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Why reform won’t change the system

In the fourth column in a series Socialist Worker investigates why only fighting for reforms isn't enough
Issue 2897
Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd in black and white photo - famous author of Reform or Revolution

Rosa Luxemburg addresses a crowd

The idea that you can change society for the better by working through existing parliamentary institutions is one of the ideas hammered into everyone’s head by the educational system and the media.

Its influence is particularly strong when big movements are still too weak to transform society from below. It is all too easy then for people to believe the only “practical” way forward is to look for saviours from on high to deliver.

The clever parliamentary manoeuvre becomes the substitute for working to build strength from the bottom upwards.

Activists are often pulled in two directions—either towards the belief that isolated sectional movements are the solution or, when this proves inadequate, towards putting their faith in working through existing institutions.

What begins as resistance from below can end up as reformism from above.

Yet reformism from above can only end up producing disappointment and bitterness in the conditions of capitalism. Revolutionaries do not have to turn their backs on those who believe in reform.

Any change that improves ordinary people’s lives is worth fighting for.

But also the best way to win a political argument with someone is to pursue it patiently while struggling alongside them for aims you both agree on.

Importantly, the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg argued that socialists shouldn’t abandon struggling for positive reforms. But the choice you make between reform and revolution has implications for how you operate in struggles in the here and now.

If you believe you can produce permanent improvements through pressure on the existing state, the logic is to direct the workers’ movement upwards and to find allies who can influence the state.

By contrast, if you hold that at some point in the future the movement will have to confront the ruling class and its state in revolutionary combat, you have to emphasise building from below and breaking people from deference to the powers that be. Every part of the state is geared towards running capitalism and helping companies and bosses.

Crucially, that means facilitating the exploitation of workers who are at the heart of the system. A vast tangle of laws legitimises capitalists’ right to own property and make profits while the police, the army and the Secret Service protect them.

These bodies are filled with unelected officials who share broadly the same interests as the bankers who’ll try to break a left wing government.

And when reforms mean confrontation with the full might of big business and the state, what do workers have to do to beat them?

We must win the argument that confrontation with the state must be the centre of any socialist strategy. A reformist view isn’t about defeating the state but seizing hold of it and using it to build a better society.

The problem is that this makes controlling the state and keeping it intact more important than everything else.

This leads Labour—even under a left wing leadership— to make compromises and concessions just to hold on to office or to get elected. In government, this means trying to placate those forces that will try to destroy it.

Struggle outside of parliament becomes subordinate to maintaining “our government” inside parliament. After the French state destroyed the uprising that made the Paris Commune of 1871, Karl Marx wrote, “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”

He meant that workers couldn’t transform the state, but had to replace it with a different form of state power altogether.

We have to look to the power of resistance by ordinary people outside parliament, in their workplaces and in the streets—not to support politicians to transform the state, but to defeat it altogether.

This is part of a series of columns that discuss What We Stand For, the Socialist Workers Party statement of principles, printed every week in Socialist Worker (see page 16). For the full series go to tinyurl.com/WWSF2024

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