On the question of reforms

Discussing the question of support for reforms against opposition to reformism.

Submitted by Ambiorix on September 16, 2013

I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they'll think things over; and so shall I. But what's wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that's all.

Rieux, from Camus' "The Plague".

Capitalism has shown itself to be highly adaptive, continuously evolving to meet political, social and economic conditions and context. Capitalism has been able to plaster over its internal contradictions when they periodically reveal themselves, not so cracks really disappear but so they appear to. In the discourse of hegemonic politics it has ‘succeeded’ in facing the challenges set by its critics at the turn of the 20th century. But its apparent dynamism is illusory, 19th century critiques of its fundamental logic and structure still hold true.

Reforms are an inherent and necessary product of the class struggle forced upon capital by the classes they exploit. They are a response to radicalism, self-activity, militant struggle, and political organising. They are attempts by the capitalist class or the state they wield to stabilize capitalism, but a stability necessary to achieve not in isolation but stability necessary to achieve in response to attacks upon it by the exploited classes, and whether that stability is achieved is up to the exploited classes themselves, it’s up to us. Reforms work in the eyes of capitalists if they are amalgamated into a logic of reformism, so whilst we must support reforms we must virulently oppose reformism and expose it as the betrayal it is. Because if reforms are achieved but no reformism exists for the capitalists class to supplicate and amalgamate with, and the reforms instead are united with anarchist principles, then reforms can offer visions of a revolution.

Before I continue to discuss reforms a few words on reformism; reforms are the attempts by capital to save itself, weaken the attack and so on, to appeal to those reactionary and reformist elements within large movements who seek to co-opt the struggle to calm it and claim victory achieved and for workers to go back to the monotony of daily life safe in the knowledge their factory will be inspected or their food contains what it claims to. Capitalism isn’t stabilised by reforms but by reformism. Reformism is that notion that the best to be achieved is a better condition of life under the present system; it is the idea that reforms are the end. Reformism quells militancy even when that militancy could have gone a lot further, on many occasions parties and unions have acted together to quell militancy because such militancy ‘wasn’t right as this time’, ‘upset the balance of power’, ‘will make us loose the reforms’ and so on. Whether the rhetoric of union or party bosses is revolutionary or not, in many cases their actions are reformist and too often radicals mistake the aim – reforms – with the ideology ; reformism. And thus on a surface level we may support the same reforms as reformists, but our whole approach to what reforms are for and how they are achieved is radically different. Reformism is a view which inherently side-lines the masses and sees reformism as something either granted by pragmatic or sympathetic politicians or savvy union bosses to people exploited by the system to lessen that exploitation. Reformism is a function of hierarchy expressed by stratified movements that are divided by those who direct - but are aloof, elitist, separated - and those who are directed whose voices are quelled, whose politics is outsourced, whose obedience is ensured, and who are seen as tools, as means to an end – reform.

Reformism has a sort of dialectical relationship to the system, but a dialectic fundamentally of repetition rather than progress. This can be expressed in another way called the ‘cycle of reformism’, that is for reformism to be achieved it is required to set boundaries, ‘here and no further’, that once this reform in this area is gained our work is done. But for those who hold reformist ideas to maintain reformism requires them to maintain the boundaries within a set discourse and a specific plan of action that cannot be violated, in other words, it has to quell militancy once reforms have been achieved. Parties and unions – or any reformist organisations – move fast to dispel and crush elements in those organisations which don’t accept the ‘party line’. But because reformism implicitly implies disempowering those it seeks to help, because once its battle is won those things that gained the victory must be redirect, disassembled or even repressed, in this sense reformism creates its own delayed downfall. In the dialectic the synthesis achieved only replicates the previous antagonism. Because reformism removes the power through which it is achieved it means its gains can be removed, this is something we are seeing today with those reforms achieved by the working-classes – most notable the welfare state and labour rights – are being dismantled. Because after reforms are achieved reformists must inevitable stand idle, whereas capitalists don’t; the reforms only need to be maintained as long as the threat to capital remains. A culture of militancy and radicalism, of protest and solidarity no longer exists in the main part, and the capitalist class is in a position of hegemony not before seen in its ability to not only remove those reforms but to do so often with the support of elements of the working-class they were first introduced to quell. And the removal of these reforms thus awakens the reformists from their slumber - and thus begins the cycle of reformism again - but anarchists should ardently criticise that reformism for it is at blame for the lack of reforms – you cannot reform capitalism. Reformism sees reforms as the end in a general sense, hence why anarchist must always shun and criticise reformism as an idea that entrenches our exploitation; that we can go ‘here but no further’ and why we must offer an alternative to the positions of the new reformists who only wish to return to what we once had (nationalised industries etc.) which requires maintaining the logic, the cycle, in which those reforms were taken away. Reforms should be the beginning, not the end.

