Why Socialists Should Fight for Structural Reforms

Abstention from reform struggles leads to ineffectual and irrelevant sectarian politics. Socialists must join them — and, where possible, lead them.

There is a common misconception on the radical left about reforms. If you’re serious about revolution, so the thinking goes, you shouldn’t waste your time with pushing reforms, because those reforms will only defer the revolution that we should actually be fighting for.

It’s true that “reformism” and “revolutionism” are distinct political orientations on the socialist left. But it’s important to be clear about what reformism actually consists of. It does not, as many mistakenly believe, simply mean the pursuit of reforms — which, by definition, do not replace the capitalist system with a socialist system in one fell swoop.

Instead, reformism refers to, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in Reform or Revolution, the “gradual realization of socialism through social reforms.” It’s the idea that socialism is a certain number of discrete steps away, and each reform inherently brings us a step closer to our ideal society.

It’s a way of thinking that leads to a fixation on reforms for their own sake.

To be a revolutionary who is against reformism is to oppose this gradual or incremental approach to supplanting capitalism with socialism piecemeal, like a high-stakes game of Jenga.

But revolutionarism is not opposed to the pursuit of reform itself. In fact, revolutionary socialists have historically been very focused on the proper integration of reform campaigns into revolutionary strategy. “Between social reforms and revolution there exists for [socialism] an indissoluble tie,” Luxemburg wrote. “The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.”

Stemming from their conflation of reforms with reformism, some on the radical left today conclude that a substantive but non-comprehensive change to the current order like single-payer healthcare  —  which will provide for and empower millions of working-class people, but won’t actually end capitalism  —  is fundamentally at odds with the idea of a revolution, which is what we really need. In order to signal their revolutionary commitments, they therefore regard reforms like single-payer with skepticism, if not disdain. They confront us with an ultimatum: pursue socialized health insurance and forsake the possibility of a radical rupture, or reject it and proceed instead to revolution.

This counterposition overlooks the possibility that some struggles for reform might actually bring us closer to revolution — and that indeed, they may be a necessary component of that project.

“The daily struggle for reforms,” Luxemburg wrote, “for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers to [socialists] the only means of engaging in the proletarian class war and working in the direction of the final goal — the conquest of political power and the suppression of wage labor.”

The idea that we should pursue revolution instead of reforms is predicated on the mistaken belief that revolutions are instantaneous affairs. As the late socialist organizer Peter Camejo put it:

“First of all, you have to have clear in your mind the meaning of the word ‘revolution’. Many people have a stereotyped picture of what a revolution is like. They say a revolution is when people come with guns, when they surround a fortress or take over a city. What they do is they confuse revolution with insurrection. Insurrection is just one stage of revolution. Revolution is a lot more. It’s a long process.”

Have we reached the insurrectionary stage of revolution? Definitely not. In the U.S. we have never come close to a point where workers were ready to wrest control of the state from capitalists and establish socialism. We have no independent working-class party, our socialist organizations and press organs are relatively small, our unions are on the back foot, and millions of people have effectively given up on the possibility of changing the world through collective action.

It’s important to acknowledge this, because if we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re not vastly outmatched by the capitalist class and its political functionaries, we can end up making deeply misguided decisions about how to act. Those decisions can result in the destruction of our movement’s infrastructure, while also alienating ourselves from a potential mass audience.

If we’re serious about transforming the social order as soon as possible, we have a responsibility to avoid making rash errors that can lead us down long detours. That means understanding that right now, despite our recent growth and rising profile, our resources are relatively limited and our popular influence is low. Even so, there also signs of regeneration that we can’t afford to ignore. The mass popularity of Bernie Sanders’ vision for economic redistribution and the growing favorability toward the word “socialism” is one indication. The idea of class has re-entered the national political conversation in an actually meaningful way. Educators are continuing to engage in deeply politicized forms of strike activity around the country. The membership of socialist organizations, which stagnated at a low level for decades, is suddenly mushrooming. And candidates calling themselves democratic socialists are winning elections in states and cities all over the country.

For the first time in a good half-century, the U.S. socialist left has an opportunity to engage in mass politics and make a real impact in mainstream political life. If we didn’t, the White House wouldn’t feel the need to publish 72-page memos propagandizing against us. We have to think logically and systematically about how to make the most of that opportunity.

What do we need to make a socialist revolution? Many things, obviously, but we can’t dispense with these two. First, we need the working-class majority to understand what’s wrong with capitalism and see the need for its replacement. Second, we need the working-class majority to be strong enough to really go toe-to-toe with the capitalist class and win.

When the socialist left thinks about how to choose the demands we should elevate and the campaigns we should focus our energy on, we should always be asking whether a particular fight serves these two purposes: building working-class consciousness and confidence (or ideological empowerment), and strengthening working-class institutions and giving working people more leverage over the bosses (material empowerment).

