Reforms are just reforms

Protesters hold signs that read "Turn up the heat! Melt ICE" and "ICE cracks under pressure."

Image caption: protesters at the Occupy ICE march in July 2018.

By Tim Horras; photo by Derry Todd

Leftists are always looking for reforms to be something they’re not — something bigger than they actually are. This leads us to make a lot of errors.

On the one hand, a lot of us think that politicians pass reforms because deep in their hearts they actually sympathize with us. This is why we end up spending so much time trying to ferret out which candidates really mean it when they say, “I am a friend to the worker.” Of course, having a politician in office who holds some emotive connection with an issue or a constituency is certainly possible. Just like it’s possible that your boss sympathizes with you and is in a lot of ways a good person (they’re a good parent, they recycle, and all that). But personal sentiment only plays a minor role in the business of politics. To give an analogy, rarely if ever would someone claim that a union won a pay hike because the boss was their ally.

Politics is a structural relationship: politicians under capitalism are compelled to mediate between unequal players (e.g. capitalists and workers) to arrive at a  compromise which leaves the fundamental relationship intact. This is especially true in a quasi-democracy like we have here in the USA which has very limited mechanisms of accountability and influence.  There are levers that can be prodded in a bourgeois government to win concessions, but not for shifting the balance of power or for governing.

In a non-revolutionary period, revolutionaries often focus much of their efforts on trying to wring concessions from the ruling class (“fight the power”). However, this has the potential to gradually undermine the revolutionary trajectory of a movement. Many socialists and communists recognize this danger and attempt to counteract it through a variety of strategies. One of the most popular strategies is spinning reforms as themselves revolutionary acts. There’s a lot of terms that get thrown around on the Left which serve this purpose; sometimes people talk about “transitional demands,” “revolutionary reforms,” or (my favorite) “non-reformist reforms.” This is nonsense.

For instance, passing universal healthcare would be a great reform. The health care system in the USA is one of the absolute worst in the advanced capitalist world; there’s reams of evidence for this and it’s relatively uncontroversial even among conservatives. The issue, from a revolutionary point of view, is that (as we see elsewhere in the capitalist world) some form of universal health care is by and large compatible with capital accumulation by private interests.

On the other hand, nowhere has a struggle to institute a universal health care program resulted in a revolution which has either overthrown the bourgeoisie or established a socialist economy. That doesn’t mean it’s not a reform worth fighting for, or that it wouldn’t save millions of lives. It only means that there’s no evidence it would advance revolutionary democracy. Sadly, there’s no universal formula for determining what’s going to be the most effective struggle in a particular context. But the idea of a “transitional demand” (outside of an immediate revolutionary crisis) or (worse) a “non-reformist reform” doesn’t help us out with this task — in fact, if anything it disarms us conceptually and sows confusion.

So here’s the deal: a reform is just a reform. Nothing more, nothing less.

Reforms have the potential to improve people’s lives, and that’s a good thing.  Out of that reform struggle, there’s the potential to organize the class and undermine the state. But winning reforms in and of themselves won’t provide any shortcuts to revolution. Reforms don’t cumulatively stack up on each other until the weight of the system gets brought down, nor does a movement being good at winning reforms necessarily translate into a movement which can overthrow the existing order.

The question of revolution is increasingly being pushed out of the hypothetical and into the concrete as climate change forces our hand and the threat of extinction looms ever larger over our heads. My wager is that we will improve the likelihood of victory if we can fight for reforms and promote revolution without encouraging the illusion that these are actually the same thing.

. . .

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