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The Challenge of Reformism

When capitalism flies into crisis socialist revolutionaries face a serious challenge. They believe that the working class must solve the crisis, advance a socialist programme and take power themselves.  However this idea of the working class as a revolutionary class does not mean that workers are ready to fly to the barricades. As a subordinate class within capitalism they cling desperately to what they have and to old trusted institutions. Socialists have a lot of work to do to bring together the vanguard elements of the class and argue the case for revolution. History tells us of two crucial weapons in this struggle – “transitional” demands that bridge the journey from reform to revolution and the “united front” tactic that enables the broadest unity possible while leaving the revolutionaries free to advance their programme. 

History also tells us of two side roads that end up as diversions from revolution. One is called sectarianism. It is dangerous because it is frequently misunderstood. In essence it is putting the interest of your own group before that of the class as a whole. Another, much more pervasive danger is called centrism - offering support to revolution when staying inside the camp of reform. Often this is simply confusion, but it also is camouflage for groups within the intelligencia and the labour bureaucracies who are utterly opposed to revolution and express that hostility as support: “revolution Yes! – but not right now!” 

Today the traditional organs of working class leadership have betrayed their rank and file with seeming impunity and have failed to lead any meaningful resistance to the austerity agenda being pushed systematically by the ruling classes of Europe.   Despite this, working class resistance is increasing and the beginnings of a swing away from the traditional reformist leadership can be observed, but what approach should socialists take to this nascent social dynamic? In his struggle to establish the Fourth International Trotsky fought an uncompromising battle against reformism and centrism. Further investigation of Trotsky’s experience and analysis may be revealing. 

While many are acutely aware that sectarianism is a scourge “in our midst” it must also be said that another scourge exists, and indeed is prominent in the present era, that of centrism, “a displacement between the poles, reformism and Marxism”. While everyone is aware of sectarianism, the term sometimes being used to mistakenly de-scribe ‘ideological intransigence’, the dangers of centrism are equally insidious. Its oscillating, amorphous nature makes it unstable and difficult to describe “being characterised much more by what it lacks than by what it holds.” Written during the founding years of the Fourth International, probably one of the most striking observations of Trotsky’s letters is the description of the development of political forces in a time of capitalist crisis. Trotsky echoed Lenin’s words on spontaneity, defining the difference between “centrism and centrism”, and drawing “a distinction between the centrism of the workers, which is only a transition stage for them, and the professional centrism of many leaders among whom there are also incurables.” In direct and emphatic language he wrote in opposition to the “smug” centrists who consider themselves “realist … merely because they set out to swim without any ‘ideological baggage’ whatever, and are tossed by every vagrant current”. 

Although historically, Trotsky wrote in response to the third international’s failure to respond to Hitler’s victory his writing has lost none of its applicability or power. Writing of reformist strategy during a working class crisis of leadership he observed: “Viewed historically reformism has lost completely its social hosts. Without reforms there is no reformism, without prosperous capitalism, no reform. The right reformist wing becomes anti-reformist in the sense that it helps the bourgeoisie directly or indirectly to smash the old conquests of the working class.” This can also include the entire trade union bureaucracy as events in Greece and particularly in Ireland has shown they remain wedded to the capitalist perspective on the resolution of the crisis, in Greece by restricting working class action and in Ireland by an active conscious betrayal in signing up to the Croke Park deal and participating in the Troika’s austerity government. Even the briefest of looks at the Irish Labour Party and at PASOK confirms the wisdom gleaned in the late 1930s. 

But what of the left reformists? Those much sought after labour lefts? Blurring the lines between revolutionary politics and reformism or centrism will not contribute to the building of a new revolutionary organisation. Drawing attention to the dynamics of a leftward shift by the working class, towards centrism, Trotsky notes that the established right wing leadership “changes into a conservative, nationalistic clique that has nothing more to do with the working class movement.” Although they had little credibility as a reformist party we need look no further than the Irish Labour Party, unable to turn up to celebrate the centenary of their own foundation, for a modern equivalent of this dynamic in action. In the context of this reformist right-ward lurch and its corollary, a leftward moving mass base Trotsky saw opportunist initiatives, such as the DeMann initiative*, as “an attempt to obliterate the line of demarcation between reform and revolution”, commenting that “In this precisely consists the essence of centrism.” Writing of the departure of the right wing leadership grouping from the French Socialist party in the 1930’s he observed that “The split did not weaken the old French Socialist party. It strengthened it. Since, after the cleansing, the party enjoys greater confidence on the part of the workers. But it must adapt itself to this confidence, and the form of this adaptation is called centrism.” Leaving no room for opportunist adaptation to centrist currents he insists that it is precisely in the struggle against these tendencies that revolutionary cadres will be formed. It is those that “will fight reformism best who are absolutely independent of centrism and view it critically and intransigent[ly]”. 

It is equally important, however, not to make a virtue out of intransigence for its own sake. Having a programme of demands that is formally correct is not enough, it is essential that the working class accept that programme and put it in to action, its task lies in the “systematic mobilisation of the masses for the proletarian revolution”. In producing the Transitional Programme Trotsky produced a method, not of adapting to the consciousness of the non-revolutionary workers but of leading them away from that consciousness. This cannot be done without a “bridge” being constructed between simple acts of self defence, in present conditions in the face of the troika’s assaults, and the ultimate objective of “the conquest of power by the proletariat”. If we believe otherwise we are reformists. 

*Hendrik de Man was a Belgan socialist who replaced the idea of a democratic workers planned economy with the idea of planning by experts and technocrats. He began as a socialist and crossed over to fascism.


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