By Chris Townsend
February 15, 2023
The ever-present dilemma of the choice between “reform or revolution” may no longer be a question at all for most U.S. partisans of socialism. Our early socialist movement took up discussion of this critical question quite often and quite vigorously. Can socialism be reached by reforming the current system? Or is revolutionary action and change required instead? Some of both? Pursuing reforms to reach a revolutionary point perhaps?
History has shown that some limited reforms of capitalism have, of course, been possible. The great strides in the U.S. made for working people during the later years of the Great Depression and World War 2 period are an example. Tactical unity of both reformers and revolutionaries brought numerous bold breakthroughs for labor and working people. During the 1960’s, significant advances were made on several fronts as well. Much has been accomplished – always the result of furious struggle by working people.
Yet by any measure an immense amount of future change is still needed to expand the rights and improve the economic wellbeing of the people. All incremental progress is also subject to watering down and eventual reversal, so long as the old order remains fundamentally in complete control. “Socialism” as any of us would define it is still off in the distance, a daydream, somewhere out there beyond the boundaries set by the reformers of the current system. So, while revolutionary thinking and approaches may be at a momentary low ebb, what is the situation of those determined to reform the system, improve it, to humanize it, to do so by working within it? What are the prospects in today’s political and economic climate for real and significant reforms to address our ever-worsening situation?
My good, departed friend Tony Mazzocchi – longtime national leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and later the Labor Party effort – was known to sarcastically pine away about “the good old days” of Republican Richard Nixon’s presidency. Despite Nixon being a war criminal, and among other things being driven from office in the Watergate scandal of his own making, the Nixon years were more productive so far as political reforms of the system than the past 50 years combined. When I heard Tony make this observation I chuckled and walked away, reminded that he was right in his appraisal of the declining success of reformist efforts.
NIXON REGIME: 1968 TO 1974
Astonished at such a remark? Don’t be, and consider the evidence. Under tremendous popular pressure Nixon supported the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA): creation of the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH). He signed the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). He signed both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. He signed the Endangered Species Act. Nixon was pummeled into supporting numerous civil rights initiatives. He used his price control power several times to shield consumers from rampaging price increases, and during the first 5 years of his presidency the poverty rate declined from 12.8% to 11.1%. Today, with a population more than 50% larger than in the Nixon period, the “official” poverty rate remains at 11%, and has evolved into a de facto “destitution rate.” More than 40 million workers today are classified as impoverished, as opposed to 22 million in Nixon’s time.
Bernie Sanders frequently reported during his presidential campaigns that a full 50% of the working class was unable to scrape up even $400 for any sort of emergency whatsoever. Nixon also supported major increases in Social Security and Medicare coverages and their costs. He proposed a version of a national health care program that stalled and failed, leading liberal Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy to note in his final days that his stubborn refusal to compromise with Nixon – and at least establish an incipient national health care system – was the biggest political regret of his career.
Nixon and his regime were many things, mostly very, very bad things. He was a dangerous and contemptible figure, an inveterate war monger, red-baiter, witch hunter, a right-wing and racist political opportunist, and a subverter of the democratic order.
But the record of reforms won during his presidency is remarkable when compared to current prospects for reformist progress. The reformist movement of that era possessed the necessary reach and influence to repeatedly push an arch-reactionary like Nixon over and over again into positive action. In the decades since his presidency ended ingloriously – and thankfully – in 1974, the overall reformist momentum has slowed, then stalled, and now been almost completely blocked.
On issue after issue, gains made over 100 years are being systematically rolled back. The reformist era of the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s peaked in the Nixon years and has been in retreat ever since. Both the Republican and the Democratic parties have shifted farther and farther to the right in the post-Nixon era, with Democrats now only needing to occupy positions somewhere to the left of the near-fascist Republican Party in order to present the illusion of “opposition” status. On some issues such as funding for the U.S. war machine many Democrats now eclipse the Republicans in their zeal to fund the deadly military machine.
ULTRA RIGHT NATION
Big right-wing political money, corporations, their captive think tanks and media have propelled the entire U.S. political stage so far to the right today that the scene no longer bears any resemblance to the era when reforms both small and large seemed possible and were occasionally achieved. So failed in fact is the current Democratic Party in performing its “opposition” duties that a full 2 years after the Trump-led putsch attempt only half a dozen conspirators and rioters have been convicted and jailed. With very few significant social democratic or socialist forces on the scene – at least today – the prognosis for a near-term revival of progressive or left reforms is dim.
Both political parties have purged or isolated most of those within them seriously interested in major confrontation with the right and their corporate sponsors. The situation at the state and local level copies the national rightward shift with only a few exceptions. And, even where liberal Democrats occupy governing positions, even basic, yet urgently needed reforms remain frequently blocked. Much vaunted “reforms” today are increasingly comprised of short-lived public relations campaigns. So minuscule is the impact of most contemporary reforms that they are barely noticed in their practical effectiveness. Blocked sometimes by right elements inside the Democratic Party or by the sheer weight of rightwing legal and media challenge. This has contributed to a worsening of virtually all aspects of life for the working class, with all the attendant problems associated with such a trend.
