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Hugo Oehler

Discussion Articles

Reforms and Immediate Demands

(August 1931)

From The Militant, Vol. IV No. 20, 22 August 1931, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I take advantage of an incorrect formulation in the thesis in order to raise more vital questions dealing with its content. The thesis labels the practical needs of the day, reforms. It says, “It is the Communists who are the most ardent and willing defenders not only of their broad historical interests (the social revolution) but of most narrow, limited and practical needs of the day (reforms). It is in this way of linking the struggles for daily needs with the final aim, of having the former pave the way for the latter, that the struggle for reforms can be carried on in a revolutionary sense that is it can be directed against the reformists.” Not only is it improper to use the word or impression “fighting for reforms” but the way the problem is formulated the relation of immediate demands with ultimate demand, is wrong.

Can we Marxists use the word reform in this sense? No, I think we have been playing with this word long enough and it is time we start a thorough discussion in the Left Opposition, not on the word reform, but what is more important and behind it – the understanding of immediate demands and practical needs of the class.

The Position of Negation

All working class organisations claiming to fight for the class have stumbled on this problem to a greater or lesser degree. Outstanding in the Marxian camp are De Leon and the S.L.P., which, unable to find a way out, just threw the whole thing overboard and denied it all. But since practical needs of the class today are material things and not ghosts their denial was to no avail. The P.P., to this day, is following the footsteps of the S.L.P., on this vital class question. Both of these organizations have taken a negative position while the S.P., swinging to the opposite direction, has transformed every struggle for immediate demands into reforms of the worst kind. In the Communist currents, sad to say, we find them handling the question with kid gloves.

The three main currents of Communism take a correct abstract position on the question of immediate demands but experience has proven that the Right wing and Stalin Centrist are muddled and confused when the question descends to the sphere of practical life.

Experience has shown that the Left Opposition understands what is meant by immediate demands and its relation to the social revolution. Events which have followed the programs tactics and strategy we presented for these class battles vindicate our current; but the way the thesis handles the question does not come up to this standard.

We Marxists cannot borrow many dictionary words and use them to define things and conditions in the class struggle. The word reform is one such word. Considering how the word is used in the thesis (and not what you mean) I can follow it to the logical conclusion and add, the bigger and better and more reforms we fight for and gain the closer we will be to the social revolution. But facts prove this is far from the truth.

Is there any difference in the material gains or practical needs of the day for our class “given” by the bosses or their labor leaders or won by our class in struggle? To every Marxist (and the writers of the thesis have said such time and again), we know there is a fundamental difference for our class position. But the expression in the thesis does not say this. Only by understanding the class forces and causes for the way our class receives these material gains from “day to day” can we (after explaining) use it in a “revolutionary sense”. This understanding enables us to label the kind of material gain to denote reformist or revolutionary action in the struggle for immediate demands.

False Abstractions

If the practical needs of the day are “given” by the bosses or their government they are reforms; if they come from the bosses’ labor leaders, trade union or political, they are social reforms and if these gains are won by our class in struggle led by its vanguard they are sparks for revolution. Practical needs of the day for our class cannot be abstracted from the class struggle and the organizational and ideological position of the class. If we could abstract these immediate demands or gains from the position of battle of the class forces we could say all these gains are reforms. But such an abstraction is false while other abstractions, such as are explained in Capital are not false

We know that reforms or social reforms do not come from the big kind hearts of the bosses and their flunkeys We know they are granted from above because the class pressure from below compels them to relinquish this material gain for our class in order to stem the tide and check the growing opposition. It is more profitable to “kill with kindness” than to kill through white terror, providing the position of the bosses enables them to carry out the former. The degree of class pressure determines, in the majority of cases if the practical needs will be direct from the bosses or from their flunkeys or from the class itself through correct leadership. Reforms can be said to result from class pressure but class pressure without, or lack of, or wrong pressure of the class vanguard means a disproportion in the relation of class and party.

