On Reformism

The political mentality called reformism has debilitated the workers’ movement all over the world and in every period; therefore it has been a subject of deep discussions among Marxist ranks. Beginning with the founders of Marxism, Lenin and other revolutionary leaders analysed the political meaning, social roots and destructive effects of reformism. In the circular letter dated 17-18 September 1879 and adressed to the leading cadre of the German Social Democratic Party, Marx and Engels berated the party leaders for their reformist approach. Those reformist socialists were occupied with softening the “sharp”-looking sides of the revolutionary program of the working-class for the sake of ingratiating themselves with the bourgeoisie. They put forward the idea that by this means the proletarian struggle would not seem “scary” to the large masses and that the party would attract many new members into its ranks.

In the words of Marx and Engels, these would-be socialist politicians were the representatives of the petty-bourgeoisie that was filled with the fear that the working class “may go too far” because of its revolutionary position. The political approach of the reformist leaders who distorted the party of the working class was patently exposed in the lines of the founders of Marxism. Scared to death of revolution, reformist leaders gave up propagating long-term objectives and ultimate goals while running after small achievements. According to reformists, who devoted all their power and energy to buttress capitalist society, one should avoid revolution and its devastations like a plague. Instead, he should turn the process of social transformation into a process of peaceful dissolution of capitalism –as if it was possible! – and devote his life to piecemeal reforms that would come true by slow steps.

Lenin, too, was a relentless opponent of reformism throughout his political life. He dealt with the subject at almost every turn in order to enlighten the working class. He gave weight to the social roots of reformism that undermined the European working class movement. In this sense, he clarified the ominous role of the workers’ aristocracy and bureaucracy. Rosa Luxemburg was another leader who raised the flag of the revolutionary struggle against class-collaborationist and renegade leaders of the Second International. One of her greatest books, Social Reform or Revolution, was devoted to uncovering reformism. In this book, she unmasked the political line that put forward the idea that the living conditions of the working masses could be bettered by transforming the bourgeois state rather than destroying it. Rosa pointed out that social reforms that were to be put into practice under capitalist state had natural boundaries as they could never go beyond the obstacles erected by the interests of capital.

One must not break from the ultimate goal

Revolutionary Marxism reveals that if the tie between daily economic and political struggle waged under capitalism and the ultimate goal, namely social revolution, is broken, it is inevitable to drift towards reformism. As was in the past, today it is possible to see many examples of this, too. The politicians who cannot face up to adversities of revolutionary struggle but who also never resign from their socialist careers try to present reforms under bourgeois state as revolution, saying ‘no need for those bloody revolutionary processes!’

As if they are not aware of the fact that it is rather the watchmen of the bourgeois order who are keen for bloodshed! And again, as if it is not self-evident that even the workers’ demonstrations through which any revolution shows its head are shed in blood, let alone the revolutionary conquest of the political power! The most typical feature of the left-wing movements and organisations with reformist substance is that they do not subordinate the struggle for partial improvements to the aim of overthrowing capitalism by revolutionary methods and unite them.

For Marxism the ultimate goal is social revolution whereas the social reform can only be a means subordinated to this goal. For reformists however, reform itself is the ultimate goal. A striking feature of such left-wing organisations is that they are as if under oath to keep the struggle within the boundaries of the bourgeoisie. The leaders of this political tendency that drags the working class to the gutter of legalism were called legal Marxists by Lenin. He points out that those are politicians who attempt to change Marxism according to the will and mood of the bourgeoisie. For such politicians, the revolution is an empty dream postponed to a day that will never come, whereas the legalist struggle covered with socialist words and freed from revolutionary content means everything.

Reformists are “realist” politicians. Revolutionary propaganda for the seizure of power makes no sense for them and they regard the people who are filled with revolutionary enthusiasm as “extreme left” (gauchist). Yet, without the revolutionary spirit and enthusiasm, Marxism, the belief in socialism and the idea of liberation from capitalism would all lose their aliveness, dry out and turn into nothing. But in capitalist society, there are all kinds of political lines to follow for everyone, in accordance with one’s sort and character. And after all, it cannot be expected from someone, who belongs to the bourgeois world or who surrendered to bourgeois ideology, to act like an honest and a devout revolutionist.

