What is the proper role of reform?

One might expect that Lenin would opt clearly for revolution over against reform, for an abolition of the current system over against tinkering with it in order to make life more bearable. A selective reading of Lenin’s texts can give this impression. Reform is thereby described as a “tinkering with washbasins” (characteristic of the Zemstvos), that is, introducing reliable water supply, electric trains, lighting, and other “developments” that do not threaten the foundations of the “existing social system” (CW 10: 189; LPSS 12: 263). Such reform may therefore be seen as a response by the bourgeoisie to the strength of the working class, attempting to steer the workers away from revolution by emphasizing reform. Even more, reformism is “bourgeois deception of the workers,” who will always remain wage-slaves as long as capital dominates: “The liberal bourgeoisie grant reforms with one hand, and with the other always take them back, reduce them to nought, use them to enslave the workers, to divide them into separate groups and perpetuate wage-slavery” (CW 19: 372; LPSS 24: 1). In other words, reform is a bourgeois weapon designed to weaken the working class. Yet, should the foundations of the system be threatened, when the proletariat begins its own onslaught of that system, all the various dimensions of “tinkering with washbasins” will be abolished before we can slip out a fart.

It follows that those socialists who see the prime task at hand to be reform miss the elephant in the room, for they wish to alleviate the conditions under which they work and do not realize that the problem lies in those conditions themselves (CW 5: 387; LPSS 6: 42; CW 10: 378–80; LPSS 13: 62–64). As Lenin observes in relation to debates, especially with the Mensheviks, over voting in the Duma elections, the danger is not whether some conservative party or other will win the elections, by fair means or foul, but in the very elections themselves: the danger “is manifested not in the voting, but in the definition of the conditions of voting” (CW 11: 459; LPSS 14: 277–78). One should never rest with what is given, but work to change that given. And the reason is that by fighting on the ground chosen by the enemy, reformists strengthen the power of their enemy.

What, then, is the function of reform? Is it to be dismissed entirely as a bourgeois deception and as a socialist compromise with the status quo? Contrary to initial impressions, Lenin does see a clear role for reform. In a daring formulation that is based on revolutionary experience, he argues that the opposition of revolution and reform is itself false. One cannot have either one or the other; instead, the condition for reform is revolution itself. Without any revolutionary agitation, reform would simply not exist: “either revolutionary class struggle, of which reforms are always a by-product … or no reforms at all” (CW 23: 213; LPSS 30: 282). In this light, reforms may be understood as temporary reconciliation with a partial victory or even failure in which the old system has been shaken but has not yet collapsed (CW 11: 30-31; LPSS 13: 221). More importantly, reform becomes a central feature of revolutionary agitation, a means of raising the consciousness of workers and peasants, a way of both alleviating conditions in the intermediate period and of pointing out that those conditions are the problem. In this way, workers will see through the false promises of reformism and utilize reforms to strengthen their class struggle. Or, to put it simply, as Lenin recommends to public speakers and the Social-Democratic Duma representatives, “five minutes of every half-hour speech are devoted to reforms and twenty-five minutes to the coming revolution” (CW 23: 159; LPSS 30: 221).


3 thoughts on “What is the proper role of reform?

  1. In response to this and your previous post, Lenin is right in the context of Russia in 1917. However, not necessarily to Germany of 1918 and especially for many “bourgeois” democracies today. Back to the issue of Social Democrats, before 1914, they were all Social Democrats- Lenin, Trostsky, Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Bernstein, and Kautsky. While your comments are true for Social Democrats today, it is not true for them prior to WWI. In Germany, initially very few members of the SPD voted against war credits. There were several votes on this. At one point, Liebknecht was the sole opposition vote. Due to this division over the war, during it the SPD broke into three factions (parties), the Majority Social Democrats, the Independent Social Democrats and the Spartakus. The German Revolution of 1918 failed because it did not gain the support of the middle classes. It was the right-wing Social Democrats who suppressed the Spartakus with the help of the Freicorp (see Harman, The Lost Revolution). Back to the point- there has never been a successful revolution in a republic (an indirect representative or bourgeois democracy) (see Tilly’s book on Social Movements). They have only occurred in monarchies or dictatorships. The logic is simple. If it is really a representative democracy, if the social movement is strong enough, it will invariable exert pressure through the political system and the system will flex enough to take out some of the steam of the movement. Prior to WWI the Social Democratic Party was the largest political party in Germany with about 34 percent of the vote. However, they were not able to form a coalition government and even so the Reichstag did not have that much power in comparison to the Chancellor and Kaiser. Bernstein’s revisionism was based on his experience living in England. If the system is democratic enough, then representatives will be responsive to the interest of their constituents. If the populace wants socialism, this hypothetically could take place though the electoral system. Of course, there are other issues involved here like the influence of money on politics, consciousness (education), and mass media. However, what I am arguing is that to be true historical materialists today we need to pay attention to current conditions. If one wants to achieve a more egalitarian system, then we need to figure out how to get there based on existing material conditions. This cannot be done exclusively on Russia of 1917. As a historical materialist, Lenin would have recognized this.

    1. Thanks Warren. I pointed out the situation re SDs before WWI in my previous post, but you’ve filled out the details a bit more. You are not quite correct on the point that all successful communist revolutions have happened under monarchies or dictatorships. Russia had a parliament (Duma) from 1905, and there was no tsar after February 1917 – the bourgeois revolution that Weber famously misread. It is worth noting that Lenin’s formulations of the revolutionary focus of reform happened in the context of a bourgeois parliamentary system, so I would suggest that his insights are germane to similar contexts (it is interesting that Putin and his cronies try to argue that Russia was derailed on October 1917 and that they see themselves as carrying on the process from February 1917). Nor did China have a monarchy, or even a dictatorship in 1949 (Chang KS was by no means a dictator, since his control was always precarious). However, at another level, wherever the bourgeois revolution has taken hold and ensured that bourgeois democracy is well and truly established, it has proven much harder to win a communist revolution. On that score, you could argue that bourgeois democracy is one of the most effective anti-communist mechanisms, for it continues to seduce people into believing that communism can happen through such a mechanism. It is no surprise that the government of China is uninterested in such a trap; nor are the majority of people in China.

  2. The reason why a bourgeois political democracy can never usher in socialism through reform is simply because, it is a “bourgeois democracy.” Whose core interest when push comes to shove is to protect a liberal economy based on the rights of private property and profits. It is much more likely to usher in fascism or some kind of authoritarian capitalist state than socialism. Where liberal political democracy and the liberal economy split, most obviously in a time of economic crisis, is when the masses through the rule of law and other democratic processes try to exert their self-interests by using the former against the latter. Then as we see in places like Greece, democracy goes out the window.

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