George Breitman

Originally published in the Militant, February 28, 1969.

Among young radicals, white and black, there is a certain amount of misunderstanding about problems connected with reform and revolution and their relation to each other.

Such misunderstandings are sometimes expressed in current notions:

•That it is incorrect for revolutionaries to advocate and fight for reforms;

•That revolutionaries should not bother trying to organize the masses to fight for anything that can be won under the present system;

•That the only kind of demands it is proper for revolutionaries to raise and organize around are those that cannot be used, misused, distorted, or “co-opted” by the ruling class or opportunists; etc.

Perhaps these questions can be clarified by reexamining the concepts “reform” and “revolution” from a Marxist standpoint.

For present purposes, a reform can be called a change in social, political, or economic institutions or arrangements that does not necessarily imply or require a fundamental change in those institutions or arrangements. In contrast, such a fundamental change, involving the overturn of the social-political-economic system itself and the replacement in state power of the former ruling class by a new ruling class, is what we usually mean when we talk about revolution.

Examples: When Congress passed laws in the 1930s recognizing the legal right of the workers to organize unions and bargain collectively, that was a reform. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that school segregation is unconstitutional, that was another reform. The New Deal initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s was not a revolution, just as the more recent Great Society was not a revolution, because the prevailing class and power relationships were not changed basically, as they were in the Russian, Yugoslav, Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions of this century.

Some reforms are initiated by the ruling class itself, because it thinks them beneficial to the interests of its system. Some are resisted by the ruling class for a long time and granted only after bitter struggle convinces them that it is a lesser evil. Some reforms are won peacefully, others only through the most violent conflict. Some ruling classes have been known to refuse to grant certain reforms right up to the point where

they were overthrown. (Not every ruling class makes all decisions wisely or always acts truly in its own self-interest; this is especially true in revolutionary situations and crises.)

Revolutionary Marxists, starting with Marx, have never been opposed to the struggle for reforms; on the contrary, for revolutionaries to oppose such struggles or refuse to join and try to lead them would be to doom themselves to permanent isolation and futility. Except in revolutionary situations (and not always then) most of the exploited and oppressed masses do not see the necessity or possibility of winning anything but reforms (no matter how radical or numerous the reforms they want may be).

The essence of Marxist strategy, of any revolutionary strategy in our time, is to combine the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution. This is the only way in which to build a revolutionary party capable of providing reliable leadership to the masses and of enabling them in revolutionary situations to make the transition, in consciousness and in action, from the struggle for reforms to the struggle for power and  revolution.

The United States is not now in a revolutionary situation. This is unfortunate, but true; and it is from this truth that revolutionaries must proceed in the development of strategy and tactics. On the other hand, it is also true that there is considerable social unrest, frustration, alienation, and the start of sizable radicalization in this country today, especially among young people, who provide the chief forces for revolution.


That means there is a favorable situation developing for conscious and dedicated revolutionaries—a growing body of people who can be won to the cause of revolution even before a revolutionary situation actually arises. The development of significant revolutionary cadres is more possible now than at any time in the last third of a century.

But the gathering, education, and toughening of revolutionary cadres, while indispensable for a revolution, isn’t enough to guarantee one. There are still all those people “out there”—the millions and millions who are not ready to make a revolution, although they are certainly in favor of reforms that can affect their living conditions and personal destinies. (This applies not only to the population generally, but also to the overwhelming majority of black people and young people, among whom the radicalization process is more advanced.)

Even though a revolution is not possible today, the development of a revolutionary strategy is. But you can’t develop one unless you take into account the way to win those millions toward independent and revolutionary motion.

So revolutionary Marxists cannot be opposed to the struggle for reforms. What we oppose is reformism.

Reformism is the tendency which holds that the basic problems of society can be solved, or even that socialism can be achieved, by the gradual accumulation of reforms, one by one. That concept, not fighting for reforms, is what revolutionaries are and should be against.

Reforms can be sought in various ways. Reformists work for them in a class-collaborationist, conciliatory fashion, attempting to convince the exploited and oppressed masses that the system is “workable,” that their interests and those of the exploiters and oppressed can and should be reconciled, that class and national struggles should not be fought out to their logical conclusion. Revolutionaries fight for reforms, but they never stop teaching the masses the truth about the inadequacies of reforms so long as the ruling class is not displaced from power, about the ease with which reforms can be canceled or withdrawn or made meaningless by ineffective or discriminatory enforcement as long as the ruling class remains in power, about the need to go beyond reforms and reconstruct the foundations of society on a planned and rational basis.

