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Reformism is the assumption that gradual changes through and within existing institutions can ultimately change a society's fundamental economic system and political structures. This hypothesis of social change grew out of opposition to revolutionary socialism, which contends that revolution is necessary for fundamental structural changes to occur.
Reformism is to be distinguished from pragmatic reforms - reformism is the assumption that an accumulation of reforms can lead to the emergence of an entirely different economic system and form of society than present-day capitalism.
There are two types of reformism: the first has no intention of bringing about socialism or fundamental economic change to society; the second type is based on the assumption that while reforms are not socialist in themselves, they can help rally supporters to the cause of revolution by popularizing the cause of socialism to the working class.
The debate on the ability for social democratic reformism to lead to a socialist transformation of society is over a century old.
Reformism is criticized for being paradoxical: it seeks to overcome the existing economic system of capitalism, but at the same time it tries to improve the conditions of capitalism thereby making it appear more tolerable to society. According to Rosa Luxembourg, under reformism "...(capitalism) is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened by the development of social reforms."
Reformist socialism was first put forward by Eduard Bernstein, who referred to the concept as evolutionary socialism. Bernstein was a leading social democrat in Germany. Reformism was quickly targeted by revolutionary socialists, with Rosa Luxemburg condemning Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism in her 1900 essay Reform or Revolution?. While Luxemburg died in the German Revolution, the reformists soon found themselves contending with the Bolsheviks and their satellite communist parties for the support of intellectuals and the working class.
In 1959, the Godesberg Program (signed at a party convention in the West German capital of Bad Godesberg) marked the shift of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) from a Marxist program espousing an end to capitalism to a reformist one focused on social reform.
After Josef Stalin consolidated power in the Soviet Union, the Comintern launched a campaign against the Reformist movement by denouncing them as "social fascists". According to The God that Failed by Arthur Koestler, a former member of the Communist Party of Germany, the largest communist party in Western Europe in the Interwar period, communists, aligned with the Soviet Union, continued to consider the "social fascist" Social Democratic Party of Germany to be the real enemy in Germany, even after the Nazi Party had gotten into power.
In modern times, reformists are seen as centre-left. Some social democratic parties, such as the Canadian NDP and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, are still considered to be reformist.
Reformism in the British Labour Party
The term was applied to elements within the British Labour Party in the 1950s and subsequently, on the party's right. Anthony Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism (1956) as a personal manifesto arguing for a reformulation of the term. For Crosland, the relevance of nationalization (or public ownership) for socialists was much reduced as a consequence of contemporary full employment, Keynesian management of the economy and reduced capitalist exploitation. In 1960, after the third successive defeat of his party in the 1959 General Election Hugh Gaitskell attempted to reformulate the original wording of Clause IV in the party's constitution, but proved unsuccessful.
Some of the younger followers of Gaitskell, principally Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams left the Labour Party in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party, but the central objective of the Gaitskellites was eventually achieved by Tony Blair in his successful attempt to rewrite Clause IV in 1995.
The use of the term is distinguished from the gradualism associated with Fabianism (the ideology of the Fabian Society), which itself should not be seen as being in parallel with the revisionism associated Bernstein and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, as originally the Fabians had explicitly rejected Marxism.
- Centrist Marxism
- Democratic socialism
- Ethical socialism
- Fabian Society
- Kemalist ideology
- Reform movement
- Revolutionary Socialism
- Social democracy
- Paul Blackledge (2013). "Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today". International Socialist Journal. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
- Duncan Hallas (1973). "Do We Support Reformist Demands?". Controversy: Do we support reformist demands?. International Socialism. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
- Rosa Luxemburg. Reform or Revolution (1900)
- Koestler, Arthur. The God That Failed. Edited by Richard Crossman. Bantam Matrix, Tenth Edition. pp 41-42.
- Reform or Revolution? by Rosa Luxemburg (1990).
- Blackledge, Paul (2013). "Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today". International Socialism 139 (London ref=Bla11).