Classical Marxism and the question of reformism

Issue: 143

Donny Gluckstein

We stand at an unusual place in history, both in Britain and internationally. It is more apparent than ever that while humanity possesses the means to abolish want, we live under an anarchic system that viciously assaults the working class and the poor across the globe. Yet the impact of this realisation on our movement is contradictory. Major struggles have erupted, from the Arab uprisings, to a wave of general strikes on the continent, great riots in Turkey and Brazil, and in Britain the largest trade union demonstrations in our history followed by the enormous strike of 30 November 2011. However, there is not yet a widespread acceptance of socialist revolution as the way forward.

Even though Labour leaders are running for cover and abandoning even moderate demands, there has not been a general rejection of the reformist idea, an ideology that is dissatisfied with the status quo but proposes gradual improvement within the framework of the capitalist system to resolve problems. The inadequacy of the traditional reformist structures has led some to call for their revival and reinvigoration, in the hope that somehow political reformism can itself be revived. Some erstwhile revolutionaries, impatient with the pace of progress, turn to piecemeal campaigns as a substitute for, and in contradistinction to, a generalised confrontation with capitalism. Yet others adopt autonomist solutions outside the strictures of organisation generally. Still others are confused and perplexed.

A central issue for our movement is whether to work towards a complete revolutionary overturning of capitalism and the state that protects it, or rely on partial methods of struggle (in all their various guises—from organised reformism, to movementism or autonomism). This choice is obvious in places such as Egypt or Greece, but applies with equal force to Britain where defence of the welfare state and living standards can mean waiting for the next election or relying on self-activity from below. This article will focus on the response of Marxists during the first quarter of the 20th century, a period of unparalleled richness of experience, to this burning question.

Identifying reformism

The roots of opposition to capitalism can be traced to the entry of the masses into politics during the bourgeois revolutions. To overcome the obstacles represented by feudalism and the ancien régime the rising bourgeoisie (and its ideologists) mobilised people from other social classes. These wider forces were not just pawns of the bourgeoisie but engaged in action on their own account in such world-shaking moments as the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Once the victory over feudalism had been won this broad alliance fell apart as the aims of the capitalists clearly diverged from those of its former allies. However, the movements that developed were not shaped by reformism at that stage.

Utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier and Robert Owen opposed the horrors that the new economic system ushered in, but did not consider either reformism or political revolution to be the alternative. Following the Enlightenment tradition of their time, they believed an entire just, socialist world could be achieved simply through reasoned argument and a demonstration of how to live differently. Owen, for example, was confident that socialism would be “beneficial for high and low, rich and poor”. He dedicated key essays “To His Majesty, William IV”. The utopians also established model experimental communities. Fourier’s phalansteries and Owen’s New Lanark were supposed to be inspiring models which would change society “without disorder, or evil of any kind, not even disturbing existing private properties”.1 This did not make the utopian socialists reformists. They were not proposing gradual change through capitalist institutions but an entirely new type of society. But neither were they revolutionary. Having seen how a revolution (in this case bourgeois revolution) had inaugurated yet another system of exploitation, they rejected such a means of transformation. Fourier explicitly repudiated this approach in his “Critique of the Revolutionary Ideals”, while Owen warned it was imperative “to protect alike, both the governments and people from the effects of ignorant violence”.2

With the exception of the followers of Babeuf and his Conspiracy of Equals (France, 1796), revolutionaries at that time were not motivated by socialist beliefs but by Jacobinism. This current emerged during the French Revolution as an advanced wing of the bourgeoisie committed to mobilising the masses against the ancien régime. During the early 19th century Jacobinism found an echo in the emerging working class movement. In Britain it took the form of Radicalism. For example, the group behind the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 planned to assassinate the government and launch a revolution on French lines. Although they were prepared to employ extreme political measures, Jacobins were dedicated to completing the programme of the bourgeois revolution. At best the working class was regarded as a stage army to be brought into battle at the appropriate time and then sent home.

When Karl Marx and Frederick Engels became politically active the modern labour movement was stirring into life. As outsiders to both the utopian socialist and Jacobin traditions they synthesised the hitherto separated concepts of socialism and revolution, and put the working class at the centre of the process. Yet they too did not discuss reformism. Considering that two fifths of the text of their 1848 Communist Manifesto deals with alternative theories of socialism this may seem surprising. In fact, the analysis presented in the Manifesto more or less excluded compromise with capitalism as a possibility: “The proletarian is without property…modern industrial labour…has stripped him of every trace of national character. Law, morality, religion, are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests”.3

Instead of reformism, a three stage “line of march” was predicted: from the formation of a labour movement, to revolutionary consciousness, and finally full-blown revolution itself. As the Manifesto puts it, at the beginning workers “form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition”. Later they would create trade unions and organise politically. Eventually class war “breaks out into open revolution…where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat”.4 Given this scenario, the alternative versions of socialism criticised in the Manifesto would simply fade away as the working class developed.

