A response to Duncan Hallas' "Do We Support Reformist Demands? (1973)"

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A response to Duncan Hallas' "Do We Support Reformist Demands? (1973)"
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The original article in review can be found here: Do We Support Reformist Demands? (1973)


What are Reforms? What does it mean to fight for them in this period?

Do We Support Reformist Demands?

Such was the question posed by Duncan Hallas (d. 2002), a salient Trotskyist and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Great Britain. In this article, first published in January 1973, Hallas provides a naïve, befitting framework for how revolutionaries should approach “Reformism.”

Hallas himself joined the predecessor of the SWP (then called the International Socialists, or IS) in 1968. Soon after, he alongside John Palmer and Jim Higgins initiated an oppositional group within the IS against Tony Cliff's increasing tendency to make decisions without consulting the formal leadership of the group. This group would eventually split from the IS, although Hallas remained and became a leading figure in the SWP.

His piece, Do We Support Reformist Demands?, is broken down into three sections. The first, called “The Impossibillsts” discusses the so-called “minimum” and “maximum” programmes as they related to the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) and the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) at the turn of the 20th century. Hallas debates the issue of “palliatives.” Daniel De Leon is quoted; “The programme of revolution...demands the unconditional surrender of the capitalist system and its system of wage slavery; the total extinction of class rule as its object.”

Hallas critiques De Leon (who denounced any worker action short of revolution through industrial unions) for “cutting off” revolutionaries from “intervening politically.” In the very last paragraph of the first section, Hallas quotes Luxumberg: “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 power”; however capitalism “is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened by the development of social reforms and the course of democracy.”

In much of the era of Luxumberg and De Leon, capitalism was still able to develop and transform the working class, the productive forces, and capitalism itself. But by WWI, with large amounts of the working class slaughtered in the battlefields of Europe in Nationalist conflict, capitalism had already began showing signs of decay and internal corruption. Hallas fails to understand or fully grasp the decadence of capitalism. But he was correct to highlight De Leon was wrong for rejecting the struggle for reforms in the 1890's. We have said before it is true that “De Leon was wrong when he opposed reforms, right when he opposed reformism, and wrong for confusing the two. Reforms were still possible at the turn of the century. Capitalism was in its last phase of expansion, still expanding into Africa. The capitalist system had not yet completed its historic mission – the creation of a world market.” (The Legacy of De Leonism, Part II, https://en.internationalism.org/inter/114_legacy_deleon.htm)

In section two, which is called “Transitional Demands”, Hallas begins by questioning Trotsky. He discusses one quote which said, “It is necessary to help the masses in the process of daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of revolution...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.”

Hallas points out in the period 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.” So he shows some acknowledgement towards the fact that reforms which developed and transformed the working class, and the productive forces, were “very difficult” in 1973. He then continues mentioning another Trotsky quote about the “epoch of decaying capitalism; when, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards.” But instead of taking this for face value, Hallas comes to the conclusion that given the state of post-WWII class struggle worldwide, “modest” demands such as “employment and decent living conditions for all”, “a sliding scale of wages” (Trotsky) become useful experiences to the proletariat and the productive forces in general.

Hallas continues on, saying certain “indirect” demands “can be used by a revolutionary organisation, assuming it has a serious working-class base.” But that in “different circumstances they cannot.” He says that, “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.”

While Hallas seems to accept that post-WWII reforms are “very difficult” and “quite useless” in 1973, the conclusions he draws from this are crassly formulated. In the third section,”Reformist Demands”, he plainly states, “a revolutionary socialist organisation 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.”

In a situation where reforms are “quite useless” in the face of capitalisms decay, where they are “very difficult” to achieve and don't lead “to a struggle for the conquest of power” by workers, how would that struggle “improve the position and self-confidence of workers?” What we see happen today is workers getting involved in struggles over things like “fair bargaining rights” and four year, one-dollar raises. They are represented by the official Unions who give no deeper political perspective to these struggles. There is no mention of proletarian unity, or even proletarian identity. How can these struggles be beneficial to the working class when workers don't even consider themselves as members of the working class, but instead the “bottom end of the Middle class”?

In the last two paragraphs of Do We Support Reformist Demands?, Hallas discusses opportunism as well as “reformist demands” in general. He says that accusations of opportunism come from those who don't understand opportunism. He quotes Lenin, “never miss the slightest opportunity to achieve even small improvements for the workers.” He rejects Trotsky, saying “he mistakenly believed...that capitalism was in its death agony.” He then confusingly returns to the Luxumberg quote calling it a “paradox”, saying now the question of whether successful reforms “prepare [workers] for the capture of power” and “strengthen capitalism” comes down to “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.”

Even though it is clear that in 1973 Duncan Hallas had some idea of the decadence of capitalism, he fails to ever consider what that means for the “historical perspective” which he says is a prerequisite to understanding the question of reforms and “reformism” in this period. He not once discusses the link between the daily defensive struggles of workers worldwide against the austerity of the ruling class, and the revolutionary struggle for a communist society.

