Throughout the history of capitalism, the workers have had leaders who have guided the struggles that won the few basic rights we have today: the eight-hour work day, the right to unionize and an end to child labor are just a few examples.
We can generally divide the leaders who have fought for these things into two main groups: reformists and revolutionaries.
A reformist tries to improve and reform the living conditions for the workers within the capitalist system (tries to make the system more “humane”), while the revolutionary fights for the same reforms as part of the larger struggle to smash capitalism. It is this fear of outright revolution that has forced the ruling class and the state into making concessions to the legitimate demands of workers.
The reformists often sincerely sympathize with the workers, but they do not understand the real cause of the exploitation and misery of the working class. They generally believe that the crimes of capitalism are just a tragic misunderstanding, and if only the bosses could be made to realize the suffering they are causing, things could be better. Some believe that oppression comes just because the capitalists are greedy, and take the burden off the system of capitalism. A reformist struggle is like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Reformists take the capitalist system for granted, believing that the system can be made more human but that changing to a better system is impossible. Because of this outlook they are forced to limit their demands to ones that don’t challenge the bosses’ rule.
“Of course you need a raise, but if you ask for too much, how is the company going to stay in business?” How many times have the workers been force-fed this line as an excuse for making concessions to the boss?
Ralph Nader is a typical reformist. After exposing in detail the criminal practices of the automotive and other industries, he proposed a mild legislative program to break up the monopolies and bring back a mythical age of small capitalism and fair competition that never existed. There are two reasons legislative reforms similar to Nader’s proposals are unworkable. First, capitalism naturally tends towards monopoly and monopolies have dominated the system since before World War I. Second, the monopolies have also dominated the politicians and now dominate them more than ever.
Revolutionaries are the most militant fighters for improvements in the standard of living and for defending the rights of workers, the poor, and the oppressed under capitalism.
Revolutionaries strive to lead the struggle in the trade unions, tenant groups, consumer groups, organizations of welfare recipients and unemployed workers, groups fighting high- er food prices or housing foreclosures.
While reformists are not the class enemy and often win sup- porters because of their legitimate struggle with the bosses, they are unable to consciously lead a struggle against capital- ism because they themselves believe in it. By not showing the workers who their real enemy is, the reformist way of thinking helps capitalism to continue and to oppress the workers even more effectively.
But revolutionaries lead these struggles with a view to enlarging them, deepening them, and with the aim of getting into a still greater struggle to overthrow the whole rotten, oppressive system.
- Marxism and Reformism – by V.I. Lenin