Workers' Daily Struggles - Revolution Versus Reformism

Workers' Daily Struggles - Revolution Versus Reformism
reprinted from THE PEOPLE
September 15, 1979

Workers' Daily Struggles

Revolution Versus Reformism

Bridging the gap between the establishment of socialism and the prevailing consciousness of the working class has always been a challenge to revolutionary organizations. It is this challenge that is at the root of the decades-long debate among socialists as to what constitutes proper strategy and tactics for a revolutionary party. This question impinges directly on socialists' attitude toward, and involvement in, workers' daily struggles against both their exploiters and the executive committee of their exploiters -- the political state.

There are those who hold that any involvement by a working-class organization in the daily manifestations of the class struggle will inevitably cause that organization to stray from the revolutionary path. Their premise is that activities in support of workers' efforts to improve their lot, activities in defense of democratic principles, activities within existing pro-capitalist, unions, etc., are inherently reformistic and thus un-Marxian. They hold that nothing short of an explicitly revolutionary act merits the active support of a revolutionary party. The revolutionary party must, they contend, maintain a critical attitude toward all day-to-day struggles and conduct its own agitational work in ways that will prevent it from being associated with any other organizations that aim at anything less than the overthrow of capitalism.

SLP View

However, the SLP holds that involvement in daily struggles is not inherently reformistic. Indeed, such involvement, conducted in principled, classconscious, non-opportunistic fashion is an indispensible aspect of sound revolutionary tactics. In practical terms, the revolutionary party can, by participating in workers' daily struggles, gain firsthand knowledge and experience that will aid it in improving its strategy and tactics. Such participation can also help socialists clarify policies on those issues around which large numbers of workers have been moved to action. And while affording the revolutionary party opportunities to improve through actual practice its methods of agitation and education, such involvement injects revolutionary politics and concepts into the immediate struggle, thus bringing socialist perspectives to the attention of the workers involved.

Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Daniel De Leon and others who were implacable enemies of opportunism and reformism never regarded these potential pitfalls as barriers to involvement by socialists in the class struggle. In fact, on more than one occasion Marx castigated those who looked upon workers' struggles against the constant encroachments of capital as contrary to revolutionary principles. His scorn of those who held such views is clearly evident from the following satirical excerpt from his essay, "Indifference to Politics," written in January, 1873:

"The working class should not form a political party, and should not. under any circumstances, undertake political action, since to combat the State is to recognize the State, which is contrary to the eternal principles.

"The workers must not strike, since to make efforts to increase one's wages or prevent them from being reduced is to recognize Wages, which is contrary to the eternal principles of emancipation of the working class!

"If in the political struggle against the bourgeois State the workers only manage to wrest concessions, they are making compromises, which is contrary to the eternal principles....

"The workers must make no effort to establish a legal limit to the working day, since this is like making compromises with the bosses, who could then only exploit them for ten to twelve hours instead of fourteen to sixteen.

"They must not even bother to have the employment of children below the age often in the factories forbidden by law, since in this way they are not putting an end to the exploitation of children...and are thus making another compromise, which prejudices the purity of the eternal principles.

"Still less should the workers desire that...the State...should be obliged to provide elementary education for the children of workers because elementary education is not complete education. It is better that working men and women should not know how to read or write or count...Far better that the working class should be afflicted by ignorance and sixteen hour's drudgery than that the eternal principles should be violated!..."

Engels shared Marx's views regarding working-class resistance to capitalist encroachments. "The political freedoms, the right of assembly and association and the freedom of the press, these are our weapons," he once wrote. "Are we to fold our arms and abstain if they seek to deprive us of them? We are told that any political act implies recognition of the existing state of affairs. But when this state of affairs gives us the means to protest against it, the use of such means is not recognition of the existing state of affairs." (Notes from a speech delivered at the London Conference, Sept. 21, 1871.)

Marx and Engels had no difficulty finding principled means of working "along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving .up or hiding our [their] own distinct position..." (Engels in a letter to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky, Jan. 7, 1887.)

