Socialism 101: Why can’t we just reform capitalism?

No doubt it would be a lot easier if we could just reform capitalism, but revolutionaries argue for its overthrow not because we’re more radical for the sake of it but because of an understanding of what capitalism actually is and how it works.

By Eddie McCabe

You don’t have to be a revolutionary to know there’s something profoundly wrong with the world we live in, and to want to try to change it. Every day millions of people around the world engage in protests, campaigns or activism of some sort, whether on single issues or for broader social change. This activity is important, and when successful makes a real difference to people’s lives. 

But at some point, a vital realisation should come to those seriously engaged in consistent activism; i.e. that no problem in society exists in isolation, and therefore, while it can be alleviated it can’t be solved by a focus on that problem alone. Whether it’s homelessness, disease, racism, climate change, war, or anything else; these problems are all connected in one way or another, and in fact are all symptoms of the economic and social system we live under: capitalism. And without changing that system, any reforms we do win will be either insufficient or short-lived.

No doubt it would be a lot easier if we could just reform capitalism, but revolutionaries argue for its overthrow not because we’re more radical for the sake of it but because of an understanding of what capitalism actually is and how it works

Capitalism is a system based on the private ownership of the economy – the wealth, resources, and all the human labour and machinery needed to turn them into all the things we use and consume – by a class of people (capitalists) whose privileged position is literally defined by its exploitation of another class of people (workers). This is why you simply cannot have capitalism – any form of capitalism – without inequality and injustice. And from systemic inequality and injustice comes all the rest of the crap – racism, LGBTQphobia and oppression generally. 

So anyone who accepts the right of a class of people to own the economy and exploit everyone else is accepting capitalism. Now, this can be because they think all is well and this is the way it should be, which would make them a ‘reactionary’ – a supporter of the status quo. Or it could be that they just don’t think things could be any other way and the best we can do is curb the power of the capitalist class with state regulations that benefit workers and the poor and make things more equal, which would make them a reformist.

Either way, by accepting capitalism they are also accepting that poverty, oppression and environmental destruction will always be with us, because the elementary logic of capitalism says that profit-making for capitalists must come before all else, and as long as profits are being made everything else will be fine. But that’s patently false; hence the state of the world today. 

Reformism – curbing the system’s excesses – is unfortunately bound to fail because it’s an attempt to resolve the contradictions of capitalism on the basis of capitalism. But no matter how radically you regulate the economy or society, you cannot get capitalism to work in the interests of workers, or both workers and capitalists at the same time, because the interests of workers and capitalists are opposites, e.g. higher wages means lower profits and vice versa. As soon as you advance the interests of one you undermine the other.

This has been the experience of every left-reformist government that’s tried. Even with the best of intentions and with huge popular support for their policies, eventually they will be faced with either a violent clash with the capitalist state’s armed wing, or a major economic crisis. This might be the result of an investment strike – whether by capitalists engaged in vindictive retaliation, or just capitalists whose profits are really being squeezed by pro-worker policies. 

Either way unemployment will rise and all the revenue the government relies on will dry up, so it won’t be able to fund the new reforms it has enacted, never mind public services more generally. It will be forced to revert to austerity and attack workers’ wages and conditions to try to restore profitability and get the capitalists to invest again. Such is the logic of the system. 

That’s why we have no choice but to break with that logic, and why the change we need – to save humanity from extinction – can only be achieved through socialist revolution; to bring capitalism to an end.

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