"It is not true to say therefore, that revolutionaries are systematically opposed to improvements, to reforms. They oppose the reformists on the one hand because their methods are less effective for securing reforms from governments and employers, who only give in through fear, and on the other hand because very often the reforms they prefer are those which not only bring doubtful immediate benefits, but also serve to consolidate the existing regime and to give the workers a vested interest in its continued existence."
"Apart from the unpleasantness of the word which has been abused and discredited by politicians, anarchism has always been, and can never be anything but, reformist. We prefer to say reformative in order to avoid any possible confusion with those who are officially classified as “reformists” and seek by means of small and often ephemeral improvements to make the present system more bearable (and as a result help to consolidate it); or who instead believe in good faith that it is possible to eliminate the existing social evils by recognising and respecting, in practice if not in theory, the basic political and economic institutions which are the cause of as well as the prop that supports these evils. But in any case it is always a question of reforms, and the essential difference lies in the kind of reform one wants and the way one thinks of being able to achieve it. Revolution means, in the historical sense of the word, the radical reform of institutions, achieved rapidly by the violent insurrection of the people against existing power and privileges; and we are revolutionaries and insurrectionists because we do not just want to improve existing institutions but to destroy them completely, abolishing every form of domination by man over man, and every kind of parasitism on human labour; and because we want to achieve this as quickly as possible, and because we believe that institutions born of violence are maintained by violence and will not give way except to an equivalent violence. But the revolution cannot be made just when one likes. Should we remain inactive, waiting for the situation to mature with time"
---Reformism By Errico Malatesta
"As anarchist communists, we are against reformism. However, we are for reforms"
"We are against reformism. Reformism is the belief that the system as it currently exists can remain, but just needs to be slightly improved. For reformists, reform is the end goal. They are not against the system; they are against what they see as the “excesses” of the system. We don’t see the harm that the system does as excesses of the system, but expressions of the fundamental nature of the system. We see the reformists trying to hold down the lid of a boiling pot of water, or letting steam go from that boiling pot now and then; but they do not address the fundamental problem."
"So if we’re against reformism, or reforms as the only goal, shouldn’t we be against reforms themselves? No. We want to make gains, and we are against the position that gains are pointless. Purism is the tendency of some to try to be so pure in their ideological position that they are unable to deal with the sloppiness of reality. It wrongly equates reforms with reformism itself. It rejects any position that doesn’t exactly mirror its ideological position. It leaves little room for dialogue and building with others, and instead is trapped in a position of constantly calling for the long-term vision without a clear proposal as to how to get there, or a clear way to build with people along the way. Purism often leads little room for activity besides ungrounded agitational writing and abstract theorizing from the sidelines. This “all or nothing” approach leaves little room for development towards a revolutionary situation. It ignores how the short and medium-term can connect to a long-term vision, and instead only focuses on the long term."
"come out of both wins and gains in reform struggles.
Some important elements within reform struggles are to:
1) fight the reforms directly using bottom-up, collective power against elite power instead of legalistic, electoral or other top-down “solutions”. This will build power rather than reinforcing savior complex dependencies.
2) always acknowledge before the end of the struggle the risks of losing- and being prepared to deal with this- as well as emphasizing the importance of struggle beyond the particular reform. Whether reforms are won or lost, the struggle continues until the unjust situation is changed.
3) always reflecting, always acknowledging areas to improve and always attempting to improve these things together. If we aren’t basing our struggle in praxis- the combination of action and reflection- then we’re either engaging in empty, ungrounded theory from the sidelines, or thoughtless, ineffective activism."
Every weakening of whatever kind of authority, each accession of liberty will be a progress towards Anarchism; always it should be conquered — never asked for; always it should serve to give us greater strength in the struggle; always it should make us consider the state as an enemy with whom we should never make peace; always it should make us remember well that the decrease of the ills produced by the government consists in the decrease of its attributions and powers, and the resulting terms should be determined not by those who governed but by those were governed. By government we mean any person or group of persons in the state, country, community, or association who has the right to make laws and inflict them upon those who do not want them.
