Do we need reform or revolution?

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Lois Clifton argues that in a period of serious crisis the debate between reform and revolution becomes even more important

The revolutions that have swept across the Middle East have forced the question of reform or revolution back onto the political agenda.

As Western elites scrambled to regain political leverage in the region, a contradiction became clear - revolution is fine in Egypt, but elsewhere workers should only fight for gradual reforms.

Workers are brought up to believe that capitalism is normal. Society tells us that anyone who believes the status quo can be changed is simply extremist, utopian or unrealistic.

This leads people to believe that capitalism cannot be brought down by the mass of working class people, and that we have to rely on parliament for reform.

Trotsky argued that within society there are always three groups of people. There are those who take in and believe all the ideas of capitalism - these are a minority. There are those who fight for revolutionary change and an end to capitalism - these are also a minority.

But in between those groups there are the mass of people who believe some of the ideas of capitalism, but who can also be won to socialist ideas.

When capitalism is booming, it often gives concessions to workers, although even then they still have to be fought for. The setting up of the welfare state in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, was a concession to workers in a period of economic growth.

It is also in the interests of capitalism to ensure that workers are educated and healthy enough to work. For this reason basic welfare provision can sometimes be desirable for the bosses as well. In times like this, when there is full employment and welfare, it can be much harder for revolutionaries to argue that capitalism is inherently exploitative.

Nonetheless the contradiction between keeping workers healthy and making profits always re-emerges. Revolutionaries argue that capitalism is an inherently crisis-ridden system. In times of boom capitalism might concede small demands to workers, but in times of bust bosses always try to claw back their profits by attacking workers.

In periods of crisis it becomes much easier for workers to see the contradictions inherent in the system. It also becomes easier for revolutionaries to argue that capitalism must be overthrown in its entirety. A system which is run on profit and geared towards the increasing accumulation of wealth by the richest cannot be reformed.

This does not mean revolutionaries shouldn't take part in the fights for reforms. In reality revolutionaries have the best strategy for those fights. This is because they have higher expectations of what can be achieved, as reformists are more likely to limit their aspirations. At the moment, for example, while revolutionaries argue that no cuts are needed, the Labour Party simply argues for a slower version of austerity.

Being a revolutionary does not mean that we abstain from parliament or elections either. When revolutionaries stand in elections they are trying to advance revolutionary aims. They fight for what André Gorz called 'non-reformist reforms' that challenge the whole system, rather than 'reformist reforms' which prop it up. When reforms are won it builds the confidence of the working class and proves to people that through collective action we can change the material conditions in which we live.

The American Marxist Hal Draper was the first to use the terms 'socialism from above' and 'socialism from below'. He said reformism was a type of 'socialism from above' - the idea that the working class are not able to liberate themselves and that they need MPs, diplomats or intellectuals to do it for them.

Many look back at the history of the Labour Party with rose-tinted spectacles. They hark back to a day when the Labour Party represented workers and since then it has been hijacked by New Labour. In reality socialists have never been welcome in the Labour Party. As early as 1907 Victor Grayson was forced to stand as an independent socialist candidate because he was considered too 'radical' for Labour.

Revolutionaries are the best fighters for reform. But also it is in revolutionary situations that people quickly change their ideas. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, women won the right to vote, the right to divorce and to have abortions. These were far more wide-ranging reforms than anywhere else in Europe - indeed in some parts of Europe today women still don't have such rights.

Marx is part of the tradition of socialism from below. He argued that the emancipation of the working class should be the act of the working class. As Egypt has shown, in revolutionary situations they do not need reformists to show them the way.