De Leon's Involvement

De Leon, too, had no difficulty finding principled means of working within the working-class movement. He pointed out that "socialism being a science is planted also upon the general science of practice." He added that only the dogmatist, being ignorant of what this principle imports, "would insist upon a complete divorcement of the socialist forces from all others, everywhere and under all circumstances." (Daily People, Nov. 28, 1910.)

De Leon insisted upon no such complete divorcement. He was actively involved in carrying out SLP policy by participating in the Knights of Labor, the establishment of the ST&LA, the organization of the IWW, the SLP's association with the Second International, the Haywood-Pettibone-Moyer defense, the Morrie Preston case, the Paterson silk strike, etc. He shared the platform with lawyers, libertarians and other political figures at mass meetings protesting ruling-class persecution of individuals. He led a delegation to Trenton, N.J. in 1912 to lodge a protest with then-Governor Woodrow Wilson against police brutality in New Jersey cities. He opposed the Spanish-American war, championed Cuban independence and supported the Russian Revolution of 1905.

In short, De Leon and the party generally were active and principled participants in major class-struggle events of his day. And the party continued to be a participant in such events for years following De Leon's death. Thus, in 1919, it officially circulated petitions that were then sent to the members of Congress demanding the withdrawl of U.S. troops from Russia.

Such activities continued well into the twenties. A typical example was a "Monster Mass Meeting" in Paterson, New Jersey, on October 6, 1924, "to protest against police infringement upon the civil rights of the workers..." At that meeting, John C. Butterworth, a member of the SLP's National Executive Committee, shared the platform with representatives of the Workers Party and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Position Of Rosa Luxemburg

No one is better known in the international socialist movement as an enemy of reformism than Rosa Luxemburg. Her work, "Reform or Revolution" (1899), has been aptly described as "the classic statement of the position of scientific socialism on the questions of capitalist development, 'historical necessity,' social reforms, the state, democracy and the character of the proletarian revolution" (Forward to Integer's translation of the work.)

The tactical problem confronting the socialist movement was clear to Luxemburg. In an article on "Opportunism and the Art of the Possible," she observed, "The basic question of the socialist movement has always been how to bring its immediate practical activity into agreement with its ultimate goal..." She knew that the answer to this question was neither easy nor mechanical. She noted that one "must judge and debate [this matter] on the basis of the existing concrete relationships of the existing economic and political situation, and not of a lifeless and abstract principle...."

She realized, however, that there is a fine line, an all-important line, between "practical every day action" that is consistent with socialist principles and goal, and reformism, which negates or contradicts those principles and obscures the goat. In this connection she wrote, "But if we begin to chase after what is 'possible' according to the principles of opportunism, unconcerned with our own principles, and by means of statesmanlike barter, then we will soon find ourselves in the same situation as the hunter who has not only failed to slay the deer but has also lost his gun in the process."

On another occasion she observed, "From the viewpoint of a movement for socialism, the trade-union struggle and our parliamentary practice are vastly important in so far as they make socialistic the awareness, the consciousness, of the proletariat and help to organize it as a class. But once they are considered as instruments of the direct socialization of capitalist economy, they lose not only their usual effectiveness but cease being means of preparing the working class for the conquest of power." ("Social Reform or Revolution")

The Socialist Labor Party clearly recognizes the dangers that lurk in the swamp of reform. It keeps uppermost in mind the need to promote among the workers it reaches a clear classconscious understanding of the nature of capitalist society and its inherent contradictions. Accordingly, in any activity relating to the workers' daily struggles and the current movements they set on foot, the SLP does not hide or rationalize the capitalist cause of the problems being addressed. Nor does it hesitate to point to the inevitable limitations of any movement that fails to address the capitalist cause. In the process, the SLP seeks to tie all the immediate struggles and problems of our class to the essential task of creating the worker-controlled revolutionary organizations capable of accomplishing a fundamental social change to socialism.