What happens when social democracy fails to deliver concessions?
There is strange idea going round much of the far left internationally. It is that because capitalism can no longer afford reforms that improve the life of the mass of people, reformism as a powerful ideology within the workers' movement is dead. From this it is said to follow that the old argument over reform or revolution is no longer relevant.
The idea is doubly wrong. Firstly, it assumes that the hold of reformist ideas among the mass of people depends simply upon reforms being achieved within the system. In fact, reformism of one sort or another is the natural first reaction of any exploited or oppressed group when it begins to stir into action against its suffering. Its members have been brought up in existing society and usually know no other. They take it for granted that things have to be organised in existing ways, just as someone who had been brought up wearing red glasses would assume that all possible images must have a pinkish tinge.
'The ruling ideas', as Marx and Engels put it, 'are the ideas of the ruling class.' As Gramsci pointed out, the 'common sense' of any society takes those ideas for granted. People therefore almost invariably put their first demands on existing society in terms which assume the continuation of the main features of that society. So peasant revolts in feudal society often called for a good feudal lord or king to replace a bad one. The Russian Revolution of 1905 began with demonstrators calling on their 'little father' the tsar to correct the 'abuses' of police administrators and factory managers.
Under modern capitalism, it is usual for those who first protest to think that simply trade union negotiation or increased parliamentary pressure will solve the problem. Reformism as a political movement arises as people look to ways to organise such negotiation or to exert such pressure. The first organisation is often carried out by heroic individuals who risk their liberty or their lives. This was the case with the early trade union activists and the pioneers of Chartism in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, and it was true 150 years later of those who, for instance, built illegal organisations in apartheid South Africa.
But over time a whole apparatus of officials and representatives develop to hold the organisation together. They come to see their own negotiating or representative role within the existing system as all-important - and increasingly expect to be able to enjoy a lifestyle similar to those they negotiate with or mix with in parliamentary institutions.
Such developments take place most easily when capitalism is expanding and can afford to concede real reforms to workers, as was the case in the 1850s and 1860s in Britain, and in the 1950s and early 1960s right across the advanced countries. In such circumstances professional trade union and parliamentary mediators are able to claim the credit for improvements in the lives of wide numbers of workers.
But the 'common sense' of capitalist society and the reformist ideas that flow from it do not disappear when such improvements are no longer so easily obtained. Nor do reformist organisations. Even when they engage in direct action to protect their conditions by walking off the job or taking to the streets, people can still be persuaded to back off by those who argue to go through the normal channels. Such arguments can have an effect even when these 'normal channels' fail miserably.
Again and again in recent years we have had the spectacle of trade union leaders or Labour politicians limiting the scale of action, and then telling people that the failure to make gains shows that action of any sort cannot work. This, for instance, is what the leadership of the firefighters' union did in the recent dispute.
Secondly, the possibility for reform is never fully closed off. Faced with a big enough threat to them, capitalists will permit the state to grant reforms and the reformists to claim credit for them. They know this is the only way to buy time in which to prepare counterattacks against the movement that has threatened them.
France in 1936 was a case in point. Worldwide capitalism was going through the worst crisis it had ever known. But faced with a spreading strike and the occupation of all the major factories, French capitalism allowed the newly elected Popular Front government, which included the pro-capitalist Radical Party, to introduce a shorter working week and the first ever paid holidays. Then, when the movement had died down and the employers had regained the initiative, it pressured the same parliament to rescind many of the reforms.
More recently, world capitalism ran into its worst economic crisis since the Second World War in the winter of 1973-74 as oil prices soared. But faced with a highly successful miners' strike, which was bringing industry to a halt, British big business was happy to see the return of a minority Labour government which ended the strike in return for a big wage increase and a number of other reforms (notably, the repeal of the anti-union laws). It saw this as the only way to win time for itself before returning to the attack, a year later, with massive and successful pressure for the government to introduce wage controls and make huge welfare cuts.
Such experiences are very relevant today. The revival of resistance to the system over the last few years is not automatically destroying the hold of reformist ideas.
Thinkers associated with the movement over globalisation as varied as Susan George, George Monbiot and Bernard Cassen are claiming that real and lasting reforms are possible if there is the right combination of political manoeuvring from above and pressure from below. Many of the new left trade union leaders are saying we can 'reclaim' Labour or return to 'Old Labour'. And, perhaps most importantly, Hugo Chavez and Lula in Latin America are claiming it is possible to turn away from 'neoliberalism' while leaving intact capitalist ownership of the means of production.
In this situation, revolutionaries still have to say what Rosa Luxemburg said in her classic debate with Eduard Bernstein more than a century ago. We are for a struggle for reforms. That is the way in which a movement can begin to gather the momentum to challenge the system as a whole. But ultimately, the reforms cannot be defended without a challenge to the power of the state based upon mass activity from below.
Reformism, old and new, denies the need even to discuss what such a challenge would involve and, in practice, always shies away from it at key moments. For that reason alone, the debate will not and must not go away.