Socialist Worker

Reform or revolution?

Issue No. 1747

Reform or revolution?

THE MAY Day protest in London last week forced sections of the media briefly to treat seriously the arguments of the anti-capitalist movement. Channel 4 included a discussion on one of the central issues facing the movement. Can we achieve our goals by reforms to the present system or do we need revolution?

George Monbiot, the Guardian's excellent columnist and one of the keynote speakers on the recent Globalise Resistance tour, explained why he believed in reform. Mass protests are important, he argued, but they have to remain non-violent and at the end of the day there is no alternative to democratising and pressuring existing institutions.

Our ultimate aim has to be a democratically elected world parliament to control the multinationals. Such arguments have been taking place for a century and a half, since the Chartist movement in Britain was split over "moral force" versus "physical force". The "reform" option usually seems the most "practical" to people at first, especially where there is a parliamentary system. But in practice it is not long before many activists become disillusioned with it.

They see those they elected to take a fighting stance against the system all too often end up becoming spokespeople for the system. Ken Livingstone, after a long record of supporting demonstrations and criticising police methods, rushed to congratulate the police thugs who used their batons so freely on the May Day protest.

A good half of the present New Labour cabinet were left wing supporters of Tony Benn 20 years ago. Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour prime minister who deserted to the Tories in 1931, was once a star of Labour's left wing.

Such betrayals are not an accident. They flow from a deep flaw in the reform argument. It sees parliament as the power centre. "Control it and you control the system," is the claim. But the real core of the present system lies elsewhere. Two hundred companies, run by perhaps 1,500 unelected directors, dominate the economy.

They make life very difficult for any government that challenges their interests. They admit this when they say they will not invest in any country, region or city that does not dance to their tune. The generals, judges, police chiefs and top civil servants are not elected either.

They are overwhelmingly from the upper class-some 80 percent of generals and judges went to expensive public schools. They all insist "politics" must not interfere with their actions. What they mean is that they must be immune from democratic control from below. In practice they are infinitely more attentive to the desires of their friends in big business than to the rest of us, who they still think of as the servant class.

When a police officer hits you with a truncheon, they are giving the orders. They consciously set out to impose their will on any government that starts off even mildly left wing. So top Treasury civil servants colluded with bankers and industrialists who moved money abroad to force Labour governments to do what they wanted in 1931, 1966 and 1976.

And an army that boasted it was built on the "British" model overthrew an elected government in Chile in 1973 that was reluctant to jump into line. Big business and the state rarely need to go so far. In office left wing politicians usually decide very quickly the way to "get things done" is to placate those with money and power. Like Ken Livingstone they attack their own supporters.

It is hardly surprising that some activists turn in disgust to the idea of immediate, violent action against property, the politicians or the police. In reality, however, this is no more a road to successfully getting rid of the system that that of the reformers.

A few broken windows, or even a few bombed buildings and a few injured police thugs, will not stop the giant multinationals from making many millions of pounds each day and wrecking billions of people's lives. Indeed those in power can sometimes welcome such actions as diverting attention away from the violence of the present system. After all, every police force in the world uses provocateurs to try to discredit opponents of the system. Revolutions do not occur because small bodies of people organise violent action. They break out when the great mass of people whose work keeps the system going move into action on their own behalf.

Such revolutions have been a regular feature of human history. And they have been much more frequent during the brief 200 or so years of modern capitalism than under any previous system. Britain is one of the very few European states not to experience some sort of revolutionary upheaval in the 20th century. Capitalism is by its very nature an unplanned, global system, subject to sudden wars and economic crises.

People suddenly find they cannot go on living in the old way. They are faced with a choice between enduring a terrible worsening of their lives and fighting back.

The fightback does not always occur. But when it does it throws the whole of society into crisis. Unable to solve its problems at our expense, the ruling class can split down the middle. Those who give the orders in industry, finance, the army and the police begin scrapping with each other, even though this weakens their hold on the rest of us.

At the same time vast numbers of working people begin to question things they have taken for granted in the past. Ideas become common currency that were previously confined to a few committed revolutionary socialist activists. It begins to cut with the grain to talk of workers seizing control of the industries where they labour and defending them physically against the forces of the state.

Groups arise among the rank and file of the armed forces who begin to challenge the power of the upper class officers. Strike and occupation committees can become a network of elected delegates-of workers' councils-which unite the working population as a whole in opposition to the old order.

The road is then open to revolutionary change with the backing of the mass of people and using the minimal necessary force. Such demands seem very impractical to most people during "normal times", when they are resigned to putting up with whatever the system offers them. They do, however, begin to make sense when the whole political, social and economic system is thrown into question.

But even then they have to be argued for and acted upon. It is here that the role of revolutionaries becomes all important. Even in revolutionary times, there are still people in every workplace and locality putting across the old ideas promoted by the capitalist media. These ideas seek to divide worker from worker with racism, nationalism and deference to the upper classes.

There are also people putting across the line of the reformers, that we have to keep the existing system intact and then change it slowly. Together they can hold workers back from taking action, so giving time for the ruling class to get its act together again and take its revenge on us. This is what happened in Germany and Italy after World War One and in Chile in 1973.

At these points in history the arguments between reform and revolution quite literally become a question of life and death. Similar occasions will recur in the 21st century, under the impact of economic crises, star wars, global warming and the impoverishment of whole continents. We are not, of course, at this point in Britain today. The fightback against the system is only very slowly recovering from the defeats of the 1980s.

That is why the most urgent immediate task is to build united action between all those who criticise the existing system and the Blair government from the left. Through the anti-capitalist movement, the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party, revolutionaries can build resistance to the system along with many thousands of others who are still half attracted by notions of reform. But part of working with people is discussing with them the road to ultimate success-getting rid of capitalism altogether.


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Sat 12 May 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1747
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