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.