Anton Pannekoek 1908

There are Reforms and There are Reforms
Two Sorts of Reforms

Source: Le Socialisme, November 7, 1908;
Translated: for by Mitch Abidor.

The question of the relationship between reform and revolution has played a preponderant role in all debates these last few years. We saw this at the congresses of Nuremberg and Toulouse.

People seek to oppose reform to revolution. Intransigent comrades, always preoccupied with revolution, are accused of neglecting reform. Opposed to them is the concept that says that reforms systematically and methodically realized in current society lead to socialism without a violent rupture being necessary.

Contempt for reform is more anarchist than socialist. It is just as little justified as the reformist concept. In fact revolution cannot be opposed to reform because it is composed, in the final instance, of reforms, but socialist reforms.

Why do we seek to conquer power if it’s not to accomplish decisive social reforms in a socialist direction? It’s possible that some anarchist or bourgeois brains have conceived the idea of the destruction of the old society and the introduction of a new mode of production with the assistance of a decree. But we socialists know that a new mode of production cannot be improvised by a magic spell; it can only proceed from the old via a series of reforms. But our reforms will be of a completely different kind from those of even the most radical bourgeois. The declaration of these reforms will make tremble the bourgeois reformists who never stop talking in congresses about social reforms, complaining of their difficulty. On the other hand, proletarian hearts will leap for joy. It’s only when we will have conquered power that we can carry out the complete task. Once master of this power, and no longer needing to take into account capitalist interests, the proletariat will have to destroy all of the miseries of our regime up to their roots. Then we will advance rapidly, while now every step must be painfully conquered and defended, and sometimes the conquered positions are lost again. That will be the era of true reform, in comparison with which the greatest bourgeois reforms will be nothing but poorly done work.

After having conquered power the proletariat can have one sole goal: the suppression of its poverty by the suppression of the causes that give rise to it. It will suppress the exploitation of the popular masses by socializing monopolies and trusts. It will put an end to the exploitation of children, and will consecrate large amounts of resources to the physical and intellectual education of the children of the people. It will suppress unemployment by furnishing productive labor to all the unemployed. It will find the resources to carry out its work of reform in the accumulated colossal riches. It will ensure and develop finally conquered freedom by the complete realization of democracy and autonomy.

The social revolution is nothing but this social reform. In realizing this program the proletariat revolutionizes the mode of production, for capitalism can only subsist on the misery of the proletariat. Once political power has been conquered by the proletariat and unemployment has been suppressed, it will be easy for union organizations to considerably raise salaries and gradually improve working conditions, up to the disappearance of profit. Exploitation will become so difficult that the capitalists will be forced to renounce it. The workers will take their place and will organize production by doing without parasites. The positive work of the revolution will begin. Proletarian social reform directly leads to the complete realization of socialism.

What distinguishes revolution from what is today called social reform? Its depth. The revolution is a series of profound and decisive reforms. Where does this decisive character come from? It comes from the class that accomplishes them. Today it is the bourgeoisie, or even the nobility, that holds power. All that these classes do they naturally do in their own interests. It’s in their self-interest that they accord the workers a few ameliorations. As soon as they see that reforms don’t succeed in putting down the people they begin to concoct new laws of an oppressive character. In Germany these are laws against the freedom of assembly, against cooperatives, sick funds, etc. After the revolution the proletariat will act in its own interest in making the machine of state work for it. The difference between revolution and social reform consequently resides in the class holding power.

Those who believe that we will manage to gradually realize socialism by social reform within the current regime misunderstand the class antagonisms that determine reforms. Current social reform, having as a goal the preservation of the capitalist system, finds itself in opposition to the proletarian reform of tomorrow, which will have the contrary goal: the suppression of the system.

The organic connection that exists today between reform and revolution is completely different. In fighting for reform the working class develops and makes itself strong. It ends by conquering political power. This is the unity of reform and revolution. It’s only in this special sense that it can said that from today on we work every day for the revolution.