This heavily compressed summary should not be misread to the effect that Marx and Engels were fatalists. They never foresaw an inevitable linear process leading to socialism. Nevertheless, if revolution was the trajectory of history, then Marxists would not have to worry unduly about the persistence of rival currents inside the working class. If a danger existed it came from those outside exercising influence over it. And if reformism was external to the working class the answer to the question: “In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?” would be as follows:

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole… They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.5

The assumption was that if they had not done so already, working class parties would eventually adopt the goal of revolution.

Although this account is a necessary simplification, and both Marx and Engels challenged reformist ideas in documents such as the Critique of the Gotha Programme, neither of them theorised reformism or departed fundamentally from the position set out in 1848. So when organised reformist channels began to emerge (such as after the granting of the vote to skilled male workers in Britain in 1867 and universal male suffrage in Germany in 1871), their long-term significance was not fully appreciated. In 1892 Engels was still predicting that the British working class was held back by a historical legacy that would fall away naturally: “In England too, the working people have begun to move again. They are, no doubt, shackled by traditions of various kinds… But, for all that, the English working class is moving…if a step in advance is once gained in England, it is, as a rule, never lost afterwards”.6

Luxemburg’s breakthrough

It was Rosa Luxemburg who, in her Reform or Revolution published in 1899-1900,7 first identified the trend within the labour movement towards reformism. She was a member of the mighty German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the dominant force in the Second International. Although the party was formally committed to revolution, under the intellectual guidance of Karl Kautsky it had abandoned this in practice. Using a completely mechanical interpretation of the argument in The Communist Manifesto, Kautsky insisted that socialists need do nothing but wait for events:

The Socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is not part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare the way for it.8

Another wing of the SPD, represented by Eduard Bernstein, thought that even verbal commitment to revolution was too much, and he presented a full-blown reformist programme instead. Bernstein suggested that the expansion of credit would circulate capital more rapidly and thus guarantee an economy more or less free of crisis. At the same time the growth of universal suffrage and trade unions would lead society to simply “grow over” into socialism without any revolutionary upheaval. Luxemburg’s detailed critique of every aspect of this outlook was devastating. Crucially she affirmed that Bernstein’s ideas threatened “the very existence of the Social Democratic movement”, placing before it the question: “To be or not to be?”9

Then, as now, the debate was about how to achieve social change. Whatever the issue there is always a choice of mass action from below now, or waiting for the next election or set of negotiations. Luxemburg showed that the two approaches were not compatible:

He who pronounces himself in favour of legal reforms in place of and as opposed to the conquest of political power and social revolution does not really choose a more tranquil, surer and slower road to the same goal. He chooses a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new social order, he takes a stand for surface modifications of the old order.10

It is an eloquent confirmation of her argument that the very term “social democracy”, which then symbolised revolutionary Marxism, has utterly changed its meaning and reached that very different goal. Yet in 1899 the paths had only just begun to diverge. At that time Bernstein’s supporters did not even dare to call themselves reformists. They claimed, instead, to be “revisionists”, loyal apostles who wished merely to “update” some of the founders’ ideas. In Britain it was not the likes of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband who were establishing the British Labour Party, but Keir Hardie. He was no revolutionary, but he did oppose the First World War and was a reckless and dangerous firebrand compared to modern Labour leaders.

Remarkable though her achievement was in identifying the nature of reformism, in 1900, Luxemburg still followed Marx in seeing it as an alien intrusion into working class politics. Thus Bernstein`s revisionism amounted to:

An unconscious attempt to assure the predominance of the petty-bourgeois elements that have entered our party, to change the policy and aims of our party in their direction. The question of reform and revolution, of the final goal and the movement, is basically, in another form, but the question of the pettybourgeois or proletarian character of the labour movement.11

On the formal level the pamphlet Reform or Revolution was successful and the SPD remained officially committed to revolution. However, Luxemburg’s approach allocated to the German Social Democratic Party the role set out in The Communist Manifesto. As long as the “proletarian character” of the movement was assured, the corresponding political programme which flowed from it would be revolutionary. What would happen if the proletariat were not revolutionary?


Lenin’s What is to be Done? came a year after Reform or Revolution. It built on Luxemburg’s pioneering work to demonstrate that reformism was a factor even under the repressive conditions of Tsarist Russia. But Lenin took a step further. Instead of identifying “revolutionary Social Democracy” with the working class in general, he drew a distinction between the two:

The time has come when Russian revolutionaries, guided by a genuinely revolutionary theory, relying upon the genuinely revolutionary and spontaneously awakening class, can at last—at long last!—rise to full stature in all their giant strength.

If revolutionaries must rely on the working class they were not synonymous with the working class itself but distinct from it. Lenin was criticised for implying such a separation existed. Reacting to accusations that he wanted revolutionaries to push the working class “from outside”, he proudly accepted the charge: “There has never been too much of such ‘pushing on from outside’; on the contrary, there has so far been all too little of it… We professional revolutionaries must and will make it our business to engage in this kind of ‘pushing on’ a hundred times more forcibly than we have done hitherto”.12

He deemed this approach necessary because:

There could not have been Social Democratic [ie revolutionary] consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness… The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.

