Reply to Mike Meeropol on reformism

Mike Meeropol was kind enough to write a long comment on my post on 20th-century socialism.  I’m pasting that comment below.  In reply, I would just like to clarify the point I make against reformism.

I am for reforms.  We need them and they do not just happen.  We need to struggle for them.  And we need to plan them in advance to achieve them.  My view on reforms is well captured by a recent Science & Society‘s (October 2010, 74:4) editorial perspectives, written by David Laibman.

So, “reformism” is not the struggle for reforms.  It is something else.  Reformism is the opportunistic use of reforms — taking one side of the struggle, its positive result (its stasis) and counter-posing it to the other side, its process, continuation, its flowing dynamis.  Or, perhaps more clearly, it’s using reforms to rationalize and as an excuse to defend the status quo.  Nothing wrong with groups of workers improving their living and working conditions.  And nothing wrong with people getting exhausted and taking breaks in the struggle.  Those things happen.

The issue is that reforms create vested interests in particular groups of workers.  If these interests are taken as ends in themselves and become an obstacle to the broader unity of working people, crucial for working people to advance, then this attitude becomes a problem.   The part sacrifices the whole and thereby shoots itself in the foot, if I’m allowed to mix metaphors.

In my understanding, the need for socialism (as a doctrine in the workers’ struggles) comes from the need to emphasize — to put forth if you wish — the broader, more general, longer term interest of working people, to ensure the continuity of the struggle.  Struggles, like life, like motion, cannot exist if they stagnate.

The divisions that imperialism exploits between working people in rich countries and those abroad (e.g., in the U.S. keeping immigrant workers under the threat of deportation, without full rights, etc.) is an illustration of how these attitudes among working people and the left are toxic for socialism, keeping it from advancing.  And it’s not a matter of altruism towards the less privileged workers, but ultimately a matter of self interest.

Even if reforms prove lasting and beneficial to particular groups of working people (nothing wrong with that per se), socialists (e.g. Marxists) have a moral and intellectual obligation to note (and emphasize) the limitations inherent to all reforms within the status quo.  If we don’t, then when the reforms get eroded and dismantled (and they will if working people disarm themselves unilaterally by sacrificing their unity, by abandoning their struggle for more, and limiting themselves to protecting their existing reforms and that alone).  Again, in the class struggle, if working people don’t keep up the attack, their gains are at risk.

*   *   *

Mike Meeropol’s comment:

I think there is a very important lesson the working classes of the rich capitalist countries of the world need to take from the fact that there were important countries that called themselves socialist between 1919 and 1990 (I discount the fact that China still calls itself “socialist” — maybe we can debate that issue). In my view, there was a substantial threat posed to world capitalism by the “idea” of socialism which (despite its negative aspects) had concrete expression at the same time. The result was that in various advanced countries political leaders were willing to force upon their domestic capitalists the “social democratic compromises” of the 20th century. These were represented by the NEW DEAL in the US and the more substantial Western European versions of social democracy.

Reformist yes. But they also improved the lives of large numbers of working people for at least 25 years and in many countries for many years more.

The reason Margaret Thatcher could get away with her TINA analysis was because during the decade of the 1980s, “actually existing socialism” truly lost its ability to command the respect and idealism of a significant portion of the world’s population — and thus, the danger posed by a truly socialist alternative — the danger that had caused the frightened compromises with social democracy made by ruling classes during the first 3/4 of the 20th century — melted away.

The challenge for us, unfortunately, is that absent such a “revolutionary alternative,” we who struggle in the heart of the capitalist world system have to once again imagine a better world.

If Julio can find elements in the experiences of countries that called themselves socialist that will help those of us in the center — if he can find elements within China (the rising capitalist empire of the 21st century) that might turn it towards a true workers state — I am sure we will all be anxious to learn from those examples.

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