How do working people win improvements in their lives, and how do they hold on to them?
This is one of the biggest questions facing socialists today. Take the defence of the National Health Service, which concerns millions of people. The NHS is a very good example of a past reform. It did not exist until 1948. Its introduction was vigorously opposed by conservative forces. It was very much in the interests of the great mass of the people, and especially of working class people. It was also, from the beginning, something of a compromise, but a compromise more in our favour than otherwise. Of course, not everything described as a reform is anything of the kind. The Tories call their attacks on the NHS (and on many other past gains) 'reforms'. They are nothing of the sort. They are a reaction against past reforms, part of a drive to turn the clock back against the interests of workers and their families.
For reforms in the real sense are always the product of struggle, and that struggle, in the last resort, is a class struggle and cannot be otherwise in a class society, however much pious liberals try to deny it. Moreover, in all but exceptional circumstances these struggles are for concrete, limited aims. When Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote the 'Communist Manifesto' in the late 1840s they discussed the development of capitalism, the necessity of socialism and many other topics, but the actual immediate demands of the Manifesto are more limited. Some of them are, in principle, compatible with capitalism--for example 'a heavily progressive or graduated income tax' or 'free education for all children in public state schools'.
The point is that it is the struggle for concrete objectives that changes the world. As Marx and Engels put it, 'The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.' Of course, objectives vary greatly in importance but what is and what is not of the greatest importance depends on the actual, ever changing circumstances.
In Britain the demand for universal (male) suffrage was of central importance in mobilising working class struggle. From the 1830s to the 1860s the British ruling class fought against the suffrage tooth and nail so long as it thought it could hold the line. When the ruling class concluded that it could not win on the issue it made a series of compromises. So in 1867 the vote was granted for a large minority of male workers, in 1883 for a majority of male workers, in 1918 for all male workers and a lot of women, and in 1928 for male and female alike over the age of 21.
In South Africa this year  a ruling class which had always denied the vote to the great majority of the population was forced to concede universal suffrage at one blow. The point is that force was necessary to win this democratic right. A long process of struggle had finally convinced most of the ruling class that it was better to concede (and, of course, continue to fight for its interests by other means) than to defend what was becoming indefensible. Of course, universal suffrage is not going to produce all the results that millions of Africans expect, but it has changed the balance of forces in favour of the working class and it was the issue around which millions could be mobilised. It was a great gain. Nevertheless, it raises an important issue. Can the capitalist system accommodate itself to an indefinite series of reforms but still preserve the class system, exploitation and oppression?
The theory of reformism, a very different matter from the actual struggle for reforms, was that repeated success in achieving reforms could, over time, completely transform society, peacefully and without the sharp break represented by revolution, into a quite different kind of society. The idea was that capitalist society could grow gradually into a free socialist society. This was always the theory of the British Labour Party, in the days when Labour thought it necessary to have a theory of some sort, but was first argued at length and in writing by a German socialist called Bernstein. Of course, practice usually comes before theory and by the end of the 19th century, when Bernstein wrote, the practice of most of the Labour and Social Democratic [socialist] parties that had grown up in the previous 20 or 30 years was essentially devoted to the pursuit of reforms with little thought beyond that. The view that 'the movement is everything, the end is nothing' was widespread even before Bernstein wrote a line on the subject.
The capitalist state
Conditions determine consciousness, or perhaps better to say they shape it. There had not been a major war in Europe for nearly 30 years and, it was thought, there would never be another one. The future would be one of peaceful, if gradual, progress. We know today, after two world wars and innumerable lesser but sufficiently horrific conflicts up to and including the present, that this view was, to say the least, mistaken.
But why? First, it ignored the role of the capitalist state, the 'armed bodies of men' devoted to defending their respective ruling classes; second, it ignored the compulsive drive of the capitalist system, in the interests of profit and capital accumulation, to transform again and again the social structures and relations between people. In short, it ignored imperialism as a necessary and dominant feature of modern capitalism.
Today we can see these tw0 things in full flower. How can anyone speak of 'inevitable' progress in Bosnia or Rwanda? Socialist critics of reformism at the time were not, of course, opposed to the struggle for reforms--they were much more militant in fighting for them than those who simply called for gradual change. Indeed the winning of reforms is very often the product of militant revolutionary struggle. But they understood that no gain is permanently guaranteed so long as the means of production--and of destruction--remain in the hands of the capitalist minority.
Rosa Luxemburg, Bernstein's most trenchant critic in his native Germany, wrote of trade union struggle as the 'labour of Sisyphus'. Sisyphus was the figure in the ancient Greek myth who was condemned to perpetually push a large rock up a hill, only to find that each time he neared the summit it crashed downhill again. Applied to reforms, this was something of an exaggeration. We are not always condemned to go back to the beginning--'back to basics' in the current jargon. We can and we must build on what has been gained in the past, defending it and fighting always not only to defend it--which is where we are now--but to extend it, always understanding that to permanently achieve a decent society we must break the power of the capitalist class nationally and internationally.
Today this is more obvious than ever. Modern 'deregulated' multinational capital, with its International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Nato and United Nations, is a monster whose power cannot be reformed away. It must be broken. The reformists of yesterday--they call themselves 'modernisers' today--say now that we must accommodate to it. That means accommodating to retreat, to lower living standards, to worse social services, to more gross exploitation and oppression everywhere.
Reformism was always essentially a national perspective that was never realistic. Today it is absurd. Child labour in Colombian mines helps to destroy the coal industry in Britain, while sweatshops in the Philippines help to worsen working conditions everywhere. That is what the Gatt free trade agreements are about.
The fight for reforms, not reformism, is necessary everywhere in rich countries as in poor. It is the way workers can be mobilised to struggle. But the perspective must be internationalist--and revolutionary.
This is a reprint of an article by Duncan Hallas first published in June 1994 in Socialist Review Issue 176.