The Myth of Non-Reformist Reforms

By Black Rose/Rosa Negra – Burlington

This gem of a passage by left economist and author Robin Hahnel has been locked away for years in a book of his, Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation, but deserves a bigger audience, especially these days given the popularity of the phrase “non-reformist reform.”

Hahnel’s central point here is that it’s not the kinds of reforms that matter so much as *how* the working class fights for reforms.

The Myth of Non-Reformist Reforms

What many libertarian socialists failed to realize was that any transition to a democratic and equitable economy has no choice but to pass through reform campaigns, organizations, and institutions however tainted and corrupting they may be. The new left tried to exorcise the dilemma that reform work is necessary but corrupting with the concept of non-reformist reforms. According to this theory social democrats erred in embracing reformist reforms while early libertarian socialists erred in rejecting reforms altogether. According to new left theorists the solution was for activists to work on non-reformist reforms, i.e. reforms that improved people’s lives while undermining the material, social, or ideological underpinnings of the capitalist system. There is nothing wrong with the notion of winning reforms while undermining capitalism. As a matter of fact, that is a concise description of precisely what we should be about! What was misleading was the notion that there are particular reforms that are like silver bullets and accomplish this because of something special about the nature of those reforms themselves.

There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform. Social democrats and libertarian socialists did not err because they somehow failed to find and campaign for this miraculous kind of reform. Nor would new leftists prove successful where others had failed because new leftists found a special kind of reform different from those social democrats pursued and libertarian socialists rejected. Some reforms improve peoples lives more, and some less. Some reforms are easier to win, and some are harder to win. Some reforms are easier to defend, and some are less so. And of course, different reforms benefit different groups of people. Those are ways reforms, themselves, differ. On the other hand, there are also crucial differences in how reforms are fought for. Reforms can be fought for by reformers preaching the virtues of capitalism. Or reforms can be fought for by anti-capitalists pointing out that only by replacing capitalism will it be possible to fully achieve what reformers want. Reforms can be fought for while leaving institutions of repression intact. Or a reform struggle can at least weaken repressive institutions, if not destroy them. Reforms can be fought for by hierarchical organizations that reinforce authoritarian, racist, and sexist dynamics and thereby weaken the overall movement for progressive change. Or reforms can be fought for by democratic organizations that uproot counter productive patterns of behavior and empower people to become masters and mistresses of their fates. Reforms can be fought for in ways that leave no new organizations or institutions in their aftermath. Or reforms can be fought for in ways that create new organizations and institutions that fortify progressive forces in the next battle. Reforms can be fought for through alliances that obstruct possibilities for further gains. Or the alliances forged to win a reform can establish the basis for winning more reforms. Reforms can be fought for in ways that provide tempting possibilities for participants, and particularly leaders, to take unfair personal advantage of group success. Or they can be fought for in ways that minimize the likelihood of corrupting influences. Finally, reform organizing can be the entire program of organizations and movements. Or, recognizing that reform organizing within capitalism is prone to weaken the personal and political resolve of participants to pursue a full system of equitable cooperation, reform work can be combined with other kinds of activities, programs, and institutions that rejuvenate the battle weary and prevent burn out and sell out.

In sum, any reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.

For further and more detailed commentary on left, socialist, and anarchist strategy we recommend the following pieces “Below and Beyond Trump: Power and Counter Power” and “The Post-Modern Left and the Success of Neoliberalism.”