We cannot as yet abolish private property; we cannot regulate the means of production which is necessary to work freely; perhaps we shall not be able to do so in the next insurrectional movement. But this does not prevent us now, or will it in the future, from continually opposing capitalism or any other form of despotism. And each victory, however small, gained by the workers against their exploiters, each decrease of profit, every bit of wealth taken from the individual owners and put at the disposal of all, shall be a progress — a forward step towards Anarchism. Always it should serve to enlarge the claims of the workers and to intensify the struggle; always it should be accepted as a victory over an enemy and not as a concession for which we should be thankful; always we should remain firm in our resolution to take with force, as soon as it will be possible, those means which the private owners, protected by the government, have stolen from the workers. "
Whatever may be the practical results of the struggle for immediate gains, the greatest value lies in the struggle itself. For thereby workers [and other oppressed sections of society] learn that the bosses interests are opposed to theirs and that they cannot improve their conditions, and much less emancipate themselves, except by uniting and becoming stronger than the bosses. If they succeed in getting what they demand, they will be better off: they will earn more, work fewer hours and will have more time and energy to reflect on the things that matter to them, and will immediately make greater demands and have greater needs. If they do not succeed they will be led to study the reasons of their failure and recognise the need for closer unity and greater activity and they will in the end understand that to make victory secure and definite, it is necessary to destroy capitalism. The revolutionary cause, the cause of moral elevation and emancipation of the workers [and other oppressed sections of society] must benefit by the fact that workers [and other oppressed people] unite and struggle for their interests." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 191]
By seeking improvements from below by direct action, solidarity and the organisation of those who directly suffer the injustice, anarchists can make reforms more substantial, effective and long lasting than "reforms" made from above by reformists. By recognising that the effectiveness of a reform is dependent on the power of the oppressed to resist those who would dominate them, anarchists seek change from the bottom-up and so make reforms real rather than just words gathering dust in the law books
For example, a reformist sees poverty and looks at ways to lessen the destructive and debilitating effects of it: this produced things like the minimum wage, affirmative action, the projects in the USA and similar reforms in other countries. An anarchist looks at poverty and says, "what causes this?" and attacks that source of poverty, rather than the symptoms. While reformists may succeed in the short run with their institutional panaceas, the festering problems remain untreated, dooming reform to eventual costly, inevitable failure -- measured in human lives, no less. Like a quack that treats the symptoms of a disease without getting rid of what causes it, all the reformist can promise is short-term improvements for a condition that never goes away and may ultimately kill the sufferer. The anarchist, like a real doctor, investigates the causes of the illness and treats them while fighting the symptoms.
Therefore, anarchists are of the opinion that "[w]hile preaching against every kind of government, and demanding complete freedom, we must support all struggles for partial freedom, because we are convinced that one learns through struggle, and that once one begins to enjoy a little freedom one ends by wanting it all. We must always be with the people . . . [and] get them to understand . . . [what] they may demand should be obtained by their own efforts and that they should despise and detest whoever is part of, or aspires to, government." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas p. 195]
So, anarchists are not opposed to struggles for reforms and improvements in the here and now. Indeed, few anarchists think that an anarchist society will occur without a long period of anarchist activity encouraging and working within social struggle against injustice. Thus Malatesta's words:
"the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchism today, tomorrow or within ten centuries, but that we walk towards Anarchism today, tomorrow and always." [Towards Anarchism, p. 75]
So, when fighting for improvements anarchists do so in an anarchist way, one that encourages self-management, direct action and the creation of libertarian solutions and alternatives to both capitalism and the state.
