We can only achieve socialism by means of a revolution, in which millions of working people collectively take control of society, with new democratic institutions. Most of the time, that key revolutionary socialist idea is the property of a minority. It contradicts everyday experience. The predominant form of oppositional ideas is reformist.
In elections, most workers’ votes-when they can see any point in voting-go to social democratic and liberal parties. Reformist parties feed off workers’ need and hope for change. But they don’t set out to mobilise workers to change the world. Rather, they work to channel aspirations for change into the narrow confines of parliamentary politics.
At best, they offer small improvements within the constraints of capitalism: some extra resources for health and education, a low level of minimum wages and controls on hours and safety. They do not fundamentally challenge capitalism.
At work, presented with the opportunity, most workers are open to joining trade unions, to defend and improve their pay and conditions. Trade unions’ aims and methods have limits. Strikes are temporary halts to the production process, and end with workers returning to the mundane world of exploitation. Unions work to negotiate better terms with bosses, not to replace them with workers’ control.
Within the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements reformist ideas are prevalent. We hear proposals for reforming the international monetary system, without taking power from the banks and corporations. There are schemes for using the United Nations and similar bodies, quite forgetting that these are made up of capitalist states and dominated by the great imperialist powers.
How should revolutionary socialists relate to reformist ideas and organisations? One part of what we have to do is contest reformism’s ideas and practices, in direct argument and propaganda. Thus Karl Marx in the 19th century debated against those within the workers’ movement who thought ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ was all workers should demand.
Rosa Luxemburg described the trade union struggle as a ‘labour of Sisyphus’-an endless struggle to roll a boulder up a hill only to see it roll down again. Socialists have a long tradition of arguing against the so called parliamentary road to socialism.
However, such general propaganda can only win over a minority in normal times. That minority, won to socialist ideas, plays a vital part in wider movements. But they cannot win socialism by themselves. That requires the collective action of millions.
Where, then, does the solution lie? In practice there is no reinforced concrete wall between reform and revolution. Fighting for reforms is not the same as reformism. The struggle for reforms can tip over into revolution. Battles for reforms are vital preparation for social revolution. They are how the working class movement develops and tests its own strengths and weaknesses. They are also where socialist militants learn their strategy and tactics. One thing Rosa Luxemburg ignored about the ‘labour of Sisyphus’ is that the mythological king must have developed very strong muscles!
Socialists seek to play a leading part in every struggle, large or small, in which workers develop their own collective strength and organisation. We don’t stand aside, preaching abstract revolution from the sidelines, but act as the most determined fighters for reforms, at the same time arguing that the movement must go further.
There is always more than one way to conduct a battle. Reformist leaders seek to set limits to mass struggle. We argue, always, for involving the largest numbers, and for expanding rank and file control over the conduct of the fight. The real proof of the necessity of revolution doesn’t arise as an abstract question within a mass movement, but always as a particular, real issue. It does not arise directly in every struggle.
But situations do arise in which the possibility of social revolution appears. They are the moments for which everything else is but preparation and training. At such moments, reform and revolution intertwine.
Consider the most famous revolution in working class history: Russia in 1917. The movement’s demands were: peace, bread and land. Taken separately, each demand was no more than a reform. What powered the revolution was linking these demands with a practical proposal: all power to the soviets.
The soviets were popular democratic creations of workers, soldiers and peasants themselves, born out of practical struggle. The Bolshevik argument was simple: to win the reforms we need, our own popular institutions must take power to enforce them. Such an idea is central to the very notion of socialist revolution.
In the future, new popular organisations will appear, in forms we can’t know in advance, and with internal debates we can only guess. They too will also be rooted in mass struggles. They will fight for reforms and to defend existing conditions. The question will be posed again: can these form the basis of a new society, and leap the gap between reform and revolution?