How Will Change Come?

We’ve been studying theories of social change:

  • Utopianism: We don’t have to do anything about effecting change. We will just live good lives and other people will start copying us. Beatniks, Hippies, Counterculturalists, early French socialists
  • Economism: Capitalism will inevitably fall of its own weight. All we can do is help it along with economic struggles such as union contract battles.
  • Populism: We’re all pretty much the same so all we have to do is get everybody together somehow. The main thing we need is great leaders to spark the revolution. Anarchists, terrorists
  • Syndicalism: We will organize everybody into one big union, then call a general strike and take over. IWW
  • Reformism: If we just keep improving our society, little by little, we’ll eventually make it perfect. We need to work in elections. Parliamentary cretinism. Capitalist liberalism.
  • Class struggle: Working families have enemies: our owners and employers, who must be overcome before lasting change can occur. We have to fight on the side of working families in all arenas and at all times.

If you have time to do some reading, I recommend the 60 pages from “Reform or Revolution” by Rosa Luxemburg. She argues that we must fight for immediate reforms while pushing for an ultimate class confrontation. She was arguing against a German Philosopher named Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein personified the category of “reformist.”

This same argument is the number one issue in our progressive movement today.

Luxemburg, Rosa, “Reform or Revolution,” included in ‘Rosa Luxemburg Speaks” edited by Mary Alice Waters, Pathfinder Press, New York 1970. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm. A note of caution: All of the world’s revolutionary parties prior to 1917 called themselves “social democrats.” After the Russian revolution, the world movement split. See the great movie “Reds.”

The answer to the question posted in Luxemburg’s title is “both.” She says that revolutionaries must join the working class in every struggle. It is not because those struggles will lead to permanent and significant change, but because working families become strong, well organized, and well informed with each success. She says on page 36: “Between social reforms and revolution there exists for [revolutionaries] an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means, the social revolution, its aim.”

More specifically, here is how she describes the ultimate goal (page 39): “The scientific basis of socialism rests, as is well known, on three principal results of capitalist development. First, on the growing anarchy of capitalist economy, leading inevitably to its ruin. Second, on the progressive socialization of the process of production, which creates the germs of the future social order. And third, on the increased organization and consciousness of the proletarian class, which constitutes the active factor in the coming revolution.” In simpler terms, she believes that everyday democratic struggles get working families ready to take over when capitalism inevitably goes into crisis.

 But, Luxemburg says, there is a completely different theory which can only lead to disaster. The main proponent of this other theory was the German philosopher Eduard Bernstein. Bernstein was a gradualist. He believed that the everyday struggles for democratic reforms were sufficient by themselves to bring revolutionary change. One good reform would build on another one until, pretty soon, we’d have perfected society. Because Bernstein believed that reforms were all we needed to do, she called him a “reformist.”

Most of “Reform or Revolution” is an argument against Bernstein and his co-thinkers of the time. As I reread it this year, though, I substituted the names of leading writers and organization of today, because they are still preaching that reforms are enough.

Luxemburg says on page 38: “According to Bernstein, a general decline of capitalism seems to be increasingly improbable…” I haven’t actually heard those exact words in today’s arguments, but I heard “socialism is not on the horizon” many times. It’s practically the same thing.

(Page 50) “Bernstein says, The [revolutionary party] must not direct its daily activity toward the conquest of power, but toward the betterment of the conditions of the working class within the existing order. It must not expect to institute socialism as a result of a political and social crisis, but should build socialism by means of the progressive extension of social control and the gradual application of the principles of cooperation. Bernstein himself sees nothing new in his theories.”  I don’t see anything new in today’s reformism either.

Bernstein’s followers say (page 50): “They hope to see a long succession of reforms in the future, all favoring the working class.” That’s reformism in a nutshell. A pipe dream!

As I read Luxemburg’s argument, I realized why reformism got such a big boost over the last few years. During the first decade of this century, relatively progressive leaders were elected in places like Tunisia, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and the United States. When Bernie Sanders became a household name nationwide, it really looked like we could achieve permanent structural change just by voting. We could get good political leaders in the current election and even better ones in the next, or so we thought. I don’t know if anybody still thinks that, but that’s how it looked when Obama was in office.

Luxemburg continues about reformism on page 50: “He thinks that the expropriation of the means of production cannot possibly be effected as a single historic act. He therefore resorts to the theory of expropriation by stages.” After “socialism is not on the horizon,” I began to hear a lot more about stages, even though nobody ever explained which stage was which and how they knew.

On page 59: “We move here in a straight line toward the total abandonment of the class viewpoint.” In modern times, I heard that working families were just one of several important “core” groups. Like all good liberals, we should work for each of them equally, I heard.

Page 69: “Bernstein’s socialism is to be realized with the aid of these two instruments: labor unions – or as Bernstein himself characterizes them, economic democracy – and cooperatives. The first will suppress industrial profit; the second will do away with commercial profit.” She explains that unions are totally defensive, never offensive. She goes on to explain why ESOPs could never replace capitalism. Anybody who has ever been in one of today’s American unions know that they are defensive organizations. Lately, I’ve heard a lot about employees taking over enterprises and running them successfully. In real life, they tend to have a very short life, and anybody who thinks about it should realize that they will never overtake the mighty corporations that run the world today.

On page 76, Luxemburg sums up Mr Bernstein: “He who renounces the struggle for socialism renounces both the labor movement and democracy.”  I’ve seen that in action, just lately.

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” program at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

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