The futility of reformism
THE TASK of achieving Socialism to many minds has come to be associated with movements to make capitalism run smoothly by means of social and political reforms. It is important to the socialist movement that the two purposes should be kept quite distinct. Only convinced socialists can work for Socialism; but reform movements attract conscious as well as unknowing defenders of capitalism. Some of them are anxious only to alleviate suffering, others support reforms as a method of making capitalism more secure or more palatable.
It is not only the workers who, through trade union action, endeavour to place certain limits upon their exploitation by the capitalists; the State, which today exists for the purpose of preserving capitalism, is also compelled in the course of its activities to take such steps.
Thus the landed interest, represented in the Tory Party, passed the early Factory Acts; and the tradition developed that by supporting one political party against the other the workers could gradually improve their conditions. Whith the further development of industry, however, the wealthy manufacturers bought land, and the landlords in turn began to invest in industry, until today the division between them has practically ceased to exist. In addition, certain of the manufacturers discovered that the legal regulation of hours of labour and the curtailment of so-called sweating could be made to hit their poorer and less effectively equipped competitors more than themselves. Hence the Liberal Party eventually took a special interest in pushing through the type of measures which they had previensly opposed, and a considerable section of the workers came to regard the Liberals as their friends.
Another type of reform arose as a result of growing destitution. This constituted a standing incentive to crime, and was a constant source of expense to the public authorities and to the propertied class in whose interests they function. With the decline of feudalism in this country, in the reign of the Tudors, the ruling class cowed the destitute into submission by savage repression, but as the peasants were driven off the land in increasing numbers, the Poor Law had to be instituted to provide maintenance for the destitute. It became a permanent institution and right up to the outbreak of the second world war many workers found it necessary to appeal to the Poor Law even when in work. Coupled with the fact that the volume of Poor Law relief had reduced some local authorities to near bankruptcy, this led to the demand by various sections of the property-owning class that the central government should assume part of the burden of paying for destitution. So there developed unemployment and health insurance, old age pensions and so on designed to relieve the pressure on local authorities and, incidentally, to pacify the workers by removing the pauper stigma. Such measures, organised on a national scale, spread the burden over the entire capitalist class.
After the end of the second world war this tendency towards a simplified and all-embracing scheme of social security found its logical conclusion in the National Insurance Act of 1946, which provided for a comprehensive system of health and unemployment insurance, as well as for retirement pensions. This Act was taken over by the Labour Party as its own, though it was in fact based upon a plan drawn up by the Liberal, Beveridge, and was agreed to in principle by the wartime coalition government in 1943. The first stage, the Family Allowances Act 1945, was a coalition government measure. Indeed, whatever the political complexion of the party in power it is certain that such measures would eventually have been put on the statute book — for reasons of economy if for nothing else.
The hollowness of the Labour Party's attitude of posing as the sole champions of the so-called welfare state is most effectively exposed when we read of much the same measures being put into operation in other countries by governments without pretensions of being socialist. The plain fact is that such social reforms are necessary for the running of capitalism and are introduced by openly capitalist as well as by Labour governments.
In times of economic setback, on the other hand, when the government is under pressure to reduce its spending, the existing reforms are obvious targets for economy. Labour has always claimed that the Conservatives do this because they are opposed to social reforms anyway; but capitalism has played a cruel trick on the Labour Party. In the economic crisis which broke towards the end of 1964 there was the spectacle of the Labour government accusing the Tories of irresponsible extravagance and themselves cutting back on government spending. Later the Labour government was forced to bring back and increase prescription charges, abolish free milk in secondary schools and reduce planned spending on house and school building. In 1977, in the next depression, it was the Labour govern¬ment which cut back expenditure on education and the National Health Service. An ironic reversal of supposed roles and one which shows how all governments, no matter what their pretensions, are at the mercy of capitalism's economic forces. Sometimes the Labour Party brings in reforms; sometimes the Conservatives. Sometimes the Conservatives cut back on reform spending; sometimes the Labour Party.
Reforms in education, sanitation and housing are others for which Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians have vied with each other to claim credit. Yet it is clear that the schooling received by the children of most wage and salary earners merely fits them for their role as workers. Improved sanitation reduces the threat of epidemics which do not spare the wealthy, while subsidised housing is intended to lessen the pressure by workers for higher wages. These measures have the purpose of raising the standard of efficiency of the workers, thus making them more productive for their masters' benefit. The more astute and far-sighted members of the ruling class have long realised this.
In order to finance all these measures the State is obliged to levy increased taxation upon those who alone can bear it, the property owners; nothing is easier for Labour leaders and others to represent taxation as 'socialist' — an attempt to equalise incomes. The fact that the wealth of the large capitalists survives the increased taxation, and that it is only the small fry that get squeezed out, is ignored.
Official statistics show that despite taxation the distribu¬tion of incomes and wealth remains as it must be under capitalism: concentrated in the hands of a few. The few are rich through their monopoly of the means of life and their returns on their investments as rent, interest and profit; the workers get as wages and salaries little more than enough to keep themselves and their families in efficient working order. State action, such as tax reform and social security benefits, cannot alter these basic inequalities of capitalism any more than they can solve the problems in housing, health and education which arise for workers as a result.
On 20 July 1946 the late Aneurin Bevan claimed in a speech at Durham that: "when the next election occurs there will be no housing problem in Great Britain for the British working class" (Hansard, 14 July 1948, Col. 1202); and the Labour Party announced that "destitution has been abolished" (Labour and the New Society, 1950, page 5). Merely to recall these claims is to expose the futility of reformism.
The Labour Party has always shown disdain for the Socialist Party of Great Britain's insistence on first convincing the workers of the need for Socialism, choosing instead to put forward reforms in its electoral programmes in order to gain working class support and thus obtain political power. 'The workers want something now', we have always been told, the implication being that a workers' party should imitate the openly capitalist parties and make promises of reforms in order to catch votes. Such reasoning ignores the fact that a party which rises to power on non-socialist votes can only administer capitalism. The fate of successive Labour governments is proof of this.
Socialism cannot be imposed upon the workers from above. It is a system which requires their conscious recognition of its necessity. They cannot take the far-reaching step of making the means of life common property without being aware of what they are doing. A programme of reforms is therefore useless to a socialist party even as a strategic move. The failure of Labour governments the world over to make any appreciable difference to the workers' conditions bears eloquent testimony to the soundness of our claim that, so long as capitalism is accepted by the workers as a necessity, it must be run in the interests cf the capitalist class, and not of the workers.
Wherever we turn in the world the plausible tales of th: reformers concerning the need of 'something now' merel serve to hide from the workers the fact that, in spite of trade union and State action, their harassment and insecurity grow greater rather than less, and must continue to do so with every improvement in machinery, technique and the organisation of production.
The Socialist Party will not barter its independence for promises of reform. For no matter whether these promises are made sincerely or not, we know that the immediate need of the working class is freedom from exploitation, which can only be achieved through the establishment of Socialism. The workers' interests under capitalism are opposed to those of all sections of the capitalist class. Whether bankers or industrialists, landlords or commercial magnates, all capitalists participate in the fruits of exploitation.
For the party of the working class, one course alone is open: unceasing hostility to aU parties that lend their aid to the administration of the capitalist social system and thus contribute, consciously or otherwise, to its maintenance. Our object is its removal and replacement by Socialism.
Beveridge Re-Organises Poverty 1943 (.pdf)
Family Allowances - a socialist analysis 1943 (.pdf)
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