US liberals — left, right, and center — have always justified reformism on the grounds that it is realistic. “Nothing more than a limited set of reforms is achievable in the present circumstances” has been their mantra. They insist that efforts toward more basic “revolutionary” social changes would be successfully resisted by the capitalist establishment, would not be supported by the masses, and thus are irresponsibly utopian provocations to rightwing reaction. In contrast, reforms can be won; they can actually make life better. So the reformers have sought to reduce unemployment, raise wages, improve working conditions, reduce racial and gender discrimination, improve educational opportunities, health care, housing, and so on. They boast about the reforms they have achieved: further evidence for them that reform was and is realistic and revolution a dangerous delusion.
Thus liberals and even most radicals have kept their struggles over the last century reformist by excluding revolutionary demands to end exploitation in the Marxian sense. That is, they have refused to demand that workers in each and every enterprise take over the receipt and distribution of the surpluses that workers produce, the “value added” by laboring activity, or what corporations prefer to call their “profits.” The revolutionary demands — that workers need and deserve to become their own bosses and thereby to eliminate the class differences and antagonisms between capitalists and workers — were dismissed or denounced by reformists. The profits had to be left in the hands of the capitalists: the price, in a sense, to be paid for reforms.
In the wake of the decline of left and labor movements in the US over recent years, reformism strikes many as the very most we can hope for if even that is possible. For them, revolutionary goals seem even less “realistic” now than before. Yet, on closer examination, the exact opposite case can be made. Ironically, as we shall see, the Bush regime is making it.
Since the Great Depression, reformers in the US have struggled for rising wages and all those government supports that made up the New Deal then and the “welfare state” ever since. While they failed to achieve many reforms, they did achieve enough of them to support their advocacy of reformist politics. Reform, they said, “worked.” Their revolutionary critics reacted with two basic points. First, they declared it a strategic tragedy to have limited mass mobilizations to mere reformism when a revolutionary program might well have garnered support and thereby built a revolutionary movement. Their second point was to warn that so long as achieved reforms benefiting workers left intact the underlying capitalist organization of production, the capitalists could and would soon attack and eventually eliminate the reforms.
What the current Bush regime gives the revolutionaries is the proof for their second point. Step by relentless step, and despite occasional failures (such as last year’s assault on Social Security), the forces behind Bush have reversed the reforms. More reversals are underway. The social opposition to the program of reversal appears too weak, disorganized, and ineffective to do more than slow its pace.
The rising inequalities of wealth and income in the US especially since 1975, based on the rise of capitalist profits relative to workers’ wages, have had two key effects. To maintain, let alone raise, living standards, workers have taken more jobs, worked longer hours, and accumulated enormous debts. The resulting exhaustion and financial anxieties of working families have sapped the energies, resources, and organizations needed to secure the reforms won earlier. At the same time, rising profits have provided capitalists with the additional resources, confidence, and incentives needed to undo most of the reforms won over the last 75 years.
Today it is political “realism” to question reformism. History is settling accounts in the reformism versus revolution debate. Henceforth, social movements seeking reforms will need to include demands for revolutionary changes as necessary means to secure those reforms they can achieve. Otherwise workers will not regain confidence in reformist movements. No longer will it be an abstract proposition to combine reform and revolution within one political strategy for social change. That combination is becoming the only “realistic” left position.
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002).