As is stated in the ICC's article The Legacy of De Leonism, Part II, “the necessary link between the economic and political struggles of the working class, between the immediate, defensive struggles and the historic struggle for communism is basic to revolutionary Marxism, but was rejected by De Leon [and misunderstood by Hallas]. Particularly in decadence, the polarization of the class struggle, the tendency for economic struggles to become transformed into political struggles, and thus the generalization of the daily struggle, is at the heart of the revolutionary struggle. De Leonism’s failure to grasp Marxism’s theory of the laws of motion of the capitalist economy, and its political implications for the class struggle, have condemned it to dire consequences on the political terrain.”

In this light, we can now see how condemning Hallas' endorsement of electoralism and Trade Unionism really can be. If the workers are making “no great radicalisation[s]”, to Hallas this is ok. And what of comrades who challenge this notion? Surely they are “an unreconstructed ultra-left or an incorrigible muddle- head” who have “abandon[ed] Marxism for pre-Marxian utopianism.”

The measure of a struggle, if it is to be measured, should be judged by how much the common dialogue of the struggle serves to deepen the workers understanding of their exploitation. How can this happen in the hands of bourgeois politicians and Trade Union representatives? Of course we should support “free school milk for children”, but reforms which do not serve to deepen the consciousness and unity of workers are useless to the revolutionary struggle for communism.

- Jamal

that was quick!

that was quick...I need to read Hallas before I can get back to you 

class demands

One problem with the Hallas approach, not surprising because of his leftist outlook, is that he doesn't see what are class demands and what are a form of bourgeois politicisation. For example, when he defends the call to kick out the Tories and replace them with a Labour government. That is based on the notion that in some sense Labour repesents a working class alternative to theTories and that working class self-confidence can be strengthened through taking part in elections and returning a 'workers' party to government. Worse still, he confuses such ideas, which are often used to derail real class struggles, with genuinely 'defensive' demands such as resisting pay cuts or lay-offs or repression. Supporting the latter kind of demand is essential and distinguishes revolutionaries from actual sectarians like the SPGB, who do actually support 'trade union struggles' but see no connection between the economic struggle and its eventual politicisation.


I'll come back later on reforms and reformism.

I think the underlying issue

I think the underlying issue here is actually substitutionism. The Trotrskyists' goal is to build a movement which its party can lead. It is the party that picks and chooses which demands are useful to the goal of preparing the workers for revolution. Therefore, the decision about which reforms to support, etc, is a purely tactical one. Whatever works in a given moment to radicalize the overall social and political situation and move the working class to support the Trotskyist Party.

The left communist approach on the other hand, as Alf notes, distinguishes between 1.) defensive demands that may have a reformist character in the moment (demands for a reduction in the working day, wage increase, etc. more vacation days, etc.), but which pose the question of captialism's ultimate insolvency at a deeper level and thus a potential radicalization of the workers' struggle itself, and 2.) those demands which are totally on the bourgeois political terrain (through the Tories out for Labour), etc.

In the Trotskyist vision, in which the party is the real subject--there is a greater willingness to embrace these kinds of reformist demands, because the party remains in control and is able to resist falling into reformism itself, using reformist demands to prepare the revolutionary seizure of power. In the left communist vision, in which the class itself has agency--reformist demands actually dampen that agency by ceding the terrain to the bourgeois parties. Defensive demands, however, can pose the radicalization of the struggle itself, depending on the dynamic of the situation.


reforms, reformism

The article on De Leon mentions the difference between reforms and reformism. Generally we have defined refoms as long lasting gains won through the class struggle; reformism as an ideology of gradual change from capitalism to socialism through piecemeal changes, or just a humanisation of capitalism. By this definition calling struggles for basic class demands 'reformist' is a misuse of the term.  

The  debate we are more often faced with, and not just from leftists, is whether reforms are really impossible in the period of decadence. Certainly the post-war boom saw an improvement in many aspects of workers' living standards. But is it accurate to call these reforms? The NHS in Britain is often cited as a real reform. But unlike some of the key reforms of the 19th centuury, such as the massive reduction of the working day, it was not won by working class struggles, and rather than increasing working class self-confidence, it tended to increase wokers' confidence in the capitalist state which brought in he NHS in the wake of an imperialist war. 

I appreciate all the

I appreciate all the additional input. Surely you all wouldn't mind if I incorporated aspects of these remarks into a revision?

I have a few further questions for the sake of debate though. Many times workers throw their force into issues which are inherently linked to confidence in the capitalist state. For example the healthcare or gay rights issues in the US.

To what degree should we denounce "struggles" around these issues? Would it be ok to say we are "against" them? Or would that just further alienate most workers from our intervention, and theoretical clarity in general?

To leftists like Hallas, "class demands" seem to be any issues the working class responds to in numbers. Even if the issues are totally on the bourgeois political terrain, to him there is some use in working class involvement. Where does the line get drawn between defensive struggles with "reformist character" and struggles which strengthen confidence in capitalism and the state? And furthermore, what is the framework for intervening in these situations without further alienating workers and leftists?