So, anarchists oppose reformism because it takes the steam out of revolutionary movements by providing easy, decidedly short-term "solutions" to deep social problems. In this way, reformists can present the public with they've done and say "look, all is better now. The system worked." Trouble is that over time, the problems will only continue to grow because the reforms did not tackle them in the first place. To use Alexander Berkman's excellent analogy:
"If you should carry out [the reformers'] ideas in your personal life, you would not have a rotten tooth that aches pulled out all at once. You would have it pulled out a little to-day, some more next week, for several months or years, and by then you would be ready to pull it out altogether, so it should not hurt so much. That is the logic of the reformer. Don't be 'too hasty,' don't pull a bad tooth out all at once." [What is Anarchism?, p. 64]Rather than seek to change the root cause of the problems (namely in a hierarchical, oppressive and exploitative system), reformists try to make the symptoms better. In the words of Berkman again:
"Suppose a pipe burst in your house. You can put a bucket under the break to catch the escaping water. You can keep on putting buckets there, but as long as you do not mend the broken pipe, the leakage will continue, no matter how much you may swear about it . . . until you repair the broken social pipe." [Op. Cit., pp. 67-8What reformism fails to do is fix the underlying root causes of the real problems society faces. Therefore, reformists try to pass laws which reduce the level of pollution rather than work to end a system in which it makes economic sense to pollute. Or they pass laws to improve working conditions and safety while failing to get rid of the wage slavery which creates the bosses whose interests are served by them ignoring those laws and regulations. The list is endless. Ultimately, reformism fails because reformists "believe in good faith that it is possible to eliminate the existing social evils by recognising and respecting, in practice if not in theory, the basic political and economic institutions which are the cause of, as well as the prop that supports these evils." [Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 82]
Revolutionaries, in contrast to reformists, fight both symptoms and the root causes. They recognise that as long as the cause of the evil remains, any attempts to fight the symptoms, however necessary, will never get to the root of the problem. There is no doubt that we have to fight the symptoms, however revolutionaries recognise that this struggle is not an end in itself and should be considered purely as a means of increasing working class strength and social power within society until such time as capitalism and the state (i.e. the root causes of most problems) can be abolished.
Reformists also tend to objectify the people whom they are "helping": they envision them as helpless, formless masses who need the wisdom and guidance of the "best and the brightest" to lead them to the Promised Land. Reformists mean well, but this is altruism borne of ignorance, which is destructive over the long run. Freedom cannot be given and so any attempt to impose reforms from above cannot help but ensure that people are treated as children, incapable of making their own decisions and, ultimately, dependent on bureaucrats to govern them. This can be seen from public housing. As Colin Ward argues, the "whole tragedy of publicly provided non-profit housing for rent and the evolution of this form of tenure in Britain is that the local authorities have simply taken over, though less flexibly, the role of the landlord, together with all the dependency and resentment that it engenders." [Housing: An Anarchist Approach, p. 184] This feature of reformism was skilfully used by the right-wing to undermine publicly supported housing and other aspects of the welfare state. The reformist social-democrats reaped what they had sown.
Reformism often amounts to little more than an altruistic contempt for the masses, who are considered as little more than victims who need to be provided for by state. The idea that we may have our own visions of what we want is ignored and replaced by the vision of the reformists who enact legislation for us and make "reforms" from the top-down. Little wonder such reforms can be counter-productive -- they cannot grasp the complexity of life and the needs of those subject to them. Reformists effectively say, "don't do anything, we'll do it for you." You can see why anarchists would loathe this sentiment; anarchists are the consummate do-it-yourselfers, and there's nothing reformists hate more than people who can take care of themselves, who will not let them "help" them.
Reformists may mean well, but they do not grasp the larger picture -- by focusing exclusively on narrow aspects of a problem, they choose to believe that is the whole problem. In this wilfully narrow examination of pressing social ills, reformists are, more often than not, counter-productive. The disaster of the urban rebuilding projects in the United States (and similar projects in Britain which moved inter-city working class communities into edge of town developments during the 1950s and 1960s) are an example of reformism at work: upset at the growing slums, reformists supported projects that destroyed the ghettos and built brand-new housing for working class people to live in. They looked nice (initially), but they did nothing to address the problem of poverty and indeed created more problems by breaking up communities and neighbourhoods.
