Skip to main content

Understanding Social Reform In A Non-Reformist Manner

Considering that the crazy right-wing crypto-fascist mayor of my city wants to cut every single service, and is in danger of losing his own constituency, I want to spend this post addressing a misapprehension that is sometimes levelled at some of the articles on this blog.  Due to my comments regarding Layton's death, or the boycott campaign I endorsed, it is easy for some readers to think that I have been endorsing a political line that amounts to a "drop out of society" approach.  Even though I was careful to qualify my position in some of the articles in question, I feel that the medium and the way people read things through an ideological lens that conditions us to misunderstand a nuanced political position––that is always dynamic and always open to the future––that used to be a basic understanding of critical communism.

That is, I have always endorsed a dialectical understanding of reformism and revolution: the boycott campaign, for example, was an attempt to use a mass-line approach while accepting this dialectic and was always understood, by the PCR-RCP who called for the campaign, as a strategy connected to the current political conjuncture.  I have often cited Rosa Luxemburg's analysis of social reform and social revolution as a starting point––an analysis I believe is much stronger and more universal than Lenin's famous piece about "ultra-leftism"that is not only generally misread but was proved to be historically wrong.  Sometimes I make (possibly dangerous) presuppositions about the consciousness of people who call themselves "socialist" or "communist" or even "anarchist" in this socio-historical context; perhaps it is wrong of me to assume that, regardless of how the current climate ideologically conditions our consciousness, people who call themselves socialist/communist still agree, in theory if not in practice, with the understanding of social reforms and social revolution best represented by Luxemburg's famous essay.

In the comments section of the Layton post mentioned above, there was some discussion about these issues.  One commenter who partially disagreed with my position asked some very honest and fruitful questions, made some good comments, all based on some points of disagreement and some perceived points of disagreement.  As much as I get annoyed by the behaviour of some commenters who misread articles, parachute in with asinine comments, and act insultingly (causing me, unfortunately, to respond in kind), I do appreciate these honest potential disagreements: I know that there are multiple shades of socialism and I know that the ideological terrain I've staked out does not develop in a vacuum but through dialogue and social investigation.  Because of that fruitful discussion, I've decided to edit some of my comments on that post into this article.

In any case, the current political climate of Toronto as it connects to Rob Ford's policies presents an opportunity to discuss this position in some detail.  Ford's policies are so honestly right-wing that he is going so far as to argue for the removal of public snow-ploughing––something that is alienating him from his car-driving constituency who only want the public services that apply to them.  At the same time, the "Stop the Cuts" grass-roots movement is not yet strong enough, and has not been strong enough (though it's growing), to challenge Ford's policies.  Comprised of the usual activists suspects (a group where I place myself), honest social democrats, unionists, and social service workers who are being targeted, it has not yet broadened the circle of its influence to the larger masses.  Thus, it is a coalition consisting of the usual left suspects––the population who will show up at anti-war demonstrations and trade union marches––which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but at this point it is a mistake to assume that this coalition has any influence on Rob Ford's policies or is the prime reason for his waning popularity.

The fact that Ford is alienating is own constituency, is now being investigated for fraud, and is wholly incompetent as a mayor are other reasons for his current lack of popularity: as much as grass-roots movements, reformist or more than reformist, are what ultimately produce gains for the people (the power is always in the street), at this moment the "Stop the Cuts" coalition lacks the teeth to be responsible for anything significant.  This is not to say that it won't be significant in the realm of social reforms.  Nor am I advocating the simplistic and ultra-ultra-leftist position of a wholesale dismissal of this coalition (as some of the typical dogmatic and purist marxist groups would advocate).  I do think it is important to be involved, which is why I was somewhat shocked when an acquaintance at last weekend's Stop the Cuts meeting asked me what I was doing there, believing that my position vis-a-vis elections and the NDP disqualifies me from supporting social reforms.  In this blog post, therefore, I hope to explain the nuanced political line regarding reform-revolution that has been the ur-logic behind even the more polemical anti-NDP and anti-parliamentary posts.  Simply because I do not endorse the logic of social reformism as a set politics does not mean that I reject the demand for social reforms, saving social services, etc.  Mine has never been an "either/or" position in general, though in specific instances an "either/or" line needs to be drawn.