What is to be Done? suggests both reformism and revolutionary socialism come to the working class “from outside”: “there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is—either bourgeois or socialist ideology”.13 Lenin was always flexible in the way he argued, and later abandoned many of the formulations included in What is to be Done?; but he retained the idea that historical development would not, in and of itself, lead the working class to reject reformism in favour of revolution.

Lenin’s ideas evolved rapidly when the First World War broke out. At that moment most of the social democratic parties of the Second International abandoned any pretence at a policy of revolution and joined their own ruling classes to wage war on foreign workers. Clearly, the roots of reformism were deep, and this demanded an explanation. Lenin suggested there was a “labour aristocracy”, a narrow layer of officials and privileged workers, who promoted reformism in the working class generally. This analysis developed arguments put forward in the US by Daniel De Leon, and by Luxemburg in The Mass Strike (1906). The former wrote of how union officials became “labour lieutenants of the capitalist class”.14 Luxemburg pointed out that trade union leaders tended towards “bureaucratism” and “overvaluation of the organisation”.15 Lenin believed the labour aristocracy was the result of the ruling classes buying out a group of workers and labour officials with the super-profits of imperialism.

The theory was a step forward because, by implying elements of reformism emanated from within the working class itself, it qualified the notion that reformism was merely an outside intrusion. This recognition would assist in developing a response based on establishing a distinct revolutionary party to challenge reformists for leadership within the working class.

Gramsci and Trotsky

The theory of the labour aristocracy was taken up by others. In the Lyons Theses of 1926 the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci argued the growth of Italian reformism had been encouraged by two factors—firstly, by “a new mass transfer of petty bourgeois and peasants into the working class, hence a new dissemination within the proletariat of ideological currents” and secondly “by the development of the imperialist phase of capitalism” which included “the formation of a labour aristocracy”.16

Two years later Leon Trotsky employed the theory in his History of the Russian Revolution.17 This is notable because under Tsarism every oppositional current, including reformism, had been ruthlessly crushed by the state. The sort of gradual accretion of a privileged layer of workers, or the building up of a labour bureaucracy to negotiate compromises between bosses and workers, therefore had little opportunity to develop in Russia. Yet despite revolutionary Bolsheviks playing a key role in the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty in February 1917, they were submerged by a sea of reformism immediately afterwards. For example, in the capital, Petrograd, the Soviet directly elected from factory workers and mutinous soldiers and sailors was dominated by reformist delegates (from the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary Parties). They outnumbered the Bolsheviks by a ratio of 16 to one. It took six months of hard argument and practical experience for the revolutionary idea to gain a majority here. Trotsky believed that the sway of reformism after February was due to:

The functionaries of capital on one side, and the workers’ bureaucracy on the other—that is, of that new middle caste… The contradiction between the character of the revolution and the character of the power that issued from it, is explained by the contradictory character of this new petty bourgeois partition-wall between the revolutionary masses and the capitalist bourgeoisie.18

So almost from nowhere a “workers’ bureaucracy…a middle caste” had come to shape events even in the midst of revolutionary upheavals from below.

A contradictory consciousness

The strength of the labour aristocracy theory lies in its focus on a bureaucracy that mediates between the ruling class and the masses. However, the concept has limitations. Firstly, it tends to lump together functionaries and high-earning members of the working class. History has shown that many of the latter have gained their economic advantage through struggle and strong union organisation. Rather than being a barrier to radicalism, in the right circumstances this background can be a spur to it. During the greatest wave of international workers’ revolution to date, from 1917 to 1924, relatively well-paid skilled engineers in cities stretching from Petrograd to Glasgow, Berlin and Turin were consistently in the vanguard of struggle and were prominent in establishing the early Communist Parties. Current suggestions that trade unionists are a reactionary block to a spontaneously radical “precariat” fail to take account of this history.

Secondly, the labour aristocracy theory begs the question of why workers choose leaders who do not reflect their views, or tolerate being sold out. Posing this question does not imply that sellouts can be excused on the grounds bureaucrats are simply reflecting conservatism and apathy within the working class. There are countless examples of rising struggles disarmed, and labour leaders snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, sometimes to the fury of the rank and file. However, the fact that the leadership gets away with this so frequently is due to the prevalence of reformist ideas throughout the working class rather than only existing among a narrow layer of officials.

Finally, the notion of reformism being linked to crumbs being thrown from the imperialist table has been disproved by developments since the period after the First World War. In several independent Third World states revolutions have been diverted by various types of reformism. Examples include Iran in 1979, South Africa 1990-1993, Indonesia 1998 and some Arab countries very recently. As a result, only in Russia has socialist revolution gained such popularity that the working class founded its own state on a national scale. There have been many February 1917s in both imperialist and non-imperialist countries, but only one October 1917, largely because their revolutionary potential has been repeatedly defused by reformism.19

To summarise the argument so far: pioneering Marxists established a number of key points about reformism. Luxemburg showed that while discontent with the system may provide a common starting point for struggle, reformist methods and revolutionary methods are not different paths to the same goal, but paths to different goals. The theory of labour aristocracy established the important role that the bureaucracy plays in promoting reformism. On the basis of these insights classical Marxism not only recognises the existence and complex nature of reformism, but, as we shall see below, suggests a response that revolutionary socialists should adopt to it. But questions remain. The persistence of reformism suggests it cannot simply be due to the intrusion of petty bourgeois influences into the working class. Equally, the labour aristocracy theory struggles to explain why reformist ideas are so widespread both within developed economies and more generally. So it is necessary to take the argument further. Fortunately, there are other tools in the Marxist armoury that can help.

