The gap between revolutionaries and reformists is fundamental and widening as the economic crisis deepens. This gulf in underlying perspectives is reflected in the conflicting approaches taken to an array of specific issues. Specific differences in strategy and tactics should be viewed as elements in a recurring pattern that in varying forms is being constantly repeated.
Historically, reformists have held that the transition from capitalism to democratic socialism would occur through a series of small, incremental steps, with each successful reform building seamlessly on previous victories. In this scenario, there would be no need for a revolutionary break, or even popular insurgencies. Instead, inexorably capitalism would be superseded by a new economic and social system that would be obviously superior to it.
Many “orthodox” Marxists accepted this position during the heyday of the Second International prior to World War I. It has now become all too clear that socialism is not inevitable, and that the current ruling class will cling to power with ruthless determination. Thus, while it is important to reiterate that capitalism cannot be reformed, and that a revolution is an essential moment in the transition to socialism, such a statement does not sufficiently demarcate a revolutionary perspective. Many of those on the Left would agree with some version of such a formulation, and yet their practice remains determinedly reformist. Certainly most of those in the various Trotskyist cadre groups operate on this basis.
One argument that is frequently advanced is that leftists need to organize around narrowly focused issues that can be won by placing pressure on the authorities. The argument holds that each victory, no matter how small, increases the confidence of the working class. As the working class becomes more confident of its power as a class, it is able to organize around another, slightly more challenging, issue. Such a policy of incrementalism is necessary, so it is argued, given the intense demoralization of the working class following upon a series of major defeats over the last 25 years.
Arguments such as this were advanced by the International Socialist Group in their role as leaders of the Coalition of Resistance as they gave uncritical support to community activists protesting the displacement of the Accord Centre for the disabled by a car park built for the Commonwealth Games. Any effort to widen the scope of concern, for instance to discuss the absurd priorities that allowed vital social services to be cut while hundreds of millions of pounds went to build elaborate sports stadiums, was ruled out of order.
This argument epitomizes the reformist approach to politics. Progress is made on a step by step basis. Popular mobilizations are organized, but the limits are carefully drawn to avoid ruptures and confrontations. In fact, there is no evidence that such an approach has ever worked. Quite the contrary. Organizations that rally around a narrowly focused issue soon lose their initial impetus and usually become thoroughly integrated into the prevailing system.
Furthermore, this strategy fails to grasp the entire point of the current crisis. The wages, benefits and working conditions of the working class are becoming worse, not better. This reflects a fundamental shift in the balance of class forces. In the current period, a policy aimed at winning incremental reforms will prove to be a failure even within its own terms.
We should certainly point out that only a militant mass movement can have any impact on the immediate situation, and that organizations that avoid confrontations, and that operate within the rules are bound to be dismissed out of hand. Yet we also need to be clear that, at best, a militant working class can only slow the corporate onslaught. Previous defeats can only be reversed by moving beyond the framework of the capitalist system and preparing for the revolutionary transformation of society. Small victories in this context are certainly desirable, but they are bound to be infrequent in this period and they will soon be swamped in the general downward spiral.
Revolutionary class consciousness does not depend on winning victories, but rather on the growing realization within the working class that there is no choice, that capitalism can only bring misery and catastrophic disasters. An immediate transition to a socialist society is thus a vital necessity. As the system unravels, reformism loses its hold on working class consciousness and the opportunities for a revolutionary movement increase. The situation in Greece provides a compelling confirmation of this proposition.
Single issue campaigns can provide a starting point for radicalization if they avoid the reformist trap. The campaign around ATOS provides a case in point. ATOS is a French company hired by the British government to push the disabled off of benefits. Demonstrations have been held at its Glasgow offices in conjunction with similar actions around Britain. Protestors have made a point of linking the protests at ATOS with the broader campaign to stop the cutbacks and have also presented a broad anti-corporate critique.
Reformism appears in other guises as well. One variant appears when leftists engage in electoral politics. The argument starts with the premise that the primary purpose of a political party is to elect its candidates to office. With this as the strategic goal, the platform and propaganda of the party are designed to maximize votes. The rationale holds that electing representatives to the legislature will increase the credibility of the party within the working class. Thus, the party will grow, making it likely that even more candidates will be elected in the next election. This upward spiral will make the party a significant social force, thereby bringing the transition to a socialist society even closer.
