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Hugo Oehler

Discussion Articles

Social Reformism and a Labor Party

(August 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 21, 29 August 1931, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In dealing with social reformism and the labor party the thesis presents a position of correction compared to the previous analysis and although the main points are correct, there are, nevertheless, a couple of points that need further clarification. The thesis says, “Add to this fact, that American bourgeoisie is still powerful enough to grant ‘concessions’ as the growth of reforms, and we not only have an explanation of its expansion but also to calculate upon its growth (not its ‘narrowing down’) In the coining period.” Considering this in relation to, “Abstractly considered to be sure, were there a mass movement which would organize a labor party, the Communists would have to take up the question of working within as a revolutionary nucleus.” If we can “calculate upon its growth” then how can we calculate that the labor party “is a matter which has less timely significance today – even abstractly – than in years past, since there is no substantial movement at all for a labor party in the 1932 elections?”

If we consider the crisis and all the economic implications that go with It, as well as the future trend, we can agree that the degree of exploitation is increasing and the standard of living declining. Also considering the weakness of the unions and the Communist party, we can say the trend is toward a narrowing ECONOMIC base of social reformism. In other words, the trend of the economic factors favors the revolutionist and not the reformer. Such could not be said (except historically) of capitalism in its growth stage when “granting” crumbs could be well afforded for “peace-development” while today these concessions are for breathing spells of decay capitalism.

In this sense, the economic base for social reformism is narrowing but from this we cannot conclude, as the Stalinists do that reformism is done for – nor can we, by seeing actual growth of reformism, dismiss the problem by saying the base is not narrowing but has ability to widen, as the thesis says.

In realizing the historic limitations of reformism in America (as Trotsky points out) it would be wrong to deny its possible growth (Stalinism) but also wrong to present it as the thesis does. The difference between growth and decay capitalism, which turns around so many problems, also changes the problem of reformism. Reformism can have a narrowing economic base with an ideological growth. As Trotsky says, the support of the social democrats in Germany is not faith in the leadership but lack of faith in the Communists.

Since the developing of American economics is not moving in favor of the capitalists and their social reformers, but in favor of greater class battles and the revolutionist, it follows that the economic base of social reformism is narrowing. But because the economic base is narrowing it does not follow that capitalism will not and cannot grant social reforms. Precisely because the capitalist economic base is sliding, making more insecure its position against the onslaught of the workers, it must “grant” social reforms in order to stem the tide and save a tottering world system.

Material gains of the past and material gains of today as social reforms are different, just like some material gains of the workers favor the social reformers while other material gains favor the revolutionist, the Communist. In other words, social reforms of developing capitalism and social reforms of decaying capitalism have a different base although they both serve the same ends and same masters. But in serving the same ends, the social reformers are not as secure at present as they were in the past, because they don’t have the favorable base of yesteryear. This factor is what makes the following sentence in the thesis so vital and the key to the problem, “The proportionate strength of the two parallel streams (social reformism and Communism – H.O.) will depend in a large measure upon the course pursued by the Communists.”

The thesis must explain social reformism in relation to growing and decaying capitalism and the change of emphasis of some problems from emphasis of objective factors to emphasis of subjective factors. The basic reason for the changed relationship being the OPPOSITE TREND OF OBJECTIVE FACTORS in the growth and decay stages of capitalism.

Further the thesis must not deal with the labor party in the abstract. All indications are that the question of the labor party will be more important in the future than in the past (to a large extent due to the Right wingers and Centrists). This means to present our position on the labor party and farmer labor party, as well as the relation of the two which we are sure to have in complex American developments, yet maintaining the basic correct analysis on social reformism and the labor party as presented in the thesis.

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