Editorial from the November 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
The turn of the Twentieth Century was a time of high political hopes. There was a sense that great progress was possible. The sciences were expanding and the machine age had brought increased powers of production. In the industrialised countries workers were winning the vote. In combination these means of creating abundant wealth and the entry of more people into the democratic process held out the prospect of a new age of enlightenment, peace and material security.
The working class debate about how its best interests could be served had been going on for over fifty years and by 1900 there was a clear choice between Revolution and Reform.
The arguments in favour of reform were fatally seductive; they appeared to present an easy way forward. In this view, all that was required was the election of a "working class government". Then, through a programme of reforms, such measures as nationalisation and "taxing the rich out of existence", the problems of poverty and unemployment would be solved, social privilege would be abolished and a new world of equality would be here to stay.
Socialists said "no", by that route a new society was impossible. Such a "working class government" would be compelled to run the capitalist system and would have to yield to the vile priorities of profits before needs. Such a government would be trapped by economic forces which it could not control. Being in this position it would e forced to do things in opposition to its stated aims. It would not be able to solve social problems or alter the class-ridden nature of capitalist society. Socialists said that reformism would be a waste of time and would lead to disastrous consequences. Tragically, the socialist arguments were ignored.
A hundred years have passed since the choice between socialism and reformism was clarified. Soon, we will enter a new century, yet still reformist politicians appear like ghosts of their predecessors, mouthing slogans and empty promises, desperate to forget their past failures. They generate a phoney optimism which echoes back across a century in which more people have been killed in wars and more have starved to death than at any other time.
Land has been taken out of production, food has been destroyed, machinery has been left idle and the ravages of economic crises have meant countless billions of work-days lost through unemployment (under the last Labour government unemployment doubled). In a socialist society these productive resources would have been used to provide for needs. Instead, they have been squandered to protect class privilege and profit.
The human cost of the reformist choice has been high, with governments steering capitalism crisis to crisis whilst under the illusion that somehow they could make the profit system serve the needs of the whole community. As socialists said, and as bitter experience has shown, the reformists were always the impossibilists.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that if the socialist choice had been taken up at the beginning of the century by a majority of workers, since that time we would have created a society and a world fit for people to live in. Without doubt, a world of common ownership and cooperation organised solely for needs would have provided enough quality food, housing, clothing, clean water, sanitation, energy for heating, lighting cooking, health and education services, entertainment, communications, means of travel and recreation, for the entire human family. Freed from the economic constraints of capitalism, socialism would have provided these, and without destruction of the environment, through relationships of shared common goals.
For those who might still think that the building of world socialism is too big a job, and who therefore might still be attracted to what appears to be the "easier" reformist option, we say, look at the tragic consequences of the same decision made in the past. For those who want a better world the so-called reformist option is no option at all—it is a guarantee of continued disaster.