In the struggle against fascism, for example, reformists seek to reinforce illusions about and reliance on capitalist democracy, and oppose antifascist methods that might go beyond the framework of capitalist democracy and thus incur the displeasure of the democratic capitalists. Revolutionaries, on the other hand, try to help the masses to understand the unreliability and treachery of the democratic capitalists and the need to combine antifascism with anti-capitalism.

Another distinction is that reformists propose at best halfway measures aimed at avoiding showdown conflicts while revolutionaries encourage independent mass action and independent mass organization as the only way to win and keep reforms, to deepen consciousness and extend the conditions for continuing social change.


James Haughton and Timothy J. Cooney of Harlem’s Equal Employment Council, which seeks construction work for blacks, think they have an airtight case when they argue that because the United States is not about to have a revolution, therefore the black man “has only one course of action: the hard, unromantic road of reform.” That they actually mean the road of reformism is made clear when they add: “He [the black man] must have a legislative program and a political strategy for putting it across. He must grit his teeth and politely testify before hostile congressional committees. He must make alliances of convenience with people he doesn’t like. He must learn that awful business of compromise,” etc. (Manhattan Tribune, November 20, 1968).

The flaw in their logic is obvious. Black people have to fight for reforms, but that doesn’t mean that they have to fight for them in a reformist way. They have the  alternative of fighting for them in a revolutionary way—by militant mass action rather than polite testimony, and as part of a strategy consciously aimed at mobilizing the masses to change the system. You don’t have to become a reformist just because revolution is not around the corner. In fact, that is the way to assure that revolution will never come—just as, conversely, a refusal to fight for reforms, in a revolutionary fashion, is also a way of postponing revolution.

In a similar way to Haughton and Cooney, Harold Cruse thinks he is making some kind of telling point when he asserts that Malcolm X cannot be considered a revolutionary because the program of his Organization of Afro-American Unity “was definitely written as a reformist document” (The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, p. 442), He means, of course, that the OAAU programs of Malcolm’s time urged black people to organize to fight for reforms.

But why does that disqualify Malcolm as a revolutionary, any more than it disqualifies Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao Tse-tung, Castro, or Ho Chi Minh? The real question is whether Malcolm intended to fight for those reforms in a revolutionary way, and to utilize the organization, education, and experience acquired in the course of the fight for them to promote revolution. The answer is affirmative, although it will not be found in Cruse’s writings. It is clearly apparent from Malcolm’s teachings,  summarized in his declaration: “By any means necessary.”

To approach the problem another way: it is instructive to contrast SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] with the black student unions that have arisen in the last year or two. SNCC is an organization to whom all revolutionaries owe gratitude as a pioneer of the present radicalization; historically, it will surely be ranked with the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] as a forerunner of the American revolution. But its present stagnation and isolation cannot be attributed solely to the savage persecution it has suffered at the hands of the government. In part, it has been hamstrung by its own anti-leadership fetish, by the unfortunate theory held by some of its leaders that “repression” will produce radicalization and revolution, and in the recent period by generalizations about revolution that somehow discouraged or minimized participation in the partial struggles that got the label of “non-revolutionary.”

On the other hand, the black student unions, which might have served as a major base for the revival and expansion of SNCC, have been healthily free of certain abstentionist inhibitions. Without excessive rhetoric, they have struck stunning blows at the status quo from one coast to the other. And what are their demands? Nothing but reforms, and reforms of only the schools at that!

But because they are fighting for reforms in a radical way, they have raised the campus struggles to a new level, strengthening the whole movement immensely, and making possible the widening of the youth radicalization, including whites as well as blacks. And because they are fighting in a radical way, they are winning more than if they had fought in a reformist way, even where they cannot win all of their demands. Dr.

Nathan Hare is absolutely correct in his retort to Roy Wilkins when he says, “Our cries for more black professors and black students have padded white colleges with more blacks in two years than a decade of whimpering for integration ever did.”


If we limit ourselves only to those demands that the ruling class and opportunists will not try (often unsuccessfully) to distort, manipulate, or co-opt, there will be very few demands we will ever be able to raise. In a revolutionary situation the ruling class will try to co-opt even revolutionary demands. For example, in the German revolution at the end of World War I, when the masses began to organize workers and soldiers councils (soviets), the ruling class and its social-democratic henchmen offered to “recognize” the councils and incorporate them into the government as an official institution (where, of course, they would have been subordinated, housebroken, and emasculated).

