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Why does reformism remain so powerful?

This article is over 11 years, 8 months old
The election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader has renewed a number of people’s belief that the party can be a vehicle for changing society.
Issue 2223

The election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader has renewed a number of people’s belief that the party can be a vehicle for changing society.

Thousands of people have joined or rejoined the party since its electoral defeat in May to oppose the Tory government.

While its betrayals in government drove many members and voters to abandon the party, millions of working class people still support it—and others are returning to it.

So why does the Labour Party retain such huge support, despite always letting down its voters?

The vast majority of workers are reformist. They think that capitalism can be gradually altered to better meet their needs and they don’t believe that the system needs to be overthrown.

People aren’t reformist because they are stupid. Reformism is the common sense of capitalism. We are brought up to believe that capitalism is natural and the best way to organise society.

All of the key institutions—the family, the mass media and the education system—promote this idea. As Karl Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

The dominant ideas in our society reflect the ideas of those at the top, who ridicule anyone who argues that society can be run in a different way.

Our rulers also promote the idea that politics and economics are separate. This means that, while workers may think they can strike for “economic” things like their pension or a pay rise, they see “politics” as best left to elected representatives.


This ideology is important in bolstering reformist ideas. But there is a more fundamental reason why workers adopt them.

Marx pointed out that material reality shapes ideas. Workers have immense potential power—they make up the biggest class in society and all of production relies upon them.

But we don’t usually feel very powerful. Partly this is because of an ideology that grinds into us the idea that we must rely on others to run things and that we must know our place in society.

It’s also because, despite being the key to production, workers have no say over it. We go to work for someone else—and they decide what we will produce, how we’ll do it, how much we’ll produce and what will happen to it afterwards.

This leads to what Marx referred to as “alienation”, where the world appears not as something that we have shaped but as something alien, with a life of its own.

This feeling of powerlessness means that workers, for most of the time, don’t think that they could play an active role in transforming, or running, society. And this lack of confidence in their own ability means they look to parties such as Labour to change things for them.

But there are counterweights to reformism. Capitalism is full of contradictions that can weaken reformist ideas. The idea that the system works in all our interests can ring hollow when thousands are thrown out of work as the rich get richer.

Ideas are shaped by the concrete circumstances people find themselves in. Capitalism makes workers feel powerless but the drive for profit means bosses are constantly pushed to attack—and this pushes workers to fight back collectively.

And when they do this, their ideas change.

One week, Susan may believe that she doesn’t have very much power and that important decisions have to be left to “experts”. But if the next week she has to occupy her factory to keep it open, she will probably think very differently.

She will be doing things she had never previously thought possible, changing how she sees other workers and herself. She will begin to see the power of workers to run society without bosses.

Of course, struggle doesn’t instantly and automatically transform workers into revolutionaries.

Reformist ideas don’t simply disappear when huge struggles erupt. They are strong and deep-rooted. And workers can hold contradictory ideas in their heads, accepting some aspects of revolutionary politics while still holding some reformist ideas.

That’s why revolutionary parties matter. Socialists will need to work alongside Labour Party members and others in the coming struggles to defeat the Tories’ attacks

Revolutionary socialists should always fight for the idea that workers have the power to build society anew.

But a majority will only really be won to this idea when they are in the process of doing it.

It will take a revolution to bury reformist ideas for good.

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