Logically, it makes no sense. Why dance around a problem when you can attack it directly? Reformists dilute social movements, softening and weakening them over time. The AFL-CIO labour unions in the USA, like the ones in Western Europe, killed the labour movement by narrowing and channelling labour activity and taking power from the workers themselves, where it belongs, and placing it the hands of a bureaucracy. The British Labour Party, after over 100 years of reformist practice, has done little more than manage capitalism, seen most of its reforms undermined by right-wing governments (and by the following Labour governments!) and the creation of a leadership of the party (in the shape of New Labour) which was in most ways as right-wing as the Conservative Party (if not more so, as shown once they were in power). Bakunin would not have been surprised.
"Governments and the privileged classes are naturally always guided by instincts of self-preservation, of consolidation and the development of their powers and privileges; and when they consent to reforms it is either because they consider that they will serve their ends or because they do not feel strong enough to resist, and give in, fearing what might otherwise be a worse alternative." [Op. Cit., p. 81]
Therefore, reforms gained by direct action are of a different quality and nature than those passed by reformist politicians -- these latter will only serve the interests of the ruling class as they do not threaten their privileges while the former have the potential for real change.
This is not to say that Anarchists oppose all state-based reforms nor that we join with the right in seeking to destroy them (or, for that matter, with "left" politicians in seeking to "reform" them, i.e., reduce them). Without a popular social movement creating alternatives to state welfare, so-called "reform" by the state almost always means attacks on the most vulnerable elements in society in the interests of capital. As anarchists are against both state and capitalism, we can oppose such reforms without contradiction while, at the same time, arguing that welfare for the rich should be abolished long before welfare for the many is even thought about. See section J.5.15 for more discussion on the welfare state and anarchist perspectives on it.
Instead of encouraging working class people to organise themselves and create their own alternatives and solutions to their problem (which can supplement, and ultimately replace, whatever welfare state activity which is actually useful), reformists and other radicals urge people to get the state to act for them. However, the state is not the community and so whatever the state does for people you can be sure it will be in its interests, not theirs. As Kropotkin put it:
"We maintain that the State organisation, having been the force to which the minorities resorted for establishing and organising their power over the masses, cannot be the force which will serve to destroy these privileges . . . the economic and political liberation of man will have to create new forms for its expression in life, instead of those established by the State.
"Consequently, the chief aim of Anarchism is to awaken those constructive powers of the labouring masses of the people which at all great moments of history came forward to accomplish the necessary changes . . .
"This is also why the Anarchists refuse to accept the functions of legislators or servants of the State. We know that the social revolution will not be accomplished by means of laws. Laws only follow the accomplished facts . . . a law remains a dead letter so long as there are not on the spot the living forces required for making of the tendencies expressed in the law an accomplished fact.
"On the other hand . . . the Anarchists have always advised taking an active part in those workers' organisations which carry on the direct struggle of Labour against Capital and its protector, -- the State.