Yet, there is another side to the question. Replacing proletarian revolutionism with adventurism would be a vital mistake in terms of improving the class movement. The need to fill the Marxist outlook with revolutionary aspiration and enthusiasm has nothing to do with adventurist petty bourgeois revolutionism. It is Marxism itself that teaches us the essentiality of scientific realism, calmness, patience and planful activity in revolutionary political struggle, right along with courage. In this sense, while it is essential to keep the revolutionary fire burning under ominous-looking conditions, even when the revolution seems very distant; it is equally wrong and harmful to make calls for “attack” without taking the conditions into account. On the other hand, revolution would not fall from the sky, as Lenin remarked. And when the yeast starts fermenting, no-one knows when and how it will take us to a real revolution. Therefore, a communist is always duty-bound to pursue a revolutionary practice on the basis of concrete circumstances.

It is very clear that a reformist would regard it as a futile policy to convey the revolutionary ideas to the working class and to carry out a painstaiking revolutionary organising under conditions of political reaction. A “realist” socialist would make any concession in order to gain recognition in the world of bourgeois politics or to win a seat in parliament. He would be proud of getting a reform proposal through parliament which he will call “a major gain” and which also reveals his criteria for political success.

At this point, one should avoid some misinterpretations. Revolutionary Marxism does not totally deny the parliamentary side of the daily struggle in capitalist society. However, there are different political styles of utilising the parliamentary rostrum. In other words, there is a clear dividing line between the revolutionary attitude and the reformist approach in this matter too. That is why Lenin found it necessary to put a reality into words. In his work titled Socialism and War he says: “Parliamentary activity ensures a minister’s seat for some, whereas it sends some others to the prison, exile or penal servitude. Some serve to the bourgeoisie, whereas some others serve to the proletariat. Some are social-imperialists whereas some others are revolutionary Marxists.”

Reformism is closely linked with revisionism (deviation from the revolutionary core of Marxism with the claim of “revision”) and opportunism (to pursue a policy that gives priority to one’s own political interests rather than the interests of the working class). Some of the characteristics of revisionism (such as developing opportunist attitudes instead of taking a principled stand or sacrificing the fundamental interests of the working class for the sake of minor gains) can also be counted among the sins of reformism. Likewise, reformist socialists are opportunist politicians who pursue opportunistic policies for their own interests. An opportunist socialist would sooner or later twist the facts to suit his political calculations. Running after some privileges, he would mislead the working class into the policy of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie.

There is no need to refer to some specific organisations or persons on a national or international level to make it more concrete. Because, they already manifest themselves in their political attitudes towards major questions or developments. Moreover, the real political function and the social essence of reformists stand out in their programs and tactics that replace socialism with liberal working class politics.

There is another crucial point that requires attention. It must be kept in mind that reformism becomes much more dangerous when it is covered with revolutionary words. Mostly, the followers of this political line –that we can call insidious reformism avoid the straightforward denial of the necessity of revolution. But the fundamental element that marks their understanding of political struggle is their aloofness from organising in the cause of revolution and preparing the working class for the revolution. As Lenin pointed out, even when such “revolutionists” officially pledge their loyalty to the International organisation of the working class, such pledges mean nothing more than a pretension.

Insidious reformism pretends to accept some aspects of revolutionary politics in order to mask itself. But at the first opportunity, it abandons or empties them. Here we can recall some of the important examples. As is known, someone who does not extend the idea of revolution to the recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not a revolutionary Marxist. So, an insidious reformist does not openly disapprove the dictatorship of the proletariat, but he does actually deny it by making excuses one after another. Likewise, he would pay lip service to the Leninist concept of the party when it comes to organisational questions. But, when it comes to some important details regarding the establishment of the vanguard party, i.e the principles set forth by Lenin in What is to be Done?, he would end up resorting to the silly claim that Lenin later abandoned those ideas. Or concerning the question of transition to proletarian rule, he would say that he walks on the road enlightened by Lenin, whereas in reality he would attempt to portray the “workers’ government” grounded on bourgeois parliament as the way of revolutionary transition.

Pinpointing what is wrong

The point here should not be misunderstood. It is not a wrong political attitude to approve the partial struggles that are waged to obtain some improvements and to achieve reforms in the working and living conditions of the toiling masses. That has nothing to do with reformism. Reformism is to steer the struggle of the working masses into a conciliatory line that refrains from demolishing the foundations of the ruling class. It is to pressure the masses to be contented with the changes that will protect the established order rather than overthrow its foundations. In brief, what’s wrong here is to desist from the revolutionary struggle of overthrowing the capitalist order and to reduce the leftist politics to get some reforms from the bourgeoisie.