If the origin of reformism cannot be reduced to the influence of alien classes, or the corruption of a section of the working class, then the conclusion must be that reformism also develops within the working class itself. There is an interplay between two factors which are constantly present, but also constantly in flux. Marx explained that “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships”.20 Through the media, education and a thousand other subtle means of persuasion and distraction, the idea is peddled that capitalist society is the only possible form available, that it is normal for immense wealth to exist alongside terrible poverty, that workers are powerless, unemployment unavoidable, and immigrants are to blame for all ills. However, Marx also proposed that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”.21 For workers, “social existence” under capitalism involves exploitation, alienation and oppression, constant pressure for increased output, the struggle to keep or find a job, and to survive financially. Equally, success gained through fighting back, by uniting together in collective organisation, by resistance on a small scale or as a class, is a lesson many learn through their own self-activity. Therefore, while capitalist ideology is constantly reinforced by the media and other influences, it is also constantly contradicted by immediate reality.

The two factors are inter-related, of course. Social existence cannot be reduced simply to economics or influences such as the workplace and the pay packet. It involves the sum of experience—political, social and economic—which can also include things as diverse as knowledge of revolutions abroad, the defeat of one’s country in imperialist war, or awareness of a successful strike in another industry. Capitalist ideology is also part of daily experience, and this self-same ideology can influence how that experience is interpreted. Nonetheless, the interplay between the prevailing ideas and the reality of existence is one of contradiction, and underlies the development of mass reformism. This leads to a situation where a majority of workers hold reformist beliefs; but the balance differs from one person to another (whether it be due to gender, type of employment, family influence, education, or a host of other factors) since no two individuals’ experience is identical. Consequently, alongside reformists there will also be a minority that is fully revolutionary and rejects the prevailing ideas, and another minority that is reactionary and swallows them wholesale.

Lenin may have been correct, in What is to be Done?, that objectively “mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology”.22 But subjectively, ideologies are not necessarily adopted in a pure form; they can be combined in various ways. Gradualist beliefs are an example of the overlapping of working class resistance and ruling class ideology, and can exist whether or not there are organised reformist bodies promoting them. This explains how reformist parties that have few legal outlets can so quickly exert an influence even after revolutions tear down old repressive structures. It is also the reason for the continuing existence of mass reformism even when faith in reformist parties has been soured by their practice.

If this contradictory interplay is the background to basic reformist consciousness, fully developed reformism is still more complex. First, a distinction should be drawn between parliamentary parties and trade unions, and between reformist politics and trade union activity. Trade unions, though generally reformist in their aims and action, engage in direct class struggle over economic issues. They therefore encourage an element of self-activity, of direct experience of struggle and of change at the base, even though union leaders may try to hold these back. Reformist parties focus on winning votes at (infrequent) elections and can tend to promote passivity, though they do deal with general political ideas rather than more narrow sectional ones as is the case with unions.

Secondly, reformist organisations have a leadership, and a rank and file, in which each side, top and bottom, influences the other. The labour movement of today is not exclusively shaped by a mass reformist consciousness, or by the operation of the labour bureaucracy—but through their interaction. However, this model is not in a stable equilibrium and depending on circumstances can lead to a strengthening or weakening of the hold of bureaucracy. If, for example, an important strike is victorious and the potential to gain still more is illuminated, or crisis leads to a mass questioning of capitalist ideology (whether due to war, as in 1914-1918, economic crisis as at present, or some other reason), then the “social existence” of the working class is transformed and the dominant ideas may seem less plausible than before. In Britain today David Cameron’s insistence that “we are all in this together” does not reduce the growing dependence on food banks. The birth of another royal brat does not compensate for becoming homeless due to the bedroom tax. As capitalist ideology becomes less credible, the potential for mass action independent of the bureaucracy can increase, and with it possibilities for a more radical shift in mass consciousness.

Autonomists draw another conclusion. Observing that mass organisations formed under capitalism tend to be reformist with a bureaucratic leadership, they conclude that the way forward is to abandon the concepts of organisation and leadership altogether. Instead they focus on the unorganised who appear to be less constricted. The problem here is that the class enemy is highly organised and concentrated and can only be defeated when our side itself is equally organised. Furthermore, though spontaneous action will tend to escape formal restraints, those involved will tend to have an overall reformist outlook even if not officially enrolled in an organisation, so the problem of consciousness cannot simply be wished away.

Reformism and autonomism are related in that they share a pessimism regarding the ability of the workers to transform consciousness through struggle, or work cooperatively to forge a new society. Neither has the answer and a contrasting approach is needed.

