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When I rise it will be with the ranks and not from the ranks.
- Eugene V. Debs



Reform & Revolution

Talmadge Wright


Of course reforms do not make revolution. But dreaming revolution and practically carrying it out are two different things. You can quote Mao and Lenin all you want but, it doesn't mean a thing in the practical experiences of workers in today's economy, I maintain. The problem with many arguments, if I may be so bold, is the failure to link practice with theory. While reform will never lead to communism or even socialism, it can achieve one goal which is to increase worker hope and consciousness for more radical changes. Rather than take the position that radical ruptures or breaks or breakdowns will lead to revolutionary consciousness - quote the opposite occurs historically. Radical breaks lead to fascism (Germany, Italy) or perhaps reform at the best (US).

In the case of Russia - the radical breaks precipitated by the breakdown of Czarist legitimacy and WWI led to a state socialist revolution - but, ONLY, ONLY because of the long history of well integrated working class struggles merged with a collectivist sentiment that was historically contingent upon the Russian collectivist village economy and the already mobilized workers. In Germany the same efforts by the Communist Party were doomed, the result the downfall of the Weimer Republic and the rise of fascism. In Cuba, the overthrow of the dictator by Castro was less of a socialist revolution and more of national liberation from Yankee imperialism - which only adopted the socialist agenda when forced to turn to the Soviet Union for help. Cuba's version of socialism that resulted is intimately Cuban, closer to Jose Marti than Soviet style communism. As for China, we see what has happened with their version of state socialism.

So, what is the point? The point is, revolution is not in the cards period - ANYWHERE. And to talk as if it is, I believe is misleading and ignores the real possibility of improving worker's lives in the present. Such thinking remains dependent upon an apocalyptic version of capitalism - the breakdown theory which is too simplistic and does not give the system credit for the flexibility it has demonstrated. I am not concerned with finding some abstract worker's paradise at the end of the rainbow. I am concerned with the real material conditions of workers everywhere in the present. And to focus on revolutionary overtures, when even the workers themselves think it absurd is to fall into the trap of Left infantilism, as Lenin would put it.

If you look at the success of Militant Islamic movements, for example, they have garnered support not just through their ideology, but their practical reformist actions, creating schools, social services and health care when the States within which they operate failed to provide such support. One could construe this as a reform agenda based on religious ideals. A reform of Islam in their image. The failure of State reform, such as in Pakistan, provided the opportunity for such movements to flourish (Not to mention a great deal of Saudi capital).

What is important is not the abstract playing with revolutionary ideals but the real practical work of social justice work and respect for where workers - all workers, white collar, blue collar, the poor, etc. are at in their own consciousness. The struggle, I maintain, today, is not about socialist revolution, no matter how much anyone might want it - but, rather about how to hold corporations accountable, how to secure good health care, descent housing, etc. While these may not be achieved under Capitalism - they are the current terrain of our struggles like it or not. And that means reform is merely one vehicle on a long path towards liberation.

Talmadge Wright belongs to the Dept. of Sociology/Anthropology Loyola University Chicago. The above piece first appeared on the Progressive Sociology Network list. It is carried with the author’s permission.




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