Reformism is the idea that capitalism is not a fundamentally flawed system that must be abolished and that the system's flaws can be fixed, that all that is necessary is to tinker with its gears. There are many variants of reformism - the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democratic Party in Germany, the Green Party in the U.S. are all examples - but all of them share this common feature.
We have already examined why we can't fix the system, and it would be pointless to repeat the discussion here. But it is worth repeating a quote from Rosa Luxemberg's Reform or Revolution because it is the revolutionary socalists' starting point for analyzing reformism.
She wrote, "... people who pronounce themselves in favor of the legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society."
With that in mind, we turn our eyes to the question of reformism. After defining what reforism is ideologically, we have to examine what is its social function and its roots.
In normal periods of capitalist stability - or in other words, non-revolutionary situtations - reformist organizations represent, and to some degree are the cause of, contradictary ideas within the working class. Lenin called the Labour Party a "capitalist workers' party". He called it capitalist because the politics of the Labour party are not anti-capitalist. He called it a workers' party, not because workers vote for it - workers also vote for the Tory and Republican Parties - but because the Labour Party appeals to workers on the basis of curbing the excesses of capitalism. Lenin's characterization of the British Labour Party generally applies to most large workers' parties which usually have their core constituency and membership in the unions.
Because reformist parties are centered and organized around capturing offices within the capitalist state, they lower their politics to the common denominator, they adapt to the prevailing winds within the working class. To avoid "controversy", they adopt watered-down positions on every issue. They follow rather than lead.
Another feature of reformist parties is that extreme passivity of their members. The other side of the coin of their members' passivity is the domination of bureaucrats within the party. Again, this flows from the fact that reformist parties, by their very nature, try to accomodate to the priorities of the ruling elite.
The influence of reformist organizations is generally negative, because it holds workers back from taking matters into their own hands, instead calling on them to place their hopes in the next election or in some party bureaucrats to lobby on their behalf in Congress or in Parliament. But the real danger of reformism is in a period of mass struggles, and most of all in revolutions.
In the early 1970s, there was a huge upsurge in working class militancy in Britain, precipitated by a Tory legislative attack on unions. Workers responded with mass picketing, political strikes, and so on. In the next elections, the Tories were thrown out and Labour was put in power on the basis of a program that amounted to "squeeze the rich, help the poor". The strikes and mass actions more or less came to a stop as workers looked with hope to their representatives in office.
But the strength of the working class is determined not by how many votes a "workers'" candidate receives, but by how big, widespread, and successful its struggles are. When the Labour government came into office and the workers calmed down, the balance of class forces tipped in favor of the capitalists. Upon assuming power, the richest CEOs and most powerful bank executives met with party leaders and threatened to withdraw capital and halt investment in the British economy if Labour actually did begin to "squeeze the rich", as they said they would.
So the Labour Party had two choices: either press forward, forcing the class struggle to an even higher pitch, opening up the possibility of nationalizing the property of the capitalists and possibly sparking a civil war, or capitulate to the capitalists and push through their program. Labour chose the latter, enancting a series of anti-labor laws, including wage cuts and cuts in social spending.
So even though the working class had captured political office within the capitalist state, the party that captured it accepted the limitations imposed by the capitalists, and in doing so was forced to betray the workers it claimed to represent. The Labour Party served to delude and defeat the working class, instead of helping to advance its interests.
In a revolutionary situation, the influence of reformists is even more dangerous and deadly. When the workers and soldiers of Germany overthrew the Kaiser and formed workers' councils like the ones in Soviet Russia, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) wasted no time in rushing to the head of the movement, only to better contain it and ensure its defeat. A situation of dual power arose in Germany - again, like what existed in Russia in 1917 - with workers' councils on the one hand, and a provisional bourgeois government on the other. Every other party was so discredited by their war-mongering that the SPD was the only party with any credibility left. The bourgeoisie and the generals of the army begged and pleaded for the SPD take power and "restore order". The SPD leaders entered the bourgeois government, making lots of sympathetic remarks about the Russian Revolution; the President was sworn in at a national congress of the workers councils, with a banner behind him that said "Long Live Lenin and Trotsky! All Power to the Councils!" The governing council was called the "People's Commissars", named after the "Council of People's Commissars" elected by the national congress of soviets after the workers' took power.
Once the SPD entered the government, they began to disband the workers' councils or allow them to become defunct. In many places, the power and the authority of the councils was too great, or their leaders were too radical, so the SPD-led government decided to disband them by force. They provoked the workers into premature battles, either through wage cuts, lockouts, or expulsion of their leaders from the government, and sent in a special force, the Freikorps, to put down the revolts. (Incidentally, it was in this army that the Swastika was first displayed; many officers became leading members of the Nazi party or commanders in the Nazi terror sqauds, the SS and the SA.) Workers rose up in city after city, town after town, one after the other, for a few months; the workers' revolt in each town remained localized, and it was smashed.
The defeat of the revolution in Germany - due to the treachery of the Social Democrats - sealed the fate of the Russian revolution, isolating it and ensuring its defeat through internal counterrevolution.
The reformists, during a non-revolutionary period, represented many, if not most, of the working class. But in a revolutionary situation, when ideas change rapidly in the heat of struggle, they become a barrier to the realization of workers' power, of socialism.
The irony is that the reformists, who reject the revolutionary violence of the workers trying to overthrow their oppressors, served the oppressors quite well, misleading the workers and even crushing them by force.
Rose Luxemberg was right when she said the reformists "...do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal." The reformists want to fix capitalism, they are the doctors of capitalism, attempting to make it better. The working class is the grave-digger of capitalism. Between a doctor and a grave-digger, there could be no greater gap.
Revolutionary socialists must always in every movement and struggle contend for influence with the reformists. Politics is like nature - it abhors a vacuum. In revolutionary situations - where workers were challenging the existence of capitalism by forming workers' councils - where revolutionary socialists weren't organized to present and argue for an alternative to what the reformists had in mind, the workers were eventually defeated; the revolutions thrown back and capitalism lived to see another day. Even in non-revolutionary situations, reformists continually try to limit the struggle for fear of upsetting the rulers too much; revolutionaries always and everywhere must seek to combat their influence by arguing for strategies that will win.