Relating to reformism

Alongside an understanding of the roots of reformism, Marxism, as a guide to action, has also developed practical policies to respond to it. Luxemburg, for example, recognised that writing Reform or Revolution was not enough, even though the force of her argument was such that Bernstein’s views were officially repudiated by the SPD. Scientific analysis could only be part of the answer because: “Marxist doctrine could not assure us, in advance and once and for all, against…opportunist deviations. They can be overcome only by the movement itself”.23

As so many German workers had allegiance to the SPD, Luxemburg believed that despite the party’s failings, revolution was “the task of the Social Democratic movement”.24 Acutely aware of its weaknesses, she sought a practical strategy to overcome its reformist tendencies. Drawing on the events of the 1905 Russian Revolution Luxemburg identified forces to counteract the growing inertia of the leadership.

In The Mass Strike she stressed how workers transformed themselves through action from below. This could act as a powerful antidote to the capitalist ideas, and the dead hand of bureaucracy. She therefore emphasised mass activity and the way that limited struggles for economic reforms could escalate into a challenge for political power:

Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting [are] not a crafty method discovered by subtle reasoning for the purpose of making the proletarian struggle more effective, but the method of motion of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution.25

This emphatically does not mean that Luxemburg dismissed the need for political leadership by a revolutionary party; she hoped the SPD could be that body. Her hopes were confounded. In November 1918 an uprising toppled the Kaiser and launched Germany into a turbulent revolution that the party leadership fiercely opposed. In early 1919 she was murdered by counter-revolutionaries under the orders of an SPD leader, Gustav Noske.

Luxemburg had overestimated the extent to which action from below could make the leaders abandon their reformist position. By virtue of their function such political and trade union bureaucrats tend to be locked into compromises and half measures that lead at best to limited gains, or at worst, to a sellout of workers’ interests. Reformist leaders are unaffected by the unstable interplay of capitalist ideas and their rejection (due to experience of exploitation) that shapes the rank and file. For bureaucrats the relationship is frozen into a fixed ideology of compromise. They are not exploited and their very jobs depend on perpetuating reformism, as without it they would have no role as mediators between the ruling class and the masses.

If her hopes of winning the SPD leaders to the cause of revolution proved false, Luxemburg’s stress on action and struggle from below, on the ability of the masses to transform their own being and break with the dominant ideology, was a very important strategic legacy. Unlike their leaders, workers ultimately have nothing to gain from sticking with a reformist halfway house through which capitalism continually threatens any progress that has been achieved. They have everything to win from taking control of the wealth they produce. But this understanding will not be embraced by the majority through preaching or an act of will by revolutionaries. Luxemburg pointed to the key role that self-activity must play in going beyond reformism.

Lenin’s answer to the issue had a different focus to Luxemburg’s. As we have seen, his formulation in What is to be Done? implies that parties of workers can be dominated by “either bourgeois or socialist ideology”. To avoid the latter, in 1903 he split the Russian equivalent of the SPD to create the Bolshevik Party. At this stage Lenin believed that such a division was only necessary in Russia due to the specific conditions operating there. However, the events of the First World War convinced him the same approach was needed on an international scale. Therefore a Third, or Communist International, was set up to challenge the reformist Second International.

In 1920 the Third International famously issued 21 “terms of admission” which called for an unequivocal break with reformism. The first two conditions state that:

1. Third International supporters should use all media to which they have access—the press, public meetings, trade unions, and co-operative societies—to expose systematically and relentlessly, not only the bourgeoisie but also its accomplices—the reformists of every shade.

2. Any organisation that wishes to join the Communist International must consistently and systematically dismiss reformists and “centrists” from positions of any responsibility in the working class movement…replacing them by reliable Communists.

This second clause was based on a very optimistic estimate of the current situation, that: “The Second International has definitely been smashed…the Second International is beyond hope”, and that the Third International had “won the sympathy of the vast majority of class conscious workers throughout the world, and is becoming a more powerful force with each day”.26

The Russian Revolution probably had “the sympathy of the vast majority of class conscious workers”, but it did not follow that they would immediately abandon reformist organisations. Though many joined the new Communist Parties, a successful international revolution failed to materialise. This setback did not make the leading Marxists of the time reconsider the wisdom of breaking organisationally from reformism. On the contrary. Writing in 1924 Trotsky insisted that “the chief lesson of the last few years” was as follows: “If the triumphant revolution did not come at the end of the war, it was because a party was lacking… Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer”.27

Yet setting up a revolutionary party, in itself, was patently insufficient. Paradoxical though it might seem, it was clear to the leading Marxists of the time that, while revolutionaries must split from reformism to succeed, they had simultaneously to try to win over the very people from whom they had just split. Lenin, for example, insisted on the absolute connection between the two. In LeftWing Communism, an Infantile Disorder he argued, firstly:

The strictest centralisation and discipline are required within the political party of the proletariat in order to counteract…the forces and traditions of the old society. The force of habit in millions and tens of millions is a most formidable force. Without a party of iron that has been tempered in the struggle…such a struggle cannot be waged successfully.28