Even when some improvements in the living and working conditions are obtained to some extent, workers will remain wage-slaves so long as the rule of capital prevails. Therefore, reformism is a bourgeois deception lulling workers with solaces. Besides, without being forced by the pressure and the direct struggles of the masses, even the most liberal layers of the bourgeois tend to hold back regarding comprehensive reforms. They give with one hand whilst taking with the other or take them all back in times of crisis. After all, the bourgeoisie is the bourgeoisie. And reformism is a bourgeois workers’ politics that divert workers from the road of revolutionary struggle even when it is disguised as socialist. It is one of the political weapons of the bourgeoisie. The history of the working class struggle is full of lessons which proved that workers are decieved when they trust and support reformists.

Marxism does not deny the struggle for reforms, but takes it in a revolutionary manner. As a matter of fact, history shows that wide-ranging social reforms can only be by-products of the revolutionary struggle. They cannot be long-lasting, solid and significant unless they are supported by the revolutionary fighting methods of the working class. Marxism, without doubt, is different from anarchism. So, Marxists do not shy away from the struggle for reforms. But approving the struggle for reforms by no means eliminates the importance of the fight against reformism.

At this point, another dimension of the question appears as the importance of a right approach to the relation between reform and revolution. Pitting the need for reforms against the necessity of revolution, reformists offer the masses nothing at all as they arbitrarily cut the dialectical relation between the two. Yet, in history, no reform has taken place without revolutionary force. In the last analysis, democratic rights and constitutional reforms that have been obtained in the process of capitalist development are the products of revolution. In this regard, reformism is not an alternative to revolution as it, unlike the latter, does not have the capacity to accomplish the same social transformations.

Historical experience shows that the masses actually learn on the basis of their own experience and they do not venture the hard fight for revolution before they try and exhaust easy-looking ways. However, the masses will never learn by experience as long as they are completely left alone. In this respect, one should avoid attaching too much importance to spontaneity, i.e the view which claims that the mass struggle would find the right way by itself. The masses in struggle can only learn from their experience if there is a reliable revolutionary leadership beside them, showing them the right and the wrong. For this, one must tell the masses the bare facts rather than flattering words.

And this is exactly the point where reformism mostly gets caught. Above all, the distortions created about building the revolutionary organisation of the class constitute the common features shared by reformist socialists. As we see at the national or international level, reformism develops political perceptions that openly or timidly oppose the Leninist conception of vanguard party and embraces spontaneity. They develop A mass-tailism and a mass-flattery that are supposed to mean that the masses can learn almost all political facts on their own.

We can give present day examples of such attitudes. Now that the masses are being dragged by leftist-looking statesmen in Latin American countries where revolutionary surges take place, so why shouldn’t the revolutionists join the current for the sake of not being at variance with the masses! Attitudes of this kind are totally wrong as they could serve to nothing else but weakening of the revolutionary workers’ movement. Of course, the struggle of the masses is of utmost importance, and without that, it is never possible to achieve the revolution with just the effort and will of the vanguard. As a matter of fact, the Bolshevik conception of party and struggle that took shape under Lenin’s leadership is nothing more than adopting and materialising this kind of fundamental principles of Marxism. Lenin paid special attention to this point: not to underrate the spontaneous action of the masses, but also to build the party that can lead the masses in order to make their action more effective.

Another method that is often employed by reformists is to empty the revolutionary principles and slogans of their contents and to try to soften and emasculate them on the ground that they could sound unfavourable to the masses. Yet, reducing the revolutionary demands for the sake of attracting the masses to our side can never push the mass struggle forward. This brings nothing else than further confusion in the minds of the masses. And it creates deep-rooted delusional belief in their minds that their problems could be solved within the boundaries of the established order through parliamentary struggle and constitutional reforms. Contrary to the view of the reformists, the only assurances of achieving major gains and preserving them are the revolutionary organisation of the proletariat and the revolutionary thrust of the masses.

The daily struggle for the economic interests of the working class is also a struggle for reforms after all. The economic struggle itself can only provide better conditions for selling the labour force; nothing more. Yet, the emancipation of the working class requires complete overthrow of the wage slavery, rather than its reform. Therefore, even the most advanced trade union struggle cannot replace the revolutionary political struggle. Trade unions are essential in terms of the interests of the working classs. But, the revolutionary political organisation is even more essential. At this point, strengthening the class struggle requires an appropriate conception. And this is where the real character of a political tendency comes in sight.

