Do we support reformist demands?

November 8, 2013

In this 1973 article from International Socialism, British socialist Duncan Hallas explains how socialists approach demands for reforms and the role of elections. In this era, many British revolutionaries supported a vote for the British Labour Party with no illusions when they couldn't choose a revolutionary candidate, as a party that had not yet shed its connections to the working class movement. This article first appeared in International Socialism (1st series), No. 54, January 1973. This text is republished from the Marxists Internet Archive.

1. The Impossibilists

"The pure milk of the word and no blooming palliatives." Such was the sentiment of the 'impossibilist' left wing of British Marxism in the early years of our century. 'Palliatives' requires some explanation. The British Social-Democratic Federation, like the continental social-democrats, had two program--or rather two sections of its program--labeled 'maximum program' and 'minimum program' respectively.

The maximum program was nothing less than the socialist reconstruction of society, the abolition of the wages system. The minimum program was a set of demands--for instance, the legal limitation of the working day to eight hours, public works to combat unemployment, etc.--which could be obtained this side of the revolution. Such demands were commonly referred to as "mere palliatives."

The left wingers suspected, and with some reason, that the 'palliatives' which were acceptable in principle to non-socialist radicals, some liberals and so on, were what really interested the 'opportunist' leadership (Hyndman, Quelch, etc.) and that the maximum program was being relegated to the never-never land of the distant future. When they split from the main body, one group forming the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in 1903, another the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) in 1904, they safeguarded their revolutionary purity by dropping the 'palliatives' and standing simply and solely on the maximum program.

Marxist Classics

"The program of the revolution..." wrote Daniel De Leon, inspiration of the SLP, "demands the unconditional surrender of the capitalist system and its system of wage slavery; the total extinction of class rule as its object. Nothing short of that can receive recognition in the camp of the modern revolution."

That put the 'opportunists'--real and imaginary--in their place all right. It did so as the cost of cutting off the revolutionaries from any real possibility of intervening politically on those day-to-day issues that actually concerned their fellow workers and thus enormously strengthened the very opportunists against whom the left was directing its fire. True, De Leon was not entirely consistent. Though opposed to 'political palliatives' he was willing to countenance industrial struggles for wages and conditions because his strategy called for 'socialist industrial unionism'.

And yet, as the simon-pure sectarians of the SPGB pointed out, to fight for higher wages, when the objective is the abolition of the wages system, is every bit as much a 'compromise', a 'palliative' as, say, to demand the repeal of anti-trade union legislation--and the Taff Vale Judgement was a major issue of the day.

It is easy to laugh at these early efforts to get to grips with the relation between the day-to-day struggle and the socialist revolution. But, however absurd the solution offered by the 'impossibilists', the problem was and is a real one. Nor is it simply a question of resisting opportunist and reformist deviations in the socialist organization. It is still more a question of the effects of reforms, of successful 'palliatives' on the working class, on the class struggle.

As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, on the one hand "the trade union struggle and parliamentary practice are considered to be the means of guiding and educating the proletariat in preparation for the task of taking over power"; on the other hand, capitalism "is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened by the development of social reforms and the course of democracy".

2. Transitional demands

Trotsky expounded a way out of this dilemma. It was the now famous idea of the 'transitional demand'. "It is necessary," he wrote in 1938, "to help the masses in the process of daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution."

He continued, "This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat" (the emphasis is my own).

Are there such demands? And, if so, what are they? The answer is clearly that it depends on the circumstances. In a period of massive economic expansion, for example at the height of the post-war boom, it is very difficult, indeed generally speaking impossible, to find demands that both "stem from today's conditions and today's consciousness" and lead to "the conquest of power by the proletariat." The whole nature of the economic, and therefore political, situation excludes them. Naturally there is not a simple, automatic correspondence between economic conditions and working-class consciousness. To deny that there is, nevertheless, an indirect correspondence is to abandon Marxism for pre-Marxian utopianism.

In the very passage from which I have quoted, Trotsky expounds his view of the economic situation at the time as "an epoch of decaying capitalism: when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses' living standards." Given that situation then the demands he suggested including such apparently modest ones as "employment and decent living conditions for all," "a sliding scale of wages," etc. are indeed transitional in his sense. They can be used by a revolutionary organization, assuming it has a serious working-class base, to assist "systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution."