But given these facts why should we support reforms? Because we, as Foucault said, cannot choose between ‘an inaccessible radicality’ and ‘the necessary concessions to reality’. In that ‘the work of deep transformation [reform] can be done in the open and always turbulent atmosphere of a continuous [revolutionary] criticism’. The aim then should be to build a revolutionary movement where the goal isn’t reforms but with the realisation that accepting reforms isn’t a sign of reformism but instead a sign of revolutionary potential, that capital is attempting to defend, stabilise and even save itself by accepting specific demands forced upon them by those it exploits. We should always aim to move past reforms, as was done in both the United States and Spain at the turn of the 20th century, in the knowledge that reforms are of our own making born out of our own power and that to accept reformism is to accept a limit to our power and what it can achieve. Resignation with reforms closes the revolutionary road to which we have the ability to eventually traverse.

We achieve reforms by organising together, cooperating, sustaining a self-activity a militancy towards a specific goal – usually a reform. But if a reform is achieved we shouldn’t dissolve those relationships and links which achieved it as reformism does, we should maintain them and if possible extend them and gain more power against capital. The fact that self-organisation doesn’t necessarily lead to revolutionary upheaval shouldn’t endow us with a sense of hopelessness or a legacy of procrastination. Of course in day-to-day life people must accept reforms until the next wave of action when our possibilities aren’t limited by context. We may have to wait until conditions are right but that doesn’t mean just waiting till they are right but rather in making them right. Reforms may only be achievable in a given context but that doesn’t mean our principles never get concrete realisation, in the meantime other things must be done that increase our collective power to overcome those reforms. In this sense reforms in themselves aren’t concrete expressions of anarchist principles, but how they are achieved (self-organisation, self-activity, direct action etc.) can be. Reforms show people they can achieve things through their own action, they can be symbolic examples to others.

Reforms for us are neither means nor ends in a general sense, but are rather the outcome of a conflict; that may be a conflict that had those reforms as it’s specific aim, but they aren’t the only aim. Reforms are a product of the means that should be passed on the journey to the end. However we shouldn’t be afraid to ignore reforms if we can more beyond them. The reforms offered by capitalists in a response to radicalism during the Progressive Era in the United States failed, they weren’t accepted by large parts of the labour movement who knew acceptance would decrease their militancy ignoring the distance it could really achieve. In the end the militancy in the USA was killed by violence, not the extreme but piecemeal violence that had previously been used, but systemic state violence required to completely crush the labour movement (which involved WW1, Red Scar, mass exportation, censorship etc.) lead by the FBI, and even then capitalism was still reformed. The US labour movement took 20 years to fully destroy and required engineering mass reformism to replace its potential rebirth.

Yes reforms should be supported, but mere support isn’t enough we need also to break the logic, the discourse, the language of reformism. Reforms offer both material and symbolic importance; they allow workers a chance at more freedom and a better life, whilst showing people the importance and achievements of struggle, of solidarity, of organisation and direct action and so on. It offers a space within which people can be radicalised, however we cannot allow reformists to monopolise the debate and the question of reforms. However to support reforms in principle doesn’t mean we always support them in practice, some reforms may harm the exploited classes and should be opposed.

In conclusion reforms are achieved through concerted efforts by the exploited class against capital; sometimes these successes are mediated onto capital by the state it controls. The ability to achieve and force reforms is a sign of the growing power of the proletariat. Before the revolution in Spain in 1936 there were several other actions and concerted efforts by workers to increase and express their power against capital, most notably the achievement of the 8hour day by anarchists – the first country to achieve it. The 8hour day was an increase in freedom for workers, but only an increase against intense oppression or as Chomsky would say ‘the floor of the cage was expanded’. What the achievement of reforms more importantly showed was the ability of working people to get what they wanted through their own action and initiative, hence why the 8hour day as a reform in reality didn’t dampen the revolutionary aims or spirit but increased it, the reforms were a springboard for anarchists to show their organisational ideas could not only bring reforms in this world but could create another. It offered a vision of revolution no longer a utopia but a concrete reality achievable by our own action with our own aims.

September 2013