The left secterianism that overlook trade unions and reformism that is adapted to trade union struggle may, at first glance, seem totally opposite. But, they ultimately meet at a common point in terms of the political consequences they bring about. One of them directly serves to subordinating the mass struggle of the working class to the established order, whereas the other one follows the reverse path and abandons the ground for the same result. One may perfectly correspond to reality when he claims that the trade unions have been absorbed by the system while the trade union movement has become an integrated part of the established order. But, those who do not join the fight in order to change this situation in a revolutionary way will never be able to serve the emancipation of the working class.

The real skill lies in organising the vanguard of the class on the basis of revolutionary politics even under the hardest and most desperate conditions and thus, in advancing the struggle of the working masses as much as possible. The radical-looking revolutionary verbalism of petty-bourgeois leftists, who are disconnected from the class, cannot accomplish this task. Nor can bureaucracts who view the class as a means to reach their own interests or reformists who adapt themselves to such bureaucrats. The Bolshevik tradition in the workers’ movement has proved that only those who do not turn up their noses at “tedious” tasks and who dare to face adversities instead of escaping them will deserve the title of “revolutionary”. As Lenin taught, it is essential to adapt oneself to working in any fields of action without exception. It is necessary to be equipped with such strong determination that can overcome any hardships, bourgeois customs, conservatism and routinism always and everywhere.

The political disposition of the petty-bourgeois

When we look at historical examples, we come across various factors that contribute to reformism in workers’ movement. One of them is the card of social reform which is played by the bourgeoisie when it is troubled by a threatening social revolution and of course, if it is able to afford to do so. After all, the ruling classes have two social functions to apply in order to safeguard their rule over the oppressed classes. In Lenin’s words: the function of the priest and the function of the hangman! The hangman is required to quell the protests and indignation of the oppressed; the priest is required to console them and to sell them the hope that their sufferings and sacrifices would diminish. Thus, the bourgeoisie will preserve its rule through diverse methods. If it is strong enough, and if necessary, it would attempt to crush the revolutionary struggle of the masses by bare oppressive ways. And in some other cases, it would try to keep the masses away from revolutionary action and to blunt their revolutionary spirit through the priest’s sermons.

As was seen in Europe following the Second World War, the working masses were appeased through some improvements carried out within the scope of capitalism, as the illusion of so-called “welfare state” has been made popular. These objective grounds created such a favourable political climate for the rise of reformism. As a result, in countries where such conditions existed, a political deterioration occured in the left politics in favour of reformism. (And no doubt, of revisionism and opportunism.)

The presence of a strong petty-bourgeois vein in a country is another factor that forms the basis for reformist views in the class struggle. Lenin pointed out on several occasions that the Russian reformism was marked by its distinctive stubbornness. He also examined the causes of this problem. Russia at that time was a far more petty-bourgeois country compared to Western European countries. Therefore, Russia produced a great number of persons, groups and political tendencies sharing an ambiguous and an indecisive mental state which is the characteristic feature of the petty-bourgeoisie in general and which also shows its face when it comes to the belief in socialism.

As is the case in Turkey, the petty-bourgeoisie carries defective political views into revolutionary organisations and displays faulty attitudes in terms of commitment to the organisation, swinging between blind loyalty and flagrant betrayal. Similar to the case of Russia, the petty-bourgeoisie in Turkey, too, is very prone to sink into apostasy, to surrender after defeats and to lose all courage in the face of setbacks in the revolutionary struggle.

As a matter of fact, the period of defeat which began with the establishment of the fascist dictatorship after the 12 September 1980 military coup provides countless examples of such petty-bourgeois diseases that marked all leftist organisations without exception. It is indeed true that the capitalist development shrinks the traditional petty-bourgeois layers. However, the question of petty-bourgeois mindset is still very formidable since it reflects a widespread mentality in the society. Particularly the educated layers and the university students constitute the fertile source that produces petty-bourgeois attitudes in political life again and again. Quasi intellectuals are the excellent representatives of the petty-bourgeois mentality. They put on the guise of revolutionary when they get angry with the privileged status of the bourgeoisie, whereas, in fact, they also run after a privileged status since they have the deadly fear of becoming proletarian.

Carrying apostasy and defeatism into the class movement, the petty-bourgeois is always inclined to slide into reformism or opportunism. Since he is not able to walk on the exhausting and rough road of the revolutionary fight, he tends to blame the fight for revolution and revolutionary organisations whenever his soul sink into escapism. In this way, he tries to find a political way out. For those who cannot purify their souls from petty-bourgeois diseases, everything exists primarily to serve them, even when they declare that they have internalised socialism. They canonise the revolutionary fight as long as it suits their book. But when tough times come, they easily put the blame for the hardships on revolutionary fight, rather than the class enemy.