1) Using Bourgeois Rights in a non-Bourgeois Manner

The state does have resources and I am not an anarchist who thinks they should be scrapped, ignored, or sneered at, or are simply "bad" because capitalism is "bad."  I believe in using bourgeois rights in a non-bourgeois manner and I think that supporting grass-roots reformist movements is important.  At the same time, however, I draw a distinction between becoming involved in a grass-roots reformist movement and wasting our time supporting a parliamentary party that has been drifting to the right and that, despite all our support in the past, continues to drift to the right.  Yes reformist movements have been powerful but they have only been powerful when they have emerged from below: voting and the electoral system are not what get us even these liberal reforms, though we're taught to think so––we won these reforms on the streets.  Moreover, we have a responsibility in these reform movements to represent (as aforementioned) a principled position and, by demonstrating in our actions and behaviour, the limits of these reforms even while we work to support them.

As communists, after decades of revisionism and retreat, if we want to grow into a significant radical force that can challenge the system we have to understand that we are in a moment of accumulating revolutionary forces.  Obviously an honest social democrat will disagree with the idea of accumulating revolutionary forces, or that we need to supersede welfare capitalism if we truly want to survive as a species, and that is okay: I disagree with this position, just as they disagree with mine, but I will support grass-roots movements for reform in a non-reformist way.  Moreover, the critique inherent in the anti-parliamentarian political line I have taken is partially a critique against people who do not see themselves as social democrats but as socialist, hard-left organizers: this position is something self-proclaimed communists, anti-capitalists, anarchists––all of whom say they reject the capitalism––should understand in theory as well as practice.

That being said, this political position should also be sophisticated enough to avoid becoming sectarian, engaging in turf wars, or degenerating into crude marxist puritanism and ideological dogmatism.  I know that in this harsh either/or political climate we are often faced with a simplistic bifurcation of being either unprincipled or dogmatic, but I do believe that it is very possible to be principled and non-dogmatic.

Although I agree that social reforms give us breathing room––sometimes quite literally because free medical care allows people to live and breath––my point has been that the left that the anti-capitalist left should not be wasting its time spear-heading reformist movements when social democrats are already doing this organizing.  We should involve ourselves by supporting these movements, and putting our bodies on the line when the state violently intervenes, but we should be devoting our energy to a politics that goes beyond the boundaries of reformism.  Luxemburg argues that reforms are good because they provide breathing room, yes, but that communists have no business wasting all their time pursuing reforms and liquidating themselves in reformist movements because this undermines any possibility of revolution.

Right now the reforms produced by capitalism are crumbling and because we keep saying "we want welfare capitalism" instead of "we want the end of capitalism" all we're doing is telling the people we organize that the best they can get are reforms.  And this position is reinforced when we write homages to liberal capitalist leaders and call them "socialist" and cry about how they made the world better when those reforms we attribute to them were won in the streets and often by people who wanted more than the reforms.

We need to support and involve ourselves in reformist movements but, at the same time, challenge the people in these movements to think outside of the reformist box.  To ask what are the limits of these reforms, why they cannot be solved by capitalism, why even the best of these reforms won't satisfy their human needs.  We want to fight against the cuts of social services, which is not bad in and of itself, but we need to start fostering a consciousness that explains the limits and inadequacies of every social service we've won under capitalism.  Even the simple fact that we have to buy food, water and shelter, for example, is something we need to get people to challenge and thus see socialism/communism as a real and vital alternative.

Since I reject sectarianism, I think it is important to work with other leftists regardless of our differences in the nitty-gritty, supporting their struggles in a principled manner.  As long as they are aware of my politics and do not prevent me from expressing them, and as long as I work diligently and not arrogantly or dogmatically, then people will be drawn to a revolutionary message: again the point is to pull in the most revolutionary-minded members of the masses, turn them into organizers, and grow.  You don't grow, and this has been proved by history, by: a) being sectarian and dogmatic; OR b) by being Blanquist (hiding your politics and therefore lying to the masses while failing to raise consciousness).  And we really need to grow.