The degeneration process of the capitalist order and its captive state structures offers a stark balance sheet. Mass poverty and its shocking consequences and costs, an immiseration of the working class, public disorder and decay are all around us. Mass state repression of labor and civil rights are commonplace, environmental degradation envelops us, and virtually every social pathology known to science permeates the population – with little evidence that any of the current reformist remedies stand any chance of even slowing their growth, let alone stopping and reversing them. The capitalist ideology has prevailed – for the time being at least, with horrific costs to working people.
Many years ago, an atheist friend confessed to me that he often wished he would somehow be able to spend a little time again with his mother, who had passed away some years before. But he recognized that this was scientifically impossible, and that it would remain a passing happy thought at best. His instinct to hope for the impossible was confronted by the scientific fact that life after death, reincarnation, and other religious beliefs were just that: beliefs. All tangible evidence and scientific understanding dictated that his wish was unobtainable, and he was therefore mandated to face these facts and chart a course forward that did not include a reliance on the supernatural. In an age of science, reality had to be adhered to, leaving wishful and fantastic thinking to little children.
Today’s reformist currents, liberal and social democratic both, are confronted with the painful but immense scientific evidence that traditional political reforms are unlikely, or even impossible under the current deteriorating political regime. Countless reformist solutions to the endemic crises of capitalism have been proposed and occasionally attempted, and an immense array of liberal foundations and NGO’s now exist to promote every worthy cause imaginable. This reformist work expands year upon year, despite there being virtually no progress in evidence for many years now. An entire multi-billion-dollar industry has grown up consisting of wealthy organizations furiously working to reform the system in one way or the other. The monstrous amount of defensive political action required today does act to conceal the fact that forward progress is now blocked, but the balance sheet of reform today is clear. With opposition to virtually all progressive changes now bolstered by unlimited funds to deploy lobbyists, buy politicians, hire lawyers to litigate for the opponents of change, few chances exist for advance of reformist solutions.
REFORMS INCREASINGLY UTOPIAN
While pointing out the decreasing odds for successful political reforms may be an unpopular position, the weight of the evidence against their success cannot be denied. Within the incipient and renewed socialist movement today the lure of reformist solutions is understandable, and sometimes worthwhile so far as advancing and building organizational structures. Reformist projects can meet urgent immediate needs, they can be educational, and can introduce new layers of activists to the many forms of struggles. Valuable experience may be gained. But, if the increasingly obvious goal is out-of-reach more and more, year after year, it becomes negligent to forget or ignore the revolutionary alternative.
Frederick Engels penned his must-read “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific” in 1880, where he relentlessly demonstrated to the socialist movement of the time that science must be the leading guide for the thought and actions of the socialist movement. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (marxists.org) Later, in 1913, Lenin renewed the push towards a scientific, and not utopian socialist movement in his “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism.”
…When feudalism was overthrown and “free” capitalist society appeared in the world, it at once became apparent that this freedom meant a new system of oppression and exploitation of the working people. Various socialist doctrines immediately emerged as a reflection of and protest against this oppression. Early socialism, however, was utopian socialism. It criticized capitalist society, it condemned and damned it, it dreamed of its destruction, it had visions of a better order and endeavored to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation. But utopian socialism could not indicate the real solution. It could not explain the real nature of wage-slavery under capitalism, it could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of a new society.
V.I. Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism. Or in print at: Introduction to Marx, Engels, Marxism – International Publishers (intpubnyc.com)
REVIVING THE REVOLUTIONARY NECESSITY
As daily life for the working class becomes more difficult, more desperate and miserable, the machinery of the state grows ever more oppressive and repressive, the political establishment becomes increasingly ambivalent to the disastrous situation for workers, the necessity of a revolutionary revival within the socialist movement becomes obvious, perhaps overdue – and possible.
When I joined the socialist movement in 1977 it seemed like a far-off dream that somehow, someday, socialism would improve the lives of millions of working people right here in the U.S. Including mine. Those who promoted reform of the system – as opposed to those promoting a political revolution and a wholesale reconstruction of the system – these folks offered their doctrines and occasionally were able to point to this or that reformist success. I participated eagerly in many of those battles for political progress, most unsuccessful, but I learned a tremendous amount from them. But looking back over those many years, I am unable to draw any conclusion other than the one I have laid out here, namely that the era of reform has passed or is at best on its last legs.
That said, nowhere do I advocate an abandonment of struggle for immediate needs. What I encourage is a revival of the revolutionary goal, and a reconsideration of a revolutionary path forward. We need a restoration of Marxist analysis as a guide to our situation. Out of good intentions, perhaps, the reformist single mindedness has buried the scientific approach, buried Marxism. In its place a new socialist school of utopianism has permeated the left and must be challenged.