But he then advanced the strategy of the “united front”, of revolutionaries working together in joint campaigns with reformists against capitalism. This could both defend and improve the lot of workers, and demonstrate the superiority of the revolutionary approach in practice. For example, Lenin advised British Communists to form a united front with the then leader of the Labour Party, Arthur Henderson:

If we want the masses to follow us (and unless we achieve that, we stand the risk of remaining mere windbags)…we must help the majority of the working class to be convinced by their own experience that we are right…we must bring nearer the moment when, on the basis of the disappointment of most of the workers in the Hendersons, it will be possible, with serious chances of success, to overthrow the government of the Hendersons.29

Putting the two points together, Lenin concluded that without a revolutionary party, “not even the first step towards victory can be made. But that is still quite a long way from victory… For that, the masses must have their own political experience. Such is the fundamental law of all great revolutions”.30

Trotsky, like Lenin, regarded both a split from reformism and the need to relate to reformism as essential. Point one of his “General Considerations on the United Front” (1922) states:

The task of the Communist Party is to lead the proletarian revolution… The party can achieve this only by remaining an absolutely independent organisation with a clear programme and strict internal discipline. That is the reason why the party was bound to break ideologically and organisationally with the reformists… Any members of the Communist Party who bemoan the split with the centrists in the name of “unity of forces” or “unity of front” thereby demonstrate that they do not understand the ABC of Communism and that they themselves happen to be in the Communist Party only by accident.

At the same time:

The problem of the united front—despite the fact that a split is inevitable in this epoch…grows out of the urgent need to secure for the working class the possibility of a united front in the struggle against capitalism. For those who do not understand this task, the party is only a propaganda society and not an organisation for mass action.31

It is worth also reading what Gramsci said on the question since it has been argued that the Bolshevik experience was too distant from Western European society to be relevant. In 1926 he wrote that the “fundamental task” was the development of “communist parties, in which the vanguard of the working class is assembled”, but added that “the capacity to lead the class is related, not to the fact that the party ‘proclaims’ itself its revolutionary organ… Only as a result of its activity among the masses, will the party get the latter to recognise it as ‘their’ party (winning a majority).”

Gramsci went beyond the issue of the “united front” as such (which is a more or less formal arrangement whereby revolutionary and reformist organisations campaign together around a specific issue) to describe what could be called the united front method, by which revolutionaries, constituted as a party, work to win the majority:

The Communist Party links every immediate demand to a revolutionary objective; makes use of every partial struggle to teach the masses the need for general action and for insurrection against the reactionary rule of capital; and seeks to ensure that every struggle of a limited character is prepared and led in such a way as to be able to lead to the mobilisation and unification of the proletarian forces, and not to their dispersal… In every case, the party utilises the experience of the movement in question, and of the outcome of its proposals to increase its influence.32

While Gramsci advocated making “use of every partial struggle” this was not in order to involve the revolutionary party in a stages model of progress from gradual reform to revolution. Reformist political organisations can give expression and direction to a rejection of capitalism and so can represent a step forward if such a rejection was lacking. But if this is done at the expense of building a revolutionary party the result will be disastrous, because reformist organisations create leaderships which block radical change and so the movement will ultimately be held back.

The test of history

The views of classical Marxists have been cited above not because they have some sort of biblical authority, but because they are a distillation of the richest experience of working class struggle to date, and the clearest expression of how to deal with the conundrum facing all revolutionaries. If reformism had indeed been brought into the working class by elements from outside, then it might be possible to wait for a change in objective circumstances, for “the march of history”, to resolve the issue for us. Over a century of struggle shows that this is not the case. This means that when revolutionaries engage in activity the pressure to adapt to the majority reformist current, in order to gain some illusory short-term popularity, is enormous. Equally, the opposite defensive reaction, which leads to sectarian isolation, is always a potential danger.

The fact that, under ordinary circumstances, the majority of the working class is reformist and only a minority revolutionary, can lead to seeing the relationship between the two as a numbers game. To change the world from below a mass party is needed; non-revolutionaries must be won over in as great a number as possible. So an obsession with size is understandable.

The problem is that if the ability of the revolutionary party to act as such is sacrificed, then the revolutionary project is doomed. Equally, maximising the number who support revolutionary change is very important indeed. It would be a grave mistake to be complacent and believe there is no point trying to win new people over. The classic Marxist response to this dilemma involves three fundamental steps which are political, not arithmetical: identification of the reformist problem as such; an organisational break; and the united front tactic (or its informal equivalent in terms of day to day practice).

Again the history of the movement can be instructive in this regard. In 1910 some 887 delegates met in Copenhagen at the Second International Congress and resolved that in the event of imperialist war an immediate worldwide general strike would be launched to bring it to a halt. Some delegations at the Congress were huge. There were 189 from Germany, 84 from Britain, 78 from France and 72 from Austria. Tiny Denmark had 146. Collectively they could boast millions of votes, and vast numbers of affiliated trade unionists as supporters. There were just 38 Russian delegates (including both reformists and revolutionaries). Alas, when the war broke out the resolution proved a dead letter. The huge reformist membership was no obstacle for the betrayal of principle by the leadership whose craven support for imperialist carnage was largely accepted.