In different circumstances they cannot. Circumstances alter cases. For the greater part of the period between the February and October revolutions in Russia in 1917, the central political message of the Bolsheviks was summed up in three words--"Peace, Land and Bread". These were indeed transitional demands, the most effective ones, in the particular conditions of Russia at that time. They are also quite useless for Britain in 1973. In fact, the whole question of transitional demands, whether they are possible and what they are, depends on the economic and political balance of forces, on perspectives. The idea that there are these magical demands that can be found in a book or a program and can be applied independently of the situation is absurd.

3. Reformist demands

It follows that a revolutionary socialist organization must very often fight for demands that are not transitional in Trotsky's sense, that are 'reformist' in the sense that they are potentially achievable without immediately leading to a struggle for the conquest of power'. To illustrate, consider this criticism of IS policy. "The idea that the demand to throw out the Tories under a system of bourgeois democracy is a transitional demand is probably unprecedented and requires no further comment." And the critic apparently imagines that this settles the matter!

Now it is absolutely certain that it is possible to kick out the Tories and return a Labour government, and it is equally clear that whether this directly assists the "mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution" depends on the conditions under which it takes place, on what forces the Tories out, on the economic background, the strength and influence of the revolutionary socialists and a number of other factors.

Grant that it happens under conditions that are unfavorable, that there is no great radicalization. Are we then still for it? Of course we are. The question is, which is more favorable to socialists: Labour in power or Labour in opposition, and the fact that the demand is 'non-transitional' in particular cases is beside the point. The same critic that I have quoted argues that such demands as: Unconditional repeal of the Industrial Relations Act and all anti-union laws; No incomes policy under capitalism, Restoration of all welfare cuts; no welfare charges, no selectivity, no means-testing, and others of the same type are ones that the Labour Party in power could carry out. They are therefore 'reformist'. Good. Leave aside the rather touching faith that our critic has in the reforming possibilities of a new Labour government. For the sake of argument, assume he is right and that a Labour government can do all these things. Do we then stop fighting for them? Only an unreconstructed ultra-left or an incorrigible muddle-head could say that we should.

We are for the support, as our draft program puts it, of "all demands and movements that tend to improve the position and self-confidence of workers and of other oppressed or exploited sections of the population". And that, of course, includes 'palliatives', 'reformist demands', 'partial and immediate demands' as the Communist International called them in Lenin's day, from "full work or full pay" right down to free school milk for children.

There are those who describe this policy as 'opportunism', by which they merely prove that they do not know what opportunism is. They have not yet understood the force and importance of Lenin's injunction, "never miss the slightest opportunity to achieve even small improvements for the workers" (the emphasis is mine). And since some of the critics wrap themselves in the mantle of Trotsky, justice demands that Trotsky's own position be made clear. Even though he mistakenly believed, when he wrote the Transitional Program, that capitalism was in its death agony, he was never guilty of the idiocy of rejecting 'reformist demands'. On the contrary, he was careful to explain that revolutionaries "do not discard the program of the old 'minimal' demands to the degree that these have preserved at least pan of their vital forcefulness...(and) defend the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers".

But what of Rosa Luxembourg's paradox--the struggle for reforms is the means to prepare for the capture of power: successful reforms strengthen capitalism. It is a question of historical perspective. If capitalism can concede, for an indefinite period, the demands and aspirations of working people then, of course, it will be enormously strengthened. Socialism will not be on the agenda. The whole core of Marxism is that, though substantial concessions are possible in various places at various times, capitalism has become a barrier to the further advance of humanity and is historically doomed. Those who reject that view have no scientific basis for their socialism.


Hallas' original article elicited a response from Adam Buick, which read in part:

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has never opposed trade-union action as "reformist". Far from it; right from the start in its original manifesto the SPGB declared that it was in agreement with "working-class action on the industrial field when based on a clear recognition of the position of the workers under capitalism and the class struggle necessarily resulting therefrom", but that it was opposed to "all activities of unions in support of capitalism or tending to sidetrack workers from the only path that can lead to their emancipation".

In our view trade-union action is necessary under capitalism, but is limited by being of an essentially defensive nature. To overcome this limitation the workers need to organize themselves into a socialist political party aiming solely at the capture of political power to establish socialism (i.e. the so-called maximum program).

In response, Hallas wrote:

Comrade Buick is correct. In compressing the argument, I see that I may have given the impression that the SPGB was opposed to participation in trade-union activity. This is not true. The point I was making was that the SPGB rejected the SLP strategy of "socialist industrial unionism" as not essentially different from political reformism.

Further Reading

From the archives