I think part of the question

I think part of the question is to clarifying what the actual demand is. A demand for better healthcare for workers is absolutely a class demand. A demand for state healthcare is not. Similarly, a demand for better wages and conditions or to keep jobs is a class demand; demanding nationalisation is not.

The leftists work by mixing up these categories, transforming the one into the other, defence of working conditions becoming defence of the state, etc. This can become very difficult to unpick.

To continue with the health example, we can point out that both private and state systems of healthcare have all undergone decline in the past few decades. The real question is whether the ruling class - in the midst of this historic crisis - can afford to give us healthcare. If they can't, it doesn't really matter whether the medium for delivering is via private insurance or the state. The form of delivery will certainly influence the form of the attack (private systems simply eject the poorest layers of society, while state systems tend to continue to offer basic care for all but at the price of lengthening waiting lists for operations, filthy hospitals, poor food, etc.) but the underlying fact of decline remains the same.

I think any demand that isn't

I think any demand that isn't (as John Reed once put it) "the whole damn revolution" is "rerfomist," in that it demands things that in the long run captialism can't afford to give. The question is what is the dynamic? Are the workers struggling on their own terrain or are they being pushed into a dead end struggle behind this or that faction of the state? Demo's example of struggling for better health care vs. struggling for national health care is a good one. But what about struggling to prevent the privitization of health care? Couldn't this be viewed as a kind of "defensive demand"? This is indeed difficult to unpick at times.

The issue for left communists is that we believe that captialism is broken. By its very nature, any reforms given will be quickly made irrelevant by inflation, some other cut somwhere else, by some mechanism or another. In this sense, any workers' struggle short of a revolutionary one is doomed to failure. Its demands can never really be met, by capitalism. One way or another, whatever victory the workers appear to win will inevtiably be wiped out in relatively short order. This is the nature of decadent capitalism. As Luxemburg once put it (paraphrasement), the workers' struggle advances not through a series of "victories," but through a series of defeats. Workers must learn that their demands cannot ever be met by captialism in a really tangible way. Thus, all struggles short of the revolution are dominated by a "false consciousness"--even when demands are on the class terrain.

I think this is the sentiment that lies behind the tendency to use "workers' self-confidence" as the metric for determining whetehr some event in the class struggle is positive or not. Because under decadence, only the revolution can pose a real solution for humanity--an event is positive only if prepares the ground for the revolution. This is how, in the left communist view, a defeat can become a victory--if it serves to stomp out illusions workers may have in making captialism better. This is how the economic crisis can become "the greatest ally of the working class." All of this has tremendous veractiy when taken from the long view of history--if you assume that captialism cannot be an eternal system, but given that most people do not take this view, it shouldn't be surprising that it is often mocked and denigrated.

Still, I think I might take issue with the idea that at some point (ascendance) reforms served to strengthen the self-confidence of the class. I think this notion cuts against the conclusions of the communist left in the period of the revolutionary wave. For Pannekoek and Gorter, reforms served to bind the working class to the state both materially and spiritually in a way that ultimately led to the failure of the revolution in the West. Of course, this broaches the entire discussion of "reforms" vs. "reformism," but I am not sure these can be separarted so easily as has been written. This seems to set-up a dichotomy of evil Social Democratic/union leaders vs. a naturally good working class that is hard to sustain. I think we have more theoretical work to do integrating the lessons of this period. I am not sure we ever really comprehended the implications of the Dutch/german left's work.

On the question of gay marriage/healthcare. I think this is an entirely differtent discussion that it would be good to come back to at some point. But a few premliminary points: it is true that the recognition of marriage rights for gay people looks like a real "reform." Perhaps it may be, but it needs to be put in context. To use the U.S. example, just as society appears to becoming more tolerant on that level, there is massive economic dislocation: poverty rates are as high as they have been in a long time, the median income level is lower than it was 10 years ago, etc. (all stats released in the last couple of days). The recognition of gay marriage appears to be more the result of a structural change in captialism, where material issues have been replaced by cultural and social ones. This demands further exploration.

Still, I don't think there are many working class people lining up to defend gay marriage. In fact, those who do line up on this issue (electorally at least), tend to oppose it. Its true that there is some level of sympathy for gay people on the question of spousal benefits, etc. But this issue has often been used by the bourgeoisie to divide workers (often right before an election.)

On the healthcare issue--the recent law passed in the U.S. is far from a reform, see Inter's articles analyzing it. It is an absolute travesty that much of the working class' desire for better healthcare/ more security has been diverted into a defense of this abomination. Still, many people probably think that it is better than the alternative or the status quo. Of course, many workers are also infuriated by this law and wnat to see it repealed. In short, this issue does little to unify the workers and only divides them, eroding their self-confidence.

Quote:actual sectarians like

actual sectarians like the SPGB, who do actually support 'trade union struggles' but see no connection between the economic struggle and its eventual politicisation.
what is that link, confidence?

obviously it has a visceral appeal, that there is a real link there. if only one of spontaneity, which also feeds into JK's point about substitution, as these always seemed to me to be opposing terms, for anyone except the most blatantly anti working class groups

edit oh seems that sponteneism has been superseded ? a long time ago, as well, 80-81