Obviously the Scottish Socialist Party operated along these lines during its heyday prior to the Sheridan debacle. Many who have remained continue to believe that a new upsurge along these lines is possible. The problems inherent in this strategy are many. Elected candidates become the focal point of the party, setting the agenda and determining the tactics. In addition, creating celebrities becomes a centerpiece of party politics. There is no question of the party mandating the actions of its elected officials since winning electoral victories has become the paramount objective.
The RCN was among the first to object to this style of politics. We need to go further and see electoralism as yet another version of reformism. Instead of developing a socialist perspective, radical politics is jettisoned for a diluted liberal reformism in a drive to win short-term marginal victories. We need to connect with the heritage of Guy Aldred and others who made it clear that they were using the electoral arena to present a socialist vision and not to win votes on a diluted program of reforms.
Broad Left formations within trade unions represent yet another variant of reformism. A wide range of “progressive” union activists come together on the basis of a minimal program with the goal of replacing the current crop of bureaucrats with a new set of “left-wing” officials. Once again socialist politics is downplayed in order to gain short-run victories.
In several unions the Broad Left has been able to unseat the old-time moderates. Once in power the leftist officials follow the many of the same patterns as before. Loyalty to the current leadership becomes the essential prerequisite to a full-time staff job. Progressive unions, while critical of the Labour Party, still remain within its orbit rather than definitively breaking with it. Opposition to the continuing wave of cuts is confined to top-down one-day national strikes, while rank and file actions are discouraged.
The recent wave of protests by electricians presents a positive alternative. Organized at the grass-roots level these protest push the bureaucrats to take action. Site Worker magazine, put out by militant electricians some of whom have been banned from the construction industry has moved further, urging electricians to act on their own and to not rely on the bureaucrats at all.
Reformism has been the bane of the working class in Scotland and throughout the UK. Even today, it remains a major obstacle to the development of a revolutionary movement. Calls for left unity seek to create a broad coalition that slides over the fundamental gap between revolutionaries and reformists. The RCN should be advocating an alternative strategy, a unity of revolutionary, anti-authoritarian socialists that could work together in broader venues such as trade unions, the anti-cuts campaigns and the electoral arena.
This period is dominated by the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, a crisis that shows no sign of ending. We should state clearly that the working class will be pushed backward as long as we remain within the constraints set by the global market economy. Of course, as revolutionaries we participate in trade unions and social movements, but we do so on a principled basis as socialists. We, therefore, inevitably come into conflict with the pervasive opportunism of reformists. Revolutionaries do not narrow the range of our demands to those that may be won, but rather we challenge the capitalist onslaught on a broad range of issues, as we stress the interconnections between demands and their links to the crisis of capitalism.
As revolutionaries, we need to emphasize that fundamental changes are won on the streets and on the shop floor through militant direct action. We take part in elections to put forward a socialist program, not to win votes or elect legislators. Our candidates should be bound to our platform, and their agenda, should they be elected, should be set by the party, instead of elected officials determining the direction taken by the party.
Revolutionaries should participate in the official unions where they act as collective bargaining agents, but we need to formulate a socialist program and not merely adapt our position to that advanced by leftist union officials. Revolutionaries believe that a democratic union requires the election of shop stewards, and that power should be retained at the shop floor and not revert to union headquarters. Crucially, we need to encourage rank and file committees within an industry that cut across union lines, and that can organize militant actions as the only effective way of slowing down the wave of cuts. This is particularly crucial in the public sector in forging a militant movement that can effectively confront the pay freeze and the proposed cut in pensions.
Revolutionaries and reformists fundamentally disagree on tactics, strategy and the overall perspective for social change. These disagreements are not conjunctural, that is they are not rooted in the specific circumstances that we currently confront. We can expect that these divisions within the Left will continue throughout the transition to socialism. For now, we need to deepen our ties to other revolutionary groupings, here in Scotland, and throughout the world.