Therefore, the winds of liquidation and denialism blowing in the leftist movement are understandable, since they come after a revolutionary period that ended in defeat, as was the case in Russia or in other countries in the far past or in Turkey in the recent past. Sweeping the quasi-revolutionaries towards the side of the supporters of the established order, such winds, at the same time, serve exaltation of reformism and derision of revolutionism in the workers’ movement. Lenin attached importance to this kind of issues when he exposed the wave of liquidation that had developed after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. He reminded that Russian reformists blamed those who preserved their revolutionary attitudes for “seeking to re-approach the point where they were defeated.” In Lenin’s words, the primary sin of the revolutionary proletariat acccording to the reformists is “to re-approach the revolution, to work without a break, to spread the idea of revolution in the new circumstances and to prepare the forces of the working class for the revolution.”

An example from history

For many years, reformism has created the illusion again and again that social transformations could be realised by reforms gradually, without a need for revolution. Reformist socialists propagate the lie that it is much easier to transform capitalism through reforms in a mild and bloodless way, alleging that a social revolution would unnecessarily cause suffering and sacrifices to people. Yet, as historical examples proved, it is impossible to get rid of capitalism without a revolution. And in fact, reformism has brought no favourable result for the working class and the toiling masses, but rather counter-revolutionary coups and regimes.

Take the example of the German Revolution of 1918-19! Such large would-be socialist parties of the Second International served no other purpose than paving the way for the victory of counter-revolution after all, wandering up and down the blind alleys of the reformist politics. Had the line of revolutionary struggle been reinforced and had the organising of the working class for revolution been prioritised, how different would have been the course of history! The German Revolution would have been accomplished and this could have led to the attack of the revolutionary wave in Europe against bourgeois governments instead of its decline. In the end, the 1917 October Revolution would not have become isolated and perished under the boots of the bureaucracy.

Likewise, in the more recent case of Chile, the masses fuelled by revolutionary enthusiasm would have taken power into their own hands through a revolution, if they had not been appeased by the reformist and conciliatory policies of the Allende government. As it did in many other Latin American countries, reformism opened the door to the military-fascist regime in Chile in 1973, which brought bloodshed and persecution upon the working class and the toiling masses. How about Turkey? The revolutionary surge of the working class and the toiling masses was curbed by would-be leftist Ecevit on the one hand and by various reformist organisations and leaders that called themselves socialist or communist on the other. So, the ominous road to the military-fascist dictatorship of 12 September was paved in Turkey.

The history is full of lessons for those who know how to learn from it! Past experiences must shed light on what is to come. Today, those statesmen who present thmeselves as leftist or revolutionary are striving to confine the left winds blowing across Latin America within the limits of the established order. It is a dangerous fantasy to expect revolution from governments –even from the most leftist one– that are formed within the boundaries of the bourgeois rule as it would result in a heavy price to be paid by the working class and the toiling masses. Revolution is nothing to play with! A revolutionary person is the one who dedicates his/her life to the casuse of revolution without self interest, rather than the one who trails behind this or that would-be leftist statesman.

While the history of working class struggle contains positive examples of leading a revolutionary life till death, there are also examples of total degenaration. History is really full of lessons for those who want to learn from it. For instance, it is very instructive to compare the lives and struggles of different socialists in the Second International who were the representatives of different political currents.

Do you remember who was in charge of crushing the Spartakist Uprising in Berlin, sitting on the chair of ministry, when Rosa Luxemburg, who always had defended Marxism against the reformism of the Second International, was beaten to death with rifle butts? A would-be socialist from the same International who had sided with “his” own bourgeoisie when the imperialist war had broken out and who finally ended up leading the German Counter-Revolution. By name: Gustav Noske! It is possible to give many other stunning examples of this kind since reformism, revisionism and opportunism know no bound. Unless they are fought and defeated, those ill-tendencies would bring such would-be socialists and their organisations to very different positions and tasks by the side of the forces of the bourgeois rule. What is right and good is to keep the revolutionary faith till the end of life and struggle.

On one side stands Red Rosa, whom Lenin referred to as “an eagle!” and who cried out to the world with her last breath in reference to revolution: “I was, I am, I shall be!” On the other side are the likes of Noske who had begun their political life as socialists before being dragged into the sewer of counter-revolution in pursuit of career, political fame and material and immaterial interests offered by the bourgeois rule! It is up to the person to make a choice. What else can be said?