A revival in circulation of the printed and electronic works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin is in order. See Marxists Internet Archive and International Publishers (intpubnyc.com) likewise with a needed popularization of the writings of our own Eugene Debs and others among the “old socialists”. See Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive (marxists.org) Utopian wanderings, meanderings, and hoping against hope will not liberate the working class from the growing system of oppression that utilizes all of its growing power and influence to intensify the exploitation and misery of the toiling billions. A return to a Marxist and scientific path of opposition might. The critical but difficult question of “reform or revolution” is a question needing debate and then decision. I for one believe we have reached the end of the current reformist road and a return to a revolutionary and bold course is required. Endless debate is counterproductive; a decision to move left and reach higher is in order.
Excellent article. Chris Townsend is a comrade who has walked the walk. Your observations and recommendations are valuable. Thank you.
Thanks for the kind words, Richard. Socialism without science is just wishing and hoping. Unless I have missed it, this debate and discussion seems to have – for the moment at least – disappeared. Or fallen to undetectable levels. I think the trade unions do better on this front, which given the state of the unions today is sobering. I enjoy your show too. See: https://youtu.be/e5ThKh0lNPo
Question: If we look at the total picture, the national and international policies of the US, is it still proper to say that the “gains” made locally, here in the US, were indeed really “gains”, while neglecting the fact that internationally US imperialism was wreaking havoc around the world causing the massive death and destruction of millions and destroying efforts of the peoples in countless countries around the world to control their own destiny? I think we should always remind our working class, that the gains made here were in many ways at the expense of neglecting the role of… Read more »
Thanks Mike, I agree. I guess I get “accustomed to the “gains made” thinking. But in the trade unions that’s the way we measure things and track where we are at. The 90%+ of the woirking class with no union just drifts along at the bosses whim, their condition improves, falls, or collpases and there is no blame assigned to it other than for an idividual boss.Psrt of what I wanted to try to do here was to raise the issue of reform, or revolution? I don’t see that anymore. I see a lot of folks working like crazy, almost… Read more »
Unfortunately this article continually confuses two different things: reform and reformism. The movement for reforms is a necessary and fundamentally spontaneous response of masses of people to the exploitation and oppression they experience under capitalism. It is an objective manifestation of the class struggle and arises independently of anyone’s will. Reformism, on the other hand, is an ideological viewpoint that claims either socialism will come through reforms of the capitalist system or that revolutionary change is not possible. “The movement is everything, the final result is nothing” according to the founder of reformism, Eduard Bernstein. In “What is to be… Read more »
Rick, thanks for the comments. But take another look. I do not favor abandoning the fight for reforms, instead I think we need to introduce more science and evidence based thinking into what we fight for. So much of our movement energy goes down ratholes. They are frequently compelling issues but totally impractical and doomed from the start. Marxism as a science, as a social science, as a guide to action seems to me to be buried and therefore the revolutionary spark gets buried with it. Frankly I think the push for reforms is always more effective when revolutionary and… Read more »
Hello Chris- Good to hear from you, too. I hope you do find a way to visit Cleveland. I would love to talk with you.I don’t think you understood my point. Certainly discussion in the labor movement or anywhere else for that matter about the need for a revolutionary transition to socialism should be encouraged. But it is wrong to think that revolutionary change can be accomplished by the labor movement itself or any other of the movements seeking reform within the confines of monopoly capitalism. Revolutionary change certainly requires support from the reform movements, but is essentially a political… Read more »
What I draw from Chris Townsend’s thoughtful ruminations on reform and revolution are captured in his statement: Today’s reformist currents, liberal and social democratic both, are confronted with the painful but immense scientific evidence that traditional political reforms are unlikely, or even impossible under the current deteriorating political regime [my emphasis]. The refusal of the self-proclaimed “people’s party” in the two-party circus– the Democrats– to advance class-based reforms addressing healthcare, inequality, and global conflict surely calls for a discussion of how best to proceed under today’s conditions. Commentator Nagin’s repeating the left catechism that there is a dialectical relationship between… Read more »
Thanks Greg for the good words. I wish I wasn’t correct about the dim to nonexistent prospects for reform but as I say we need to assess things scientifically. It is sobering to consider it this way.
Well, Chris, I cannot quibble either with your analysis or conclusions. The question for me is, how does a principled and disciplined revolutionary movement become reality rather academic theorizing? I’ll go to the barricades with you, but who are the leaders and what are their motivations? Blind allegiance to a strong leader and the concomitant power that leader then is able to amass is the primary weakness of humanity, in my view. The world over, “kings” come to power whether “democratically” or autocratically. The American – Western European model limits the reign of the “kings”, but their societies are often… Read more »
Ed! Great to hear from you, and I joined you last year in the ranks of the sort-of “retired.” Unless you are still out their climbing the iron? I am keeping busy with a number of left and labor projects. I hope you are keeping a hand in someplace too. Thanks for the thoughtful words. Your question is of course, “What is to be done?” I don’t have that answer by myself but as I lay out if we would more scientifically assess things and then determine our strategies and tactics from a better evidence sample then I think our… Read more »