"Such a struggle . . . better than any other indirect means, permits the worker to obtain some temporary improvements in the present conditions of work [and life in general], while it opens his [or her] eyes to the evil that is done by Capitalism and the State that supports it, and wakes up his [or her] thoughts concerning the possibility of organising consumption, production, and exchange without the intervention of the capitalist and the State." [Environment and Evolution, pp. 82-3]
Therefore, while seeking reforms, anarchists are against reformism and reformists. Reforms are not seen as an end in themselves but rather a means of changing society from the bottom-up and a step in that direction:
"Each step towards economic freedom, each victory won over Capitalism will be at the same time a step towards political liberty -- towards liberation from the yoke of the State . . . And each step towards taking from the State any one of its powers and attributes will be helping the masses to win a victory over Capitalism." [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 95]
However, no matter what, anarchists "will never recognise the institutions; we will take or win all possible reforms with the same spirit that one tears occupied territory from the enemy's grasp in order to keep advancing, and we will always remain enemies of every government." Therefore, it is "not true to say" that anarchists "are systematically opposed to improvements, to reforms. They oppose the reformists on the one hand because their methods are less effective for securing reforms from government and employers, who only give in through fear, and because very often the reforms they prefer are those which not only bring doubtful immediate benefits, but also serve to consolidate the existing regime and to give the workers a vested interest in its continued existence." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 81 and p. 83]
Only working class people, by our own actions and organisations, getting the state and capital out of the way can produce an improvement in our lives, indeed it is the only thing that will lead to real changes for the better. Encouraging people to rely on themselves instead of the state or capital can lead to self-sufficient, independent, and, hopefully, more rebellious people. Working class people, despite having fewer options in a number of areas in our lives, due both to hierarchy and restrictive laws, still are capable of making choices about our actions, organising our own lives and are responsible for the consequences of our decisions. We are also more than able to determine what is and is not a good reform to existing institutions and do not need politicians informing us what is in our best interests (particularly when it is the right seeking to abolish those parts of the state not geared purely to defending property). To think otherwise is to infantilise us, to consider us less fully human than other people and reproduce the classic capitalist vision of working class people as means of production, to be used, abused, and discarded as required. Such thinking lays the basis for paternalistic interventions in our lives by the state, ensuring our continued dependence and inequality -- and the continued existence of capitalism and the state. Ultimately, there are two options:
"The oppressed either ask for and welcome improvements as a benefit graciously conceded, recognise the legitimacy of the power which is over them, and so do more harm than good by helping to slow down, or divert . . . the processes of emancipation. Or instead they demand and impose improvements by their action, and welcome them as partial victories over the class enemy, using them as a spur to greater achievements, and thus a valid help and a preparation to the total overthrow of privilege, that is, for the revolution." [Malatesta, Op. Cit., p. 81]
Reformism encourages the first attitude within people and so ensures the impoverishment of the human spirit. Anarchism encourages the second attitude and so ensures the enrichment of humanity and the possibility of meaningful change. Why think that ordinary people cannot arrange their lives for themselves as well as Government people can arrange it not for themselves but for others?
For anarchists these problems all stem from the fact that social problems cannot be solved as single issues. As Larry Law argued:
"single issue politics . . . deals with the issue or problem in isolation. When one problem is separated from all other problems, a solution really is impossible. The more campaigning on an issue there is, the narrower its perspectives become . . . As the perspective of each issue narrows, the contradictions turn into absurdities . . . What single issue politics does is attend to 'symptoms' but does not attack the 'disease' itself. It presents such issues as nuclear war, racial and sexual discrimination, poverty, starvation, pornography, etc., as if they were aberrations or faults in the system. In reality such problems are the inevitable consequence of a social order based on exploitation and hierarchical power . . . single issue campaigns lay their appeal for relief at the feet of the very system which oppresses them. By petitioning they acknowledge the right of those in power to exercise that power as they choose." [Bigger Cages, Longer Chains, pp. 17-20].
Single issue politics often prolong the struggle for a free society by fostering illusions that it is just parts of the capitalist system which are wrong, not the whole of it, and that those at the top of the system can, and will, act in our interests. While such campaigns can do some good, practical, work and increase knowledge and education about social problems, they are limited by their very nature and can not lead to extensive improvements in the here and now, never mind a free society.
Therefore, anarchists often support and work within single-issue campaigns, trying to get them to use effective methods of activity (such as direct action), work in an anarchistic manner (i.e. from the bottom up) and to try to "politicise" them into questioning the whole of the system. However, anarchists do not let themselves be limited to such activity as a social revolution or movement is not a group of single-issue campaigns but a mass movement which understands the inter-related nature of social problems and so the need to change every aspect of life.