Pieter Lawrence

The Failure of Reforms

Source: Socialist Standard, February 1978.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

The socialist attitude to programmes of social reform is central to our political position. It is a matter of crucial importance that this attitude be clearly understood. The Socialist commitment is to the solution of working-class problems confronting mankind. The two are inseparable. Socialist policy is not arrived at through obstinacy nor by a deliberate selection of difficult paths. Socialist policy is determined by the facts of the situation as we find them. Our analysis of society is directed first towards a description of the way in which social problems arise and then to a programme of political action which would lead to their solution. This is an objective analysis of the reality of everyday human experience, which leads to principles of action given by practical necessity. If social problems can be shown to be inherent within capitalist society then it follows that capitalism must be replaced by different social arrangements which will not generate the same problems. Programmes of social reform leave the basic structure of capitalism intact. Therefore programmes of social reform cannot hope to solve social problems. This argument is supported by theory which is proved valid by the evidence of real experience.


On the face of it the Socialist attitude of opposition to reformism may seem harsh. We are often accused of being unsympathetic to worthy causes or removed from the centre of important action. Neither charge is true. These charges are superficial responses to a thorough assessment of social reforms which are at best irrelevant and most of the time dangerously diverting. We do not doubt that there is much sincerity and indignation in reformist campaigns, but by itself this is not enough. Of course it is important to care but sincerity can be misdirected and therefore illusory. When indignation is made sterile, it is tragic. Socialists want to avoid this.

The state apparatus has a technique for adapting the aspirations of reformists to its own purposes. This is usually achieved by those who temper sincerity with so-called "pragmatism" — a respectable word for tawdry activity. They often say that politics is the art of the possible. This attempt to justify compromise corrupts art and politics since both require integrity of purpose and action. Socialism is the science of what is possible, and the surrender of principle is totally self-defeating. Whether it be through well-meaning ignorance or opportunism, one thing is certain, the present chaos shows that after a century of social reform, basic social problems remain unsolved. The clear fact is that reformism evades the political logic of economic reality.

Capitalism cripples human possibilities. It does this in every way in which life is important. Materially it limits production to what is profitable. To maintain this human needs are sacrificed. At the level of relationships capitalism is exploitative, men and women are objects to be used, their best potentialities as cooperative human beings remain unrealized.

The condition of our lives is given by the productive relationships of capitalism. This material condition is circumscribed by economic laws which are not merely a product of capitalism, but are inseparable from its nature. Under capitalism the working class must secure its material standards within the limitations of the class ownership of the means of production, and the production of commodities for sale on the market with a view to profit. Within this system the possibilities of employment and the ceiling on wages is determined mainly by the expectation of profit.

In all the circumstances of class struggle in capitalist society, capital and labour pursue their interests against a background of competition and the struggle for markets, control of trade routes and resources, continued capital accumulation, strikes and other industrial action and the expansion and contraction of production which is the trade cycle. Our social possibilities are confined within the general anarchy of capitalist production with all its artificial scarcity.

The total amount of wealth that becomes available in the form of commodities (the social product), is given not by political processes but by economic processes within the framework and limitations of capitalism. The options or governments are as much as any other organization or individual set by existing economic factors. For the most part governments respond to economic pressures which are beyond their control. For example, regardless of their ostensible political complexion, governments cannot control the state of trade. It is the state of trade which mainly determines the social product. It therefore follows that political attempts to improve material conditions within capitalism cannot work.

In describing the economic limitations within which wealth becomes available under capitalism we are at the same time describing forces which prevent capitalism from operating in the interests of the whole community. In reaction to these conditions various protest movements and reformist organizations become active in the hope that either as pressure groups or political parties they can improve the material conditions of life. We have ruled out the idea that such organizations can lead to a greater availability of wealth under capitalism. The organizations best suited to achieve a distribution of the social product more in favour of the working class are the trade unions. But even with their muscle and the pressures that they are able to apply they have to accept that there is little they can do. When trade is expanding trade unions can negotiate marginal increases in wages. In the present time of recession with a high level of unemployment, even trade unions have to accept a lowering of workers' living standards. They can only wait now until their negotiating hand is strengthened, whenever that may be. This by itself is a sad comment on the way in which capitalist economics is beyond any rational control.