There are some reforms that — if fought for strategically and won on the right terms — position us better to square off with capitalism down the line and not get obliterated in the process. The Austrian socialist Andre Gorz called this kind of reform a “structural reform.” To be a structural reform, a reform cannot simply be an improvement in the immediate state of affairs; it has to involve a transfer of significant power from capital to labor, constitute “a victory of democracy over the dictatorship of profit,” and point to a world beyond capitalism.

Fighting for structural reforms raises the possibility of broadening the popular political imagination, raising working-class expectations, and strengthening working-class institutions and political formations. Fortunately, we have the possibility of participating in precisely this kind of reform struggle today: the fight for Medicare for All.

A key concept at play here is “decommodification.” The word means to take something out of the capitalist market, to shield it from the profit motive, to ban the involvement of private corporations and turn it over to the people. It’s what socialists want to do with everything, from housing and education to transportation and beyond.

And we’re in luck, because millions of people are demanding that that we do that right now with health insurance. In record numbers, we see that ordinary working-class people want health insurance to be provided by the state via taxes, and administered via a universal democratically-run program, to the detriment of insurance CEOs and benefit of everyone else.

Bernie Sanders has led the charge on Medicare for All and has done a remarkably effective job in linking the demand to the need for class struggle on a massive scale. He has popularized the argument that not only does health insurance need to be taken out of the market to ensure decent health care for all, but that the reason it hasn’t happened yet is that our domestic ruling class is standing in the way.

Seventy percent of Americans now support single-payer healthcare — up from only 21 percent in 2014 — and most accept the need to eliminate profit-hungry insurance companies in order to have a rational and equitable healthcare system that works for everyone. This reform struggle is already doing a lot to raise working-class people’s expectations for how society ought to be governed, as well as consciousness about the obstacles that must be overcome to govern it in their interests.

Medicare for All will help millions of people survive and thrive. But all progressive reforms do that, from a raise in the minimum wage to increasing food-stamp funding. Medicare for All isn’t smart for socialists just because it’s a “step in the right direction.” It’s smart because it attacks the core logic of capitalism in a serious way, with high material stakes for millions of people. It affirms the principle that we must have zones of life that are off-limits to capitalism, an idea which, when articulated on a mass scale, can change the terms of political debate and the terrain of struggle. Because if it makes sense to protect health insurance from the free market, doesn’t it also make sense to remove a host of other things we need from the market’s clutches, too?

If socialists sit out the struggle for Medicare for All, it will still proceed anyway. But if we jump in, becoming fighters and, where possible, leaders, we stand a better chance of winning and of further articulating and popularizing the socialist logic that undergirds this fight, and connecting it to other anti-austerity, anti-privatization and pro-democracy efforts. Heavy participation in this reform struggle allows us to agitate, propagandize, clarify battle lines, strengthen our organizations, build coalitions, and develop cadre whose skills are forged in the fight against the capitalist class.

As for implementation, Medicare for All doesn’t just offer much-needed and greatly-deserved relief to working people. It also increases our ability to intentionally push back against the ruling class. If unions didn’t have to make major sacrifices to protect health benefits, what else could they fight for? If a worker didn’t have to worry about losing health insurance when they lose their job, how much bolder could they be in standing up to their boss? If healthcare coverage is made independent from employment, how much less power would the bosses have over workers in the economy and in politics?

The liberatory potential of structural reforms is exponential, not additive. Some reforms are an extra chunk of change here, an extra subsidy there. But a reform like this upsets the balance of forces between the working class and the ruling class. Far from forestalling or distracting from revolution, it can add new dynamism to class conflict and builds the power workers in relation to capital.

No matter how ambitious, a single reform like Medicare for All won’t end capitalism, not even in the realm of health care. But it emboldens ordinary people to imagine new political possibilities, make new claims on the future, and trains them for bigger battles to come. At this critical moment, the socialist left must fight to win, and that means learning to spot a potentially transformative campaign when we see one.

This is not to say that Medicare for All is the only fight socialists should be involved in right now. Other fights might include demands for abundant and beautiful social housing, for tuition-free public education from pre-K through college or trade school, and for a federal jobs guarantee paired with a pro-environment green jobs program.

Socialists can have reasonable disagreements over what exactly constitutes a structural reform struggle. That’s okay, and that’s the exactly the kind of debate the socialist left should be having with itself. We should, however, dispense with conceptions that counterpose reform struggles to the ultimate goal of socialism as a different kind of society. The logical conclusion of hostility to reform fights is abstention from working people’s ongoing efforts to improve their quality of life. That kind of perpetual bench-warming leads to a kind of sectarian isolation made sterile by a lack of meaningful contact with the millions of people who currently stand outside the fold.

Class conflict is always happening under capitalism. Our task is to locate the most promising currents of mass working-class resistance, support them, and to win leadership roles in them on the basis of our good work. This would imbue them with a socialist perspective and character and draw in as many people into the struggle as possible. If we abdicate that responsibility, we’ve blocked off our best avenue for making a revolution in our lifetimes.