The growth and decay stage of capitalism will cause a big variance in this disproportion. In the growth stage of capitalism, the objective factors favor the capitalist and naturally reforms while the decay stage gives the objective factors to the revolutionist to a far greater degree. This brings to the fore the subjective factor, the vanguard as the vital determining factor of the problem as Trotsky points out, not only in revolutions but also in the struggle for immediate demands.

The degree of class pressure does not always determine the success of reformism, as the above will indicate. The stage of capitalism we live in as well as its ebbs and flows, and also its uneven capitalist development, is no abstraction in the class struggle. In the growth stage of capitalism, crumbs in respond to class pressure were the least evil for the bosses, because the very expansion and new markets more than made up tor the loss. In the decay stage reforms are bitter concessions from the capitalist, knit to a higher degree not only to the class pressure but more so to the policies of the vanguard.

When Bosses Grant Reform

If capitalism grants reforms (beats us to our point of advantage) this has its ideological influence upon our class or section of the class as well as a negative organizational result, scattering our forces and at the same time driving these class forces into some form of capitalist controlled organization.

Such prevents the crystallization of our class ideology and unless the vanguard is wide awake and capable we lose even the possibility of retrenching ourselves for the next struggle. In this sense, as a class problem and not as an abstract material gain our class, which only learns by experience, has lost by the bosses’ coup and with it the vanguard loses. Do not material gains even void these above mentioned factors, gains and a step toward revolution? No.

With the capitalist coup in reforms, the class line re-forms with the bosses at a more advantageous position than before. A material gain given by capitalism as a reform is just so much labor power (controlled by capitalism) spent as it would be spent on the battlefield in destruction of the enemy forces by shells and ammunition. But the comparison does not hold water. Because a material gain even in relation to the capitalist is just so much spent, in relation to the workers it is a material gain. Let us see. If the vanguard of the workers moves up and intrenches the class behind the material gain (reform and not a spark) it is already a NEW PROBLEM and especially a total different struggle if the capitalists try to retake it. If the capitalists try to retake what they gave, and not what we won, it is no longer a question of reform in the sense of immediate demand (offensive struggle) but a problem of defensive struggles of our class.

How many material gains (regardless of how they came) were retaken and are being retaken by the capitalist in the present crisis? Any thinking worker can answer this fairly well. In this case if the vanguard does not measure up to standards we can say, the greater the number of these gains through reforms and social reforms, the easier it is for capitalism to retake them and the numbers that come to us as material gains as sparks toward revolution the harder it is for the capitalist to retake.

One only has to look at the sick coal industry (favorable to the capitalist) with past gains primarily through class struggle and compare it with other healthy capitalist industries (favorable to the workers) where gains were mainly reforms and realize the difference between the two. A comparison will show reforms are relinquished easier than the gains through class battles unless the vanguard’s right or wrong policy alters the problem.

The Communist Task

Can we, the Communists, lay down definite plans to prevent our action from following the reformist camp? We can lay down principles in general, but it is impossible to lay down a line of march that is fool-proof. Each concrete struggle must have its tactics formulated on the basis of Marxian analysis. A line of demarcation between reformist action (reforms) and revolutionary action can be made in every struggle but every developing struggle will have forces and action of both. It is up to the Communist to move these struggles out of the channels of REFORM into the channels of deeper class struggles. A simon-pure struggle (made in the office of the bureaucrats) is just as wrong (isolation) as to enter movements which are organizationally part of the enemy forces (Parliamentary action – charity organizations, etc.), the latter will not be isolation from numbers but will be isolation from the role of the Communist as the vanguard toward revolution.

Has not the Militant time and again pointed out through dozens of struggles, the action of the Stalinite Centrist and Lovestone Right wingers which was a reformist and not a Marxian action of class struggle? These are facts and correct demarcations between reforms and sparks, which the theses, in its formulation, does not live up to. Our relation to the U.S.S.R. is reform and to American imperialism it is revolution but the road to revolution does not lead through reforms.

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