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Reformism is the belief that gradual democratic changes in a society can ultimately change a society's fundamental economic relations and political structures. This belief grew out of opposition to revolutionary socialism, which contends that revolutions are necessary to fundamentally change a society.
Socialist reformism, or evolutionary socialism, was first put forward by Eduard Bernstein, a leading social democrat. 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 the proletariat.
After the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War and consolidated power in the Soviet Union, they launched a targeted campaign against the Reformist movement by denouncing them as "social fascists". Arthur Koestler, a former member of the Communist Party of Germany, the largest communist party in Western Europe in the Interwar period, confessed in The God that Failed that 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 usurped 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 German SPD, as originally the Fabians had explicitly rejected Marxism.
- The Fabian Society