The "Stop the Cuts" campaign is a space where those of us who maintain that we are anti-capitalist need to actively and openly challenge its core ideology while actively supporting many of its demands.  It needs to be supported because it is worth holding unto social services.  Its core ideology, however, needs to be challenged because of the limits I've described above––even on the most banal level, if we ignore the limits I've described, we have to ask ourselves what will happen if this campaign does grow into a mass movement and remains limited to a very specific discourse about Rob Ford's cuts?  The point is that it is a defensive and responsive movement that currently possesses little beyond fighting Ford––if it succeeds in getting rid of Ford and possesses the same ideology, it will fizzle out and everyone it mobilized will drift away.  We in the left generally only respond defensively and we need to relearn what it means to think offensively and for the long term.  We cannot do this with the limitations of reformism.

2) Failure to grow, focusing on the wrong areas of growth

I reject the idea that leftists should write-off people who are at different levels of awareness because part of having a mass-line approach to revolutionary politics is to: a) not have disdain for the masses; b) not condescend to the masses by failing to participate in consciousness raising; c) understanding that this consciousness raising also raises our own consciousness because we must also be taught by the masses.  But this means that a leftist movement should not be concentrating all of its energy on the same left in-club where we just preach to the converted.  Now we have an echo chamber that is now degenerating into a social democratic mire.  Of course we should still be active in these spaces, and should be willing to work with people there, but since so many of us in these spaces profess to be "socialist" we have an obligation to call into question the fact that there is a gap between theory and practice.

Returning to the example of the "Stop the Cuts" campaign, I want to again reinforce that so far that campaign is limited to a population that already believes that reforms are a good thing.  The circle of organization needs to be expanded beyond this population, which is predominantly activist, artist, student, unionist, and white collar worker.  This is why I agree with the PCR-RCP's claim that the left should be focusing primarily on organizing the "hard core" of the proletariat that is definitely outside of the holy congregation of the left that has had generally the same strength for the past two decades.  Again, it's not that I don't think these movements should be neglected, just that there will be no growth unless we figure out how to organize outside of this box.  I am not claiming that I know the perfect way to organize outside of this box, and this is something I'm still trying to learn, but I do know that it requires serious social investigation and not simply postering (this is also a critique of my own practice) and that we have to take this type of organization seriously.

And this type of growth is important even if and when we are only talking about social reforms.  The people who will suffer the most under the removal of social services are not the social service workers, even though yes they will be affected/harmed, but the masses whose very existence and life is dependent upon these services.  They need to be brought into these organizational spaces just as they (and all of us) need to be able to engage with a revolutionary discourse that also challenges reformism.

3) Climate of Austerity

The capitalist crisis that shakes the foundations of the system is already here and it began in 2008.  It's worse than the Great Depression and the climate of so-called "austerity" imposed by the ruling classes is one in which socialists need to band together to actually fight for socialism rather than just demand reforms.  For it is this climate that produces the Rob Fords, limits our ability to achieve even the smallest reforms without having to fight for them, and is responsible for the drift to the right evident in the entire parliamentarian system (which was one of the reasons behind the boycott campaign).

Again: this is not to say that reforms aren't important, but that we have to remember our prime goals: the end of a system that forces us to fight for scraps that keep us alive and make it even possible to live under its nightmare logic.  So many of us call ourselves "socialists" and will even say, on paper, that we believe in overthrowing capitalism, but we don't practice what we preach and this discontinuity is noticed by the masses.  It is telling that the socialist left has liquidated itself into mainstream trade union movements, asking only for reforms rather than building something sustainable can actually respond to the climate of austerity produced by the crisis.

It is also telling that the "movementism" that led to the WTO protests in Seattle and the FTAA protests in Quebec City has fizzled out.  By the time the G20 in Toronto happened, it was a sad caricature of anti-globalization because it was never able to put forward any coherent demands––either in the early 21st Century or now.  Again, keep in mind that I have a nuanced position to these mass movements: I am definitely not advocating that they shouldn't be endorsed or supported; revolutionary leftists should always participate in these spaces because, despite the failure of those who were in charge of these movements to provide a real alternative, these are still vital (even when they're limited) struggles.  The terrain of demonstration and every grass-roots movement is a terrain that we not only need to claim, but that we need to transform, in our claiming, into something that provides a real anti-capitalist ideology and structured movement.  The only terrain I have currently argued abandoning at this critical conjuncture is the rightified electoral parliamentarian space that saps up our energy.  But every progressive movement in the streets should be claimed by the left and, in the process of claiming, transformed into something even more radical.  As the French slogan of the Elections Boycott proclaimed: "le Pouvoir est dans la rue!"––the power is in the street.