Russia’s situation was, in some respects, not so different from other countries in August 1914. All of Europe was engulfed by chauvinism. Only principled revolutionaries, a tiny minority at the time, withstood the tide. Lenin’s opposition to the war was echoed in Luxemburg’s Junius pamphlet and the courageous stand of Karl Liebknecht in the German parliament. In Britain, John Maclean also mounted a vigorous resistance to the war. Rejecting the arguments of “national interest” in this way invited not only state repression but popular derision and even physical violence. While Lenin had to remain in enforced exile, Maclean, Liebknecht and Luxemburg ended up in jail. Despite the justice of their arguments, everywhere revolutionaries were in an even smaller minority than before. For these reasons Lenin predicted he would not live to see the fall of Tsarism just a few weeks before it occurred. The starting point for a recovery which not only brought an end to the imperialist war but brought the world to the brink of socialist revolution began with firm revolutionary politics.

In this complete reversal of fortunes it was the Bolshevik Party that led the way. It took Russia out of the war and established a workers’ state that inspired the whole world. The path from full retreat to victory was by no means straightforward, however. As mentioned above, in February the proportion of Bolshevik delegates relative to reformists in the Petrograd Soviet was minuscule—just 60 out of 1,000. Nevertheless, by October 1917 the party was able to convince the Russian working class of the need for revolution. That was due less to numbers than to the combination of both its principled political stance and its maturity as an interventionist organisation.

In the heady days immediately after the fall of the Romanovs the general mood was that all differences should be forgotten in the name of class unity, and the split between revolutionaries and reformists set aside. The Bolsheviks withstood this pressure, and it was not long before the “different goal” of reformism, identified by Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution?, re-emerged. The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries argued for prolonging the First World War, delaying land distribution, and the continuation of capitalism. By contrast, after the adoption of Lenin’s April Theses, the Bolsheviks called for “peace, land and bread”. But principle alone was not enough.

In July 1917 radical sections in Petrograd wanted an immediate socialist revolution, at a time when the majority of Russian workers were still wedded to reformism. It took Lenin’s efforts working through the Bolshevik Party as an experienced, relatively cohesive organisation, to avoid a fatal division opening up between the vanguard and the rest. When, in August 1917, General Kornilov attempted a counter-revolutionary coup the party applied the tactic of the united front and defeated it alongside Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Not long afterwards the Bolsheviks were rewarded with a majority in the Soviets.

Elsewhere in Europe, as the horrors of the First World War became clear to all, those who held their nerve and stuck to internationalist principles also saw their influence grow. After the SPD supported German imperialism Luxemburg overcame her previous doubts and established the core of a revolutionary party—the Spartakist League. The league grew very rapidly in the wake of the German revolution of November 1918 that brought down the Kaiser and finally ended the First World War. The German equivalent of the soviets—the Arbeiterräte or workers’ councils—met in congress, during December 1918. However, unlike the Bolsheviks, the Spartakists did not have a small voice with which to convince the reformist majority to change their position—they had none! Only ten of the 405 delegates were Spartakists, but they did not even stand under their own name. However, the league could still have overcome such problems. As the German revolution did not peter out until 1924, many opportunities to make up for lost ground presented themselves.

Though undeniably important, more critical than sheer numbers was the question of experience. The Bolsheviks had behind them years of development, of building up a cohesive body based on democratic centralism, that sought to win the leadership of the working class under a wide variety of conditions, from illegality, semi-legality and full revolution, during periods of massive upswing in struggle such as 1905, to terrible defeat in the years that followed. As Lenin put it in 1904, during the split with the Mensheviks, “the stronger our party organisations, consisting of real Social-Democrats, the less wavering and instability there is within the party, the broader, more varied, richer and more fruitful will be the party’s influence on the elements of the working class masses surrounding it and guided by it”.33

In Germany the Spartakists benefitted from an influx of highly enthusiastic, if inexperienced, members after the Kaiser fell. For the best of reasons they were keen to see socialism in Germany as soon as possible, but had little political background or knowledge as to how this could be achieved in practice. They paid little heed to Luxemburg’s warning against precipitate action that might separate the revolutionaries from the still reformist majority. Under pressure from this impatient and inexperienced revolutionary minority, her co-leader, Liebknecht, was carried along with the enthusiasm of the moment and dragged the League into a premature uprising in January 1919. It was easily isolated and defeated, after which both Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered. The Spartakist leadership (now renamed German Communist Party) found it very difficult to recover.

To emphasise revolutionary politics or organisational “maturity” over numbers is certainly not to echo the proverb that “wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old”. As Trotsky pointed out forcefully in Lessons of October, the very conservatism (with a small “c”) required to maintain a revolutionary organisation carries with it the danger of a similar conservatism in the face of changing circumstances. To achieve the October 1917 insurrection it required the revolutionary élan of one section of the Bolshevik Party to overcome the hesitancy of some very experienced members. So the quality that was lacking in Germany, and was present in Russia, was not the physical maturity or time served by individual party activists, but the organisational maturity gained when a party of revolutionaries consistently works to win the reformist majority, and advance the struggle.

