From the August 1977 issue of the Socialist Standard
The case of the SPGB against reforms is based on the fact that reforms of all kinds involve the working class in political action which is detrimental to the cause of Socialism. Since the middle of the 19th century many reform measures have been introduced, some of which have benefitted both capitalism and the worker. If reforms make capitalism more tolerable for the worker, they make it more secure for the capitalist.
In addition to supporting new reform measures put forward by non-Socialist parties, the working class find themselves involved in other types of political activity such as campaigns against unemployment (the “Right to Work” campaign) and for price restraint; or attempts to prevent the erosion of reforms previously granted, and the extension and up-dating of existing reforms. At present there are protests against the cut-back in the National Health Service, delays in building new hospitals, and proposals to allow doctors to charge consultancy fees and for charges to be made for hospital in-patients; and against the restriction on spending on education, closing teachers’ training colleges, withdrawal of free school milk, and in substantial increases in university fees coupled with reductions in grants in real terms. A further example is opposition to the proposal to remove subsidy from council housing, and cut-backs in housing repairs.
Capitalism is never at rest; the gains of yesterday can be dissipated by the events of the present. There are no safe reform anchorages or havens which afford permanent shelter. The battle demands to be fought over and over again, as events in the past have demonstrated.
In the 19th century, at an early stage in the development of capitalism, the ruling class was dominated by the landed aristocracy, who held political power. Owning the land, they were the main food producers. To protect their monopoly and keep up prices they forbade the import of foreign corn. As a result workers had to pay high prices for bread. Consequently, those workers who were employed in industry were compelled to press for higher wages, which the industrialist had to pay if he wanted to keep an effective labour force, but the increase went into the pockets of the landlord and the landed aristocracy.
The immediate reaction of the industrialists was to form the Anti-Corn Law League in 1839 in Manchester. This was a very wealthy organization under the control of Cobden and Bright, the Liberal Party leaders. In the four years up to 1843, the League distributed over 10 million copies of pamphlets and newspapers calling on the workers to protest against the high price of corn, which they claimed was responsible for working-class poverty. Every working-class organization at the time was saturated with the propaganda of the Anti-Corn Law League. The workers duly responded, and after much agitation Peel repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. Foreign corn was allowed in, the landlords’ monopoly was broken and the price of bread fell. But wages also fell, and the worker was no better off. The industrialist had won his battle against the landlord.
130 years later nothing has changed. The working class are still called upon to support campaigns to keep prices stable—a fruitless exercise, but one which nevertheless takes up its time and energy. The Social Contract, which the Labour Party and the trade unions entered into to keep wages stable and prices down, has been a complete failure, and the very people who were its chief advocates like Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones and other TU leaders are row turning their backs on it. According to the official figures, living standards are back to what they were four years ago (The Times, 9th July 77). The worker has to fight harder to stand still. The same process operates with regard to statutory reform. The government departments concerned, broadly speaking, have to operate with a budget set by Parliament. As prices rise through inflation it does not follow that adjustments are made, or that an increased allocation of money is made available.
Most workers believe that the choice of introducing social reforms or dealing with major social problems is a matter for the government of the day. This is not the case. Governments of all varieties represent the interests of the ruling class. Reforms have to be paid for out of taxation, and the burden of taxation rests on the employers. Taxes mainly are paid out of income, and the income of the capitalist employer or shareholder is derived from the surplus-value created by the worker. The rate of taxation can never exceed the level of profit, any more than the part can be bigger than the whole.
Social reforms are not within the gift of the government, even a Labour government which is ostensibly committed to giving the workers a better deal. There is a certain amount of room for manoeuvre, but it is capitalism which has developed the powers of government, not the politicians. If its basic function is to secure the capitalist in his privileged position, it cannot contradict the basis of its own existence. It cannot ignore the economics of capitalism and the capitalist’s right to profit. Experience has shown that to the extent that the capitalist introduces reforms which “benefit” workers, so are these taken into account when wages are negotiated. Subsidized rents, subsidized food, free medical treatment, children’s allowances, and any other “benefits” are taken into account by both trade unions and employers when dealing with wage claims.
The final position is stated in the basic Marxian economic law that the worker, generally speaking, only receives sufficient wages to sustain him and his family at any given time in his particular job, from week to week or from month to month.
The idea that prevails amongst the “militant left” that agitation for reforms will provide the worker with sufficient experience to demand Socialism has not stood up to an historical examination. It simply has not worked, despite the ceaseless reformist and trade-union action carried on over the past 150 years or so. The capitalists are in control over the working class so long as reformist ideas form the mainstream of political thinking. The only way to counter the propaganda of the reformer is to show that it hasn’t even achieved the limited objectives of making capitalism tolerable, let alone advance Socialism. The difference between Socialist society and capitalism is that social requirements would be dealt with and carried out as soon as the community became aware of the facts of the problem, and as a matter of course. There can be no question of reformers begging social reforms from useless parasites for and on behalf of the deprived useful members of the working class. We do not want their charity now, and we will not need it later.