In any case, over the past decades we on the left have failed to organize the subjective conditions that would have been necessary to cope with the objective conditions of the crisis.  We have acted defensively, we have imagined that the movementist approach (that holds disconnected movements will magically and spontaneously add up to produce revolution) was enough, we have liquidated ourselves into reformist movements where we are too wary to even speak of anything beyond reform.  Now that the crisis is here, and now that it is producing a climate of so-called "austerity" that will take away every reform we fought in the streets to gain, it is useless to keep asking parliamentary parties to preserve what they can't preserve because they themselves are part of the boundaries drawn by this climate.  We need to start thinking of real alternatives and forcing our mass movements, even the ones that see reformism as the only goal, to also imagine these alternatives.  To not act defensively but to build.

 Once more, just so that there's no misunderstanding, I am not some raving "drop out of society" puritan leftist who is opposed to the efforts of reformist movements.  Nor am I some dogmatic guardian of a perfect communism who will not support these movements for fear of polluting my eternal marxist soul.  I definitely do not believe that the people who are honestly organizing around reformist movements like the "Stop the Cuts" campaign are "bad" or "idiotic."  My point has always been to draw a principled position for how people who call themselves communist and socialist should approach these issues.  My point is to interrogate what our supposed anti-capitalism is about and, through this interrogation, realize that a real and structured communist movement needs to be built and that it needs to be built now.  Because right now we don't have our shit together and we need to get it together because things are only going to  get worse, regardless of the NDP and how we vote, and our previous and current practices are doing nothing to stop the onslaught of monolithic capitalism.


  1. Thanks for this, comrade! I think that independantly of the situation in Toronto, it gives us nice understandings on most every "liberal democratic" governement in this time of crisis around the world

  2. So glad you liked it... I agree that it applies generally, but I always find that I can understand things better when I'm writing (because half the time I'm writing to think myself through something) when I apply it to what's going on in my own context.

  3. Thanks for posting about this. I should say up front that I basically agree with the whole post, in case the rest of my comment muddles that.

    Part 1 has particularly been on my mind since, well, coming over to the left. I've known hard-line people who would argue that every successful reform is a failed revolution. At times, I've felt it hard to disagree with them. (Myself as an example: when I moved from a place with a couple of dysfunctional bus routes to central London, my immediate reaction to people who complained about London's public transport was try living without it, then. Having it at all dissuaded me from desiring more from it.) An additional problem from a radical perspective is that many reforms have regressive or firmly status-quo elements mixed in with the progressive ones. Same-sex marriage is a prime example of that. That us queer folks come to be seen as fully human is of course non-negotiable. But to seek rights through an archaic custom that came about in order to trade women as currency? Even if some aspects of marriage have improved (and they haven't for all women everywhere), further entrenching it as a marker of normalcy is hardly the way forward. So considering these two issues, I personally have difficulty voicing my support for many of these reforms.


    We have to remind ourselves and our more hard-line associates that, as you mentioned, many liberal reforms are indeed vital to the oppressed in our society--health care (including the range of reproductive rights), drinkable water, public access to necessities, etc. We can hardly expect to have a revolution if our allies are sick, hungry, or isolated, no matter how motivated they may be. In the Global North we also have to consider how reforms can be used as a sort of harm reduction for the South. By this I mean supporting measures that, say, restrict the exploitation of genetic patents on seeds in India by multinational corporations like Monsanto, and others that would perhaps stop some plastic from getting to those enormous garbage islands that are killing the Pacific Ocean. Reforms that look small to us can be societal life or death for others.

    However again.

    History around the world has shown that reforms don't last without an accompanying mass-scale paradigm shift. The oppressed certainly suffer under capitalism, but without meticulously crafted theory and practice, many will suffer under reform or even revolution, as well. I admit I'm not especially well-read on this particular subject and would welcome any information to challenge my opinion, but I'm not sure that there's a way to bring about a lasting global socialism without carefully combining reform and revolution.

    I bring such rays of sunshine, as usual!

  4. As if this blog is itself filled with rays of sunshine...

    Obviously I agree with the general sentiment behind these points and would argue that some of these and similar concerns (as I'm sure you know) were at the back of my mind when writing this post. One of the main issues for me is that the left that calls itself anti-capitalist should *never* be spending its energy spear-heading reform movements, though it should use those spaces to agitate, because social dems will do it with or without us. And our job is to agitate primarily for revolution and try to begin the work, however difficult it is, with the end of the state that we're trying to "reform" in mind...

    Here is where I'm not sure I understand your point about "carefully combining reform and revolution" unless you mean it as doing the former while seeking the latter because I feel (hence the reason for citing Luxemburg above) that the two are different ontological categories. And as you mentioned, "reforms don't last without an accompanying mass-scale paradigm shift" - this shift can only be accomplished through a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

  5. It could be that the confusion comes from different uses of 'reform.' When I mentioned combining reform and revolution at the end, I wasn't talking about a liberal kind where creating harm reduction is sort of the point of reforming (at least that's what left-ish reforms in the US tend to look like to me). I meant it more in the sense of codifying the paradigm we create through revolutionary action. I think we'll still need codification for various reasons even though we want the paradigm shift to make such regulations obsolete. That's been a point of contention in my experience. Anyway, I was being nebulous and I'm sorry about that. I thought my comment was already bordering on obnoxiously long, but I should've clarified anyway. Hope I managed to this time. Not a good day for brain.

    I agree about starting off with the envisioned 'end result' and resisting any efforts to water it down. Liberals haven't quite figured that second part out yet (or worse, they put on the "it's childish to stand your ground" act). It may be one of our biggest challenges to convince others that that world is possible and worth fighting for.

  6. No, you weren't being nebulous - probably more a misunderstanding on my part: clarity is hard on comment strings (especially when replying to not necessarily clear blogs). Totally get what you're saying now, though I kind of suspected this might be the case *after* I hit "post comment" before.

    As for convincing others, I think it's only harder at the centres of capitalism... And even at moments of revolution, some will never be immediately convinced, but they're usually the capitalist roaders.

  7. Glad everything is cleared up! I think we're pretty closely in agreement, I just have a lot more thinking to do on the issue.

  8. "The state does have resources and I am not an anarchist who thinks they should be scrapped, ignored, or sneered at, or are simply "bad" because capitalism is "bad." I believe in using bourgeois rights in a non-bourgeois manner and I think that supporting grass-roots reformist movements is important."

    Sorry, but this is a lazy straw man attack on "anarchism". It would be akin to using the Sparticist league positions as a basis for attacking communism or Marx. As someone who is still making up his mind about a platformist/synthesist anarchist approach and the vanguardism of Luxembourg or Mao and involved in both types of organizing, this is not helpful. I haven't had the time outside of work to read through everything I would like to reach a final conclusion, but I can tell you that there are strains of anarchism (which some have called "the broad anarchist tradition") that are compatible with most of your analysis and position. Basing a criticism of anarchism on some chic wannabe-radical insurrectionists or Graberites is just picking a really low bar and comes across as needlessly sectarian.

    Otherwise, I'm really appreciating your blog.

    1. The statement you isolated was not meant as a critique of anarchism or anarchist theory and it is somewhat problematic for you to misconceive it in that manner and label it a straw-personing of anarchism when it was disinterested in theorizing and attacking anarchism to begin with. As someone who used to be an anarchist, I am very aware of different strains of anarchism and have indeed written about my anarchist past, and defended anarchism against marxist opportunism, at various points on this blog.

      I'll be the first to admit that I write hastily on this blog and, due to the nature of the genre, quite rhetorically/polemically, but it is also fallacious to locate arguments where there are none and then red herring based on a supposed straw-person that does not exist. In context, the sentence should really read "I am not the type of anarchist.." or, even more accurately, "I am not a lifestyle anarchist who thinks..."


Post a Comment