In British political history the Labour Party came to be the organization which held out the highest hopes of becoming a great reforming party. Particularly in the post-war election of 1945, the Labour Party talked about social equality, and a world where unemployment and poverty would be abolished. The history of the Labour Party is not only a lesson in the futility of reformism, it is a good example of how capitalism adopts reformist aspirations for its own purposes. Thus nationalization, which ardent labourites thought of as having something to do with common ownership, was adopted by capitalism as a technique whereby important basic industries and services, which showed no immediate prospect of making a profit, could be taken over by the state, and made a charge on the capitalist class as a whole. In this way the overall viability of British capitalism was improved.


With the welfare schemes of the post-war years, such as family allowances, improved old age pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits etc., the state became more involved in the distribution of the social product. These schemes are part of the distribution of that portion of available wealth which goes to the working class as a whole. These measures were supposed to herald the dawn of a new era of social equality. The only equality about them was that the state organized and administered the more equal distribution of working class poverty. Regardless of the hopes of reformists, these schemes were introduced and are maintained by governments for the purpose of stabilizing and augmenting the general pattern of exploitative relationships. It is important to emphasize that what becomes available for this kind of distribution is given by the general level of exploitation over the whole economic field and again this is beyond the control of reformist governments.

Likewise, comprehensive education was thought of as a measure which would assist a breakdown of social divisions. In effect, comprehensive education, by facilitating an easier mobility of pupils from one grade to another and by concentrating more pupils in larger units, has created a more efficient and cheaper way of producing the next generation of workers.

Successive Labour governments have made no impact on the nature of class relationships, nor even on the distribution of wealth. Can anyone doubt now that the present Labour government is doing a first class job in steering British capitalism through this recession with minimum disruption. Doubtless, the capitalist class are grateful.

Despite the hopes that have been invested in the Labour Party by its members over the years, its role has been to corner discontent and render it politically sterile. Apart from that, the Labour Party has provided a fund of ideas which capitalism has adapted to suit its needs.

With some exceptions, on balance history does not show that capitalism has unwillingly absorbed reform. On the contrary, capitalism generates reform in its own interests. Reform is part of the normal pattern of political administration, its function being to stabilize capitalism. Social reform is the political process through which capitalism continues its own economic development and since government and the state are the political expression of capitalist ownership, social reform will preserve that class interest. Reformism, inevitably then, involves an endorsement of capitalist productive relationships.

If it can be shown that in the aggregate there have been absolute improvement in working-class standards over the years, this again would not be attributable to political reforms. To the extent that workers through technical development and the greater efficiency of their labour, have created a greater pool of available wealth then they are able to negotiate for themselves a portion of that extra wealth.

This does not alter the overall proportions in which wealth is distributed, which is a reason why capitalists approve of productivity deals. In effect they say that provided workers produce more wealth with the same labour then workers can have some of this wealth for themselves. In this way it can appear that workers#39; standards are improving, but this stems from the workers#39; own productivity and not from the activities of political reformists.

In formulating a political policy our starting point must always be economic reality. It is an undeniable fact that under capitalism man cannot control the productive process. We cannot set up productive objectives and then organize social resources to achieve those objectives. For example the Labour Party has been powerless to act against mounting unemployment and lowering working-class standards. This is the price we pay for private ownership and the profit motive.

The solution is to bring productive relationships into harmony with human needs. The means of producing wealth must be commonly owned, the earth's resources must be at the free disposal of the whole of mankind. In these relationships, freed from the economic barriers of capitalism, man can co-operate to simply produce the wealth that humanity needs. Socialism will not only achieve productive efficiency, but will establish a pattern of relationships in which the dignity of man's coming together will be enhanced through equality and co-operation.

This is a positive objective that we can all work for. There is no way in which the internal structure of capitalism can be altered by reform so that it works in the interests of the whole community. We can only break away from the self-repeating failures of reformism by recognizing that the problem is capitalism itself. We can replace disillusion with effective action by working to establish Socialism.