There are few if any demands so simon-pure that they can be guaranteed forever immune to manipulation by the enemy. The cure lies in education, alertness, flexibility, and in the creation of movements with a high level of revolutionary consciousness—not in the search for perfect but elusive formulas, and not in abandoning or abstaining from the struggle for reforms that have the potential of organizing and educating the masses.

(The Cuban Revolution developed as a struggle for reforms—end of the dictatorship, land for the peasant, lower rents, homes, schools, jobs for the workers—but because the Fidelistas mobilized masses in a revolutionary struggle for these reforms and educated them to the need to struggle for these things against any force that opposed them, they carried the struggle to a conclusion that brought the first socialist revolution in the Western Hemisphere.)

Nothing in the world can be done to prevent the government, the Ford Foundation, or various black opportunists from trying to give their content to the popular demand for black control of the black community, from interpreting it as “black capitalism” or “decentralization” or the election of black Democrats, etc., and from seeking to deflect the struggle for this demand into safer channels. (Attempts to dampen down movements with concession can boomerang, too. This, for example, was the intent in giving ghetto youth college scholarships and grants. Now they’ve got a panther by the tail.)

The way to combat efforts of the ruling class to co-opt demands is not to conclude that such demands are worthless but to give them a revolutionary content. To do otherwise can only guarantee the continued influence of the reformists among the masses.

For example, the school issue is a major one today for black people in New York and other cities. The reformists, supported by sections of the ruling class, try to keep that struggle within the limits of simple school decentralization. It is the obligation of revolutionaries to join the school struggle precisely to counterpose the revolutionary concept of black control of black schools to the reformist concept of an “improved,” “less bureaucratic,” “decentralized” education system.

The negative attitude of some black radicals to the struggle for black control of the black community has been paralleled by the disparaging attitude of some white radicals toward certain demands and aspects of the fight against the war in Vietnam, which has already radicalized millions of young Americans despite far-from-perfect leadership.


The current antiwar movement had hardly got started in 1965 before some leaders of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and certain ultraleftist groups began to complain that they were “tired” of broad antiwar demonstrations and marches demanding the withdrawal of the GIs from Vietnam. Why? Because they weren’t stopping the war or

because they were ‘too square or because they weren’t  sufficiently anti- imperialist, or because they concentrated on trying to reach wider sections of the population instead of seeking “confrontations” with the cops, or (during the 1968 election campaign) because the liberal capitalist politicians were trying (with partial and temporary success) to exploit, deflect, and co-opt the antiwar sentiment and movement.

The Vietnamese liberation movement has a more realistic and a much more favorable estimate about the value of the antiwar demonstrations, and does not concur in the American ultraleftist judgment that they are now “passé.”

But independently of the Vietnamese opinion, surely there should be more American radicals capable of appreciating the tremendous contributions the antiwar movement, with all its defects and limitations, has made up to this point, and is still capable of making—providing the American radicals don’t turn their backs on it now.

Similar criticisms can be made about some of the current radical attitudes to antiwar referendums, and to electoral activity in general. (Barry Sheppard’s refutation of the Guardian’s no-vote position on the 1968 election campaign, in the November 15, 1968, Militant, was perfectly correct, but probably will have to be repeated many times before electoral abstentionism is fully understood for the childish nonsense it is.)


Lowering the voting age to eighteen is nothing but a reform, and one which has been granted even in reactionary states in this country. But a fight for this reform, led by revolutionaries and conducted with some imagination, could have a profoundly radicalizing-politicizing effect, especially among young people.

I lived in Michigan a few years ago when a referendum on this, issue was held in that state, and I must report my disappointment at seeing the revolutionary socialists, adult and youth alike, confining themselves to routine endorsement of the lower-age reform instead of dramatizing and leading the campaign to enact it. Perhaps their under-reaction was due to the fact that both capitalist parties, the labor movement, and just about everybody else also endorsed the proposition. (But it was badly defeated in the referendum vote.)

It is healthy for radicals, old and young, to beware of the dangers of reformism, but it is dangerous to mistake the baby for the bathwater or the bathwater for the baby. The American Communist and Socialist Parties did not become reformist because they participated in the struggle for reforms; the reasons have to be sought elsewhere. And the Socialist Labor Party did not remain revolutionary by deciding to oