down the list to the little insignificant ones. My task for the time to come is to deal with the real biggies. War. Mass starvation. I might even deal with the homeless and slum-dwellers if I've got a bit of spare time. And the Third World - I'd better lend a hand in supporting them. Oh, and I almost forgot about pollution, I must make sure that something is done about that. Good. Now I know what my immediate aims are all I need to do is get on with the action.

Right, war. What is the practical way for us reformists to end war? Well, let's be pragmatic - we won't end all wars, but we shall certainly abolish all nuclear weapons. How? To begin with we shall establish a mass movement made up of people who think that nuclear weapons are "a bad thing". Then the government will be forced to listen. True, such a movement has existed in Britain since the late 1950s and it is now larger than ever and the governments have not been forced to accept our demands and most of our members voted to elect the governments which have not accepted our demands, but that must not dispirit us. Having built our mass movement we shall unleash our unstoppable tactic: we shall have a march every year from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square and we shall shout slogans (very loudly) like "Ban the Bomb" or "Jobs Not Bombs". Let them try to ignore that! Well, yes, they have ignored that in the past, but that is quite evidently because there weren't enough of us marching. In addition to that tactic, which will leave us all feeling like a big movement which cannot be ignored, we shall do other practical things like holding hands around Greenham Common and sitting down in the middle of the road in Hampstead. Of course, we must be pragmatic about abolishing nuclear weapons: we would be prepared to settle for a nuclear freeze, I suppose. That means that they keep all the nuclear weapons which exist in the world today (enough to blow us all up several times), but no more can be produced. That would be an achievement. True, there have been more people killed in the non-nuclear war in Iran and Iraq than were killed in Hiroshima, but we must not allow ourselves to be diverted into side-issues. We reformists like to deal with the big issues, like the possibility of a nuclear war in the future, rather than these petty wars which are going on now. (Although I have made a note in my diary to join a campaign to deal with Iran and Iraq - and Ireland - and Israel and the Lebanon - and Afghanistan - and Central America -just as soon as I've solved this nuclear problem.)

After all, the danger of a nuclear war is by far the greatest problem facing humanity today. Admittedly, Oxfam does claim that thirty million people are dying now as a result of starvation every year. And hundreds of millions of people are living in conditions of hunger and diseases caused by malnutrition. There is the equivalent of one Hiroshima every two days as a result of world hunger. Come to think of it, that problem is at least as important as nuclear war. I agree with Bob Geldof: "something" must be done now. What we need is a mass movement made up of people who oppose world hunger. We can appeal to the consciences of the leaders who hold the purse strings. After all, we elect them. And we must organise collections for the benefit of those who are starving. Just think, if every person in Britain gave a fiver each that would amount to £300 million. That would give £10 to each of the people Oxfam says starve to death each year. But then, what about people living in poverty in Britain? They can't afford to donate £5; according to the Child Poverty Action Group one in four children in this country are living under the official poverty line. We shall need to do something about that. I'll join a campaign to make sure the government doubles family allowances. After all, who can be more important than the children? Well, yes, there are the elderly as well: I shan't forget to do my bit for them. I shall join another cam­paign, such as Help The Aged, which will demand that the government taxes the rich so that pensions are increased. Then there are the disabled. And drug addicts. And victims of domestic violence. I shall need to join a separate campaign to see that each of them gets a fair deal. Then, of course, I shall be joining with my sisters to fight for sexual equality. And I shall also join a separate organisation to demand racial equality. And one more to call for compassion for criminals who ought not to face barbaric penal ties just because society has turned them to crime. And I really ought to join with the Women Against Rape who want rapists to be castrated. It wasn't until I decided to be come a reformist that I decided quite how much action I had to do.

Well, I have been working at cutting down the list of organisations to join, so that I don't commit myself to too much. There are the anti-war (sorry, anti-nuclear war) ones: CND, END and the Peace Pledge Union. Then the anti-hunger ones: War On Want, Band Aid, Oxfam. Then the CPAG, Help the Aged, Shelter, London Against Racism, the local feminist collective (they won't let me join, so fortunately I'll have one Tuesday evening free every fourth week) and the campaign for "fair trials" for the miners. And I almost forgot Greenpeace. And, of course, Friends of the Earth. And the Troops Out Movement. Paying the subscriptions will present a few problems. And I'll need a diary with whole pages for each day so that I can remember which problem I'm solving when. I mean, I'd look a bit daft sitting in an anti-nuclear war meeting talking about the need for a march against unemployment, wouldn't I?

Once joined, the action really starts. We shall pass resolutions which will be sent to progressive" MPs. And we shall organise petitions. It is surprising how willing people are to sign them. True, they are usually filed away in some civil servant's waste paper basket, but at least it's action. Then there are the marches. And it's surprising how many people you meet on one march who you know from the others. Then there's the odd battle for the leadership. Somewhat time-wasting, I admit, but it is all part of practical politics. To be perfectly honest, I have my hopes to become Badge Organiser for Islington Save The Whale. But, of course, I'll have to spend a few nights canvassing support otherwise the post will go to one of those terrible Trots who use reformist organisations by doing all the donkey work.

So, I am in on the action. Unlike those revolutionaries from The Socialist Party, who insist that you cannot eradicate the symptoms without destroying the disease, I am applying many bottles of medicine to the contaminated anatomy of the capitalist system. True, the pills and potions have never been successful in the past. But I have faith. And you need it if you think that reformism is the solution to the horror epic of this problem-packed society.
Steve Coleman


The case against reformism.
Back in the 1970s Italy was struck by a plague of snakes. These poisonous vipers were such a menace, particularly to holiday makers, that some resort areas decided to do something about them. At first they offered a bounty for every dead snake produced but, inevitably, some smart operators hit on the idea of breeding the snakes and made a substantial profit until the authorities realised they had been outsmarted.

Next, they heard that the number of snakes increased because their natural enemy, the porcupine, was extinct in Italy. Porcupines were acquired from Yugoslavia and let loose in areas infested by snakes. Sadly, word quickly spread among the local hunters that roasted porcupine was delicious and soon the fate of that animal in Italy was sealed once again.

Finally, it was decided that the Italian turkey, with its quickness and sharp beak, would be more than a match for the snakes. Five hundred were ordered but, as their intended use was not specified, the shipper assumed they were destined for the dinner table and clipped their beaks to prevent them damaging one another in transit. In the circumstances the dinner table was where they ended up. So far as we know the problem of Italy's surplus snakes remains unsolved because somehow or other all the plans made to deal with them always went wrong.

All of this is reminiscent of the efforts made by politicians of left, right and centre to reform away capitalism's plague of problems such as war, poverty, racism, crime and unemployment. They forever plan reforms which they fondly imagine will solve all the problems but, just as with the snakes in Italy, the plans never seem to work out in the intended way.

Experience shows that reforms rarely achieve what their supporters hoped they would. For a start, no matter how closely thought out and worded, every reform contains loopholes which will be found by those looking for them. The Equal Pay Act, for example, was supposed to bring women workers the same earnings as men for doing the same job, but many employers found ways of getting around it. They can either slightly lessen the amount of work a woman is to perform or reduce the hours worked by women so that they are classified as part-time workers, a category not covered by the Act. One way and another, the Act has not lessened the gap between what women are paid in relation to men for doing the same work. Indeed the gap has increased. In 1977 women earned on average around three quarters of what men get, but by 1983, the last year for which figures are available, women's comparative earnings are down to around two thirds.

The laws passed to outlaw racial discrimination in employment don't seem to have had any more success. Despite the existence of the Committee for Racial Equality and the passing of the Race Relations Act there is still widespread discrimination against black job applicants. The Policy Studies Institute reported recently that ". . . employers continue to hire people on the basis of the colour of their skin" (Guardian, 26 September). The report adds that breaches of the law by employers are usually invisible to black applicants, who are told that the job has gone to someone better qualified.

Nor has the Incitement to Hatred Act reduced racial violence and abuse. The evidence is that not only are these increasing but they are becoming more respectable and have spread from the inner cities to the suburbs. The reason why reforms fail to deal with this problem isn't hard to find. Racial antagonism is the product of capitalism's competitiveness and insecurity and the fears these characteristics arouse. In this case it is the fears of white workers that blacks and Asians will take their jobs and get preference in the allocation of council housing or, if they are suburban owner-occupiers, that the presence of ethnic minorities in their area will reduce property values. These fears go hand in hand with capitalism's tensions and cannot be simply legislated out of existence.


Besides rarely having the desired effect, reforms often have unexpected and unpleasant side-effects. The policy of rent control adopted by the wartime coalition and postwar Labour and Tory governments was aimed at holding down wage demands in a period of full employment but some of its supporters justified the policy on the grounds that it would protect tenants from greedy landlords. This policy had considerable success on the first count and some on the second, but it also greatly reduced the amount of housing available as many land lords found that the artificially low rents they received didn't make it worthwhile to maintain their properties, which deteriorated so badly that they often had to be demolished.

So in the long run rent control created a situation where rents just had to rise and the Tory Rent Act of 1957 began the process of de-control. But here, too, an unwanted side effect resulted because the act froze tenants' rents for fifteen months unless vacant pos session was obtained. This provoked some landlords, including the notorious Peter Rachman, to use violence and intimidation against tenants in order to get them out right away.


Recent government legislation designed to move on young unemployed people living in digs after six weeks is another case in point. Intended to show that the government was determined to stop alleged abuse of DHSS payments by landladies, the measures didn't take into account that many of these youngsters have lived in institutions for much of their lives and are emotionally or mentally disturbed. For some, their digs are the only real home they have ever known and the thought of having to leave produced a spate of suicide attempts, some successful.

Even when the reformists have achieved their objective, they may well face a struggle to prevent the legislation being reversed. Generations of Labourites put a great deal of time and effort into bringing about the National Health Service and the nationalised industries, which they imagined would introduce a golden age of medical care and full employment. Now they watch in dismay as the NHS is eroded and the nationalised in dustries are once again privatised.

Were a future Labour government to restore the NHS to its pre-1979 condition and, however unlikely, re-nationalise whatever industries had been sold off, there would be no certainty that this would last. Govern ments must always be looking for ways to economise, even in boom conditions, but in the event of a future slump the government, of whatever complexion, will need to cut its expenditure and the NHS and re nationalised industries could be obvious targets, just as they are now.

This much is certain: no programme of reforms can ever unite the whole working class. The reforms so earnestly sought by left wingers - such as positive discrimination in favour of ethnic minorities in housing and employment, the unification of Ireland, lower council house rents, the abolition of mortgage relief, and so on - will please some workers but enrage just as many more.

The really vital reforms of capitalism were won a long time ago. The vote gave the working class the opportunity to take its fate into its own hands, and wider educational opportunities made it possible for workers to at least consider the socialist case. These gains, together with the fact that society's productive forces have been developed to the point where an abundance of wealth is now possible, make socialism a practical proposition now. The struggle for even more reforms is irrelevant and only gets in the way.
Vic Vanni