No two historical situations are identical, and had there been a party akin to Bolshevism in Germany, a successful socialist revolution in that country was not guaranteed. Many other factors, such as historical accident, qualities of leadership, social structure, and the balance of forces, formed part of the equation. However, though absolute size was clearly relevant, it was less decisive than the ability to win reformists to revolution.


The successes and failures of the early 20th century are an important guide for today. The main difference between then and now is that there has been a century’s experience of political reformism and its inadequacies. And so, while parties such as Labour remain important, reformism also appears under many other guises. It is fundamental in single-issue campaigns that fight against one of the many heads of the hydra of capitalism (even though they have the potential, under certain conditions, to be the spark that detonates a revolution). It is the core rationale for trade unions which seek to negotiate within the framework of employer-employee relations.

Revolutionaries who propose recreating reformist political organisations, or dissolving into reformist campaigns, or concealing their socialist beliefs in unions, in the hope that they can ultimately move people from simple acceptance of the system to outright opposition, get things completely the wrong way round. Mass reformist consciousness is not the result of reformist organisation; reformist organisation is the result of mass reformist consciousness that grows out of the conditions of life under capitalism and the struggle against it. As Luxemburg showed, consciously organising as a reformist leads to tinkering with the system rather than abolishing it.

This does not mean revolutionaries preach from the sidelines, simply biding their time until a revolutionary situation arises. Opportunities that offer the chance to move the majority beyond reformist ideas recur again and again. In places like Egypt the drama is played out on a grand scale. But even in Britain there is a daily choice between reform and revolution. Tactics that emphasise self-activity in the fight against austerity, which go beyond the individual workplace or protest group, that lead towards class action and unity in struggle, represent a crucial step forward towards a different goal to that of the Ed Milibands of this world. The outcome of this situation is not pre-determined, but depends on the development of the class struggle, political clarity, and the hard work of a revolutionary party.


1: Owen, 1970, ppvii-ix.

2: Owen, 1970, pxiii.

3: Marx and Engels 1976, pp494-495.

4: Marx and Engels, 1976, pp492-493.

5: Marx and Engels, 1976, pp497-498.

6: Engels, 1993, pp53-54.

7: Luxemburg, 1971.

8: Kautsky, 1909, p50.

9: Luxemburg, 1971, p53.

10: Luxemburg, 1971, p116.

11: Luxemburg, 1971, p54.

12: Lenin, 1901.

13: Lenin, 1901.

14: De Leon, 1904.

15: Luxemburg, 1906. For a fuller discussion of this aspect see Callinicos, 1982.

16: Gramsci, 1978, pp340-341.

17: Trotsky, 1980.

18: Trotsky, 1980, p166.

19: In a 1957 article entitled “Economic roots of reformism”, Cliff argued that the theory of labour aristocracy was not a full explanation for reformism:

An inevitable conclusion following upon Lenin’s analysis of reformism is that a small thin crust of conservatism hides the revolutionary urges of the mass of the workers. Any break through this crust would reveal a surging revolutionary lava. The role of the revolutionary party is simply to show the mass of the workers that their interests are betrayed by the “infinitesimal minority” of “aristocracy of labour”.

This conclusion, however, is not confirmed by the history of reformism in Britain, the United States and elsewhere over the past half century: its solidity, its spread throughout the working class, frustrating and largely isolating all revolutionary minorities, makes it abundantly clear that the economic, social roots of reformism are not in “an infinitesimal minority of the proletariat and the working masses” as Lenin argued-Cliff, 1982, pp108-117.

The article gives convincing economic reasons for believing that if a small portion of the profits of imperialist exploitation trickled downwards, it would not be restricted to a narrow section of the class, but “spread throughout” the working class. However, Cliff still accepted that the corrupting wealth of imperialism lay at the core of reformism: “there has been a close connection between the imperialist expansion of capitalism and the rise of reformism…reformism has been to a large extent the expression of the imperialist domination over backward countries.” In 1957 the so-called Third World was still emerging from colonialism, and so when partial struggles occurred, this was not seen as an example of reformism, but related to breaking free from external interference. Cliff used the term “deflected permanent revolution” for these events, rather than seeing them as related to the reformism of the advanced economies.

Thus Lenin originally made the link between the labour aristocracy and imperialism but saw the benefits as narrowly distributed, while Cliff accepted the basic premise but argued that the benefits were more widely distributed. The problem is in seeing imperialism as the key source of reformism. It is a factor, but as history has shown, mass reformism crops up across the globe in places that have not been centres of imperialist rule.

20: Marx, 1845.

21: Marx, 1859.

22: Lenin, 1901.

23: Luxemburg, 1971, p132.

24: Luxemburg, 1971, p131.

25: Luxemburg, 1906.

26: Lenin, 1920b.

27: Trotsky, 1924.

28: Lenin,1920a.

29: Lenin, 1920a.

30: Lenin, 1920a.

31: Trotsky, 1973.

32: Gramsci, 1978, p370.

33: Lenin, 1904.


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