Since Gordon Brown became prime minister in June last year it seems as if the Labour Party has lurched from one crisis to another. The crisis at Northern Rock and the funding scandals engulfing Brown’s allies are just a couple of the deep problems he faces.
Brown’s troubles follow in the wake of widespread anger at his predecessor Tony Blair – over the war, but also over the fact that the Labour Party, originally conceived to improve the lives of working class people, now seems to have no reforms on offer.
Yet despite all this, the government manages to cling on. And despite the haemorrhaging of party members, working class people are by and large still trudging out to the ballot box and voting Labour.
Even in Scotland, last May’s victory by the Scottish National Party (SNP) over Labour was primarily due to the SNP attracting voters away from smaller, more radical parties.
The Labour vote itself remained more or less solid – though turnout fell, Labour still polled some 29.2 percent at the regional level, just 0.1 percentage points down from 2003.
How do we explain how Labour manages to hang on to the loyalty of so many, despite all the betrayals? And more fundamentally, why do a majority of workers still put their faith in the notion that the capitalist system can be reformed in their favour?
Reformism – the idea that capitalism can and should be gradually altered to work in the interests of working class people – has a long history in the socialist movement.
Reformists reject the need for a revolution to overthrow capitalism. Marxists, in contrast, argue that exploitation and class division are central to capitalism and cannot be reformed away.
There are times when it is fairly clear why such ideas can become “common sense” among workers. Between the 1940s and 1970s, for instance, capitalism in Britain experienced its “golden age”. An unprecedented boom meant that genuine reforms could be offered to ordinary people.
The lives of working class people improved immeasurably compared with those of their parents and grandparents. The National Health Service was created, a massive council house building programme began and unemployment was virtually zero.
It seemed that life was progressively getting better, with no need for any kind of revolutionary challenge.
In such a context, it’s easy to see why reformism made sense. But reformist ideas can also keep their grip at times when it has little to offer – or even when the Labour Party is actively dismantling the welfare state it helped set up.
If we are to explain this, we have to examine ideology – the system of ideas put forward by the ruling class to justify their rule.
As Karl Marx pointed out, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” The education system, the mass media and key institutions of society such as the family all present our society as “natural”, the only possible way to live.
Crucially, this ideology separates out politics and economics. Political stories appear on one newspaper page and economic stories on another.
The effect of this separation is to deny that there is a political aspect to economic relations. In particular, it denies workers a political say in how the economy is run. “Democracy” does not stretch to giving people any meaningful control over the market.
Typically the views of workers reflect these ideological contradictions. They understand that democracy is something worth fighting for, but also sense the limits to the “purely political” democracy on offer.
So workers to some extent accept that they can fight over “bread and butter” issues such as wages and pensions. But in general politics is an area they avoid directly intervening in, instead relying on others, such as elected representatives, to fight for them.
This ideology is an important factor in understanding why, for much of the time, the majority of workers accept ideas that are not in their objective interests. But there is a more fundamental reason why reformist ideas make sense to workers.
Karl Marx wrote about how workers become “alienated” under capitalism. Workers have no collective control over the process of production or over the things being produced.
As a result the material world around us appears as something alien, rather than something that we have created. This alienation produces a feeling of powerlessness that pervades every aspect of workers’ lives.
Reformist ideas, in this context, make a huge amount of sense. Workers want improvements in their lives but don’t feel that society can be fundamentally changed – or that they could have a role in changing it. Instead, officials in parliament or trade unions are elected to tinker with the system on their behalf.
Of course, not everyone accepts reformist ideas. Ruling ideas may be dominant, but they are not the only ideas. The daily experience of workers may make them feel powerless, but it can also lead to them challenging the dominant ideology.
For instance, the notion that privatisation is the best way to run the railways collapses when millions of workers face delays, overcrowding and chaos every morning.
The position of workers is important for another reason. The fact that they produce things collectively means that to win any improvements in their conditions they are forced to fight together as a class against their bosses.
What lies beneath
When this happens, all sorts of previously accepted ideas are brought into question. Racism and sexism can be broken down if workers have to fight, black and white, male and female, together against a common enemy.
People start to see that they have common interests as a class, that the divide between them and their boss matters more than their previous prejudices.
Struggles also prompt people to see what lies beneath the veneer of “democracy”. They can start to realise their own strength and their ability to organise themselves and their society. Marx argued that in the course of changing society, people also change themselves.
Workers tend to have both the dominant ideology and oppositional ideas in their heads at the same time. This is what the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called “contradictory consciousness”, with “good sense” such as solidarity with fellow workers battling with “common sense”, the prejudices that form the dominant ideology.
The contradictions mean that even in times of mass struggle, the logic of reformism can still keep a hold on people. Recent uprisings in Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil reflect this. Mass struggles have overthrown neoliberal leaders, but only to install new leaders who promise reforms.
Even in Russia, the successful revolutionary uprising of February 1917 overthrew the Tsar, but did not lead to the mass of workers concluding that they should run society. Instead a provisional government committed to maintaining capitalism came to power. It was not until October that this government was overthrown by workers’ councils (or soviets), led by the Bolsheviks.
So in times of struggle there is always a battle over ideas and strategies – and to win a majority of workers to revolutionary ideas requires that revolutionaries organise themselves in a revolutionary party.
In Britain today there is widespread disillusionment with the political process. The 2001 general election saw turnout slump to 59 percent – the lowest since 1918.
Labour Party membership has been falling since Blair took office. In 1997 membership was 407,000. This figure had fallen to below 200,000 by 2006.
Now workers face a massive attack on their living standards. In this situation the contradictions of capitalism are starker, and it can be easier for socialists to make their case. But the pull of reformism will not disappear just because one reformist party has lost much of its credibility.
Revolutionaries need to work alongside those who hold reformist ideas in every struggle, and fight to build more struggles – because it is through fighting back that workers can gain confidence and begin to see their position and interests as a class.
Today networks such as the anti-war movement provide a vital means of radicalising people and winning them to the idea of a revolutionary break with capitalism.
In today’s neoliberal world, struggles over council housing or health service privatisation can also swiftly lead to people grasping the reality of the system they are battling against.
By continually arguing for the self-activity of workers, revolutionaries can do two things. In the short term, they can make a decisive difference to the outcome of individual struggles.
But in the long term, they can also increase the confidence of workers to take matters into their own hands rather than relying on officials to fight on their behalf.
The contradictions in the system push workers to take action against their bosses. We can be certain that resistance and revolutions will take place in the future. But it is not guaranteed that these struggles will be successful.
By building a revolutionary party while fighting for reforms, revolutionaries can be in a position – when revolution does break out – to push forward a strategy that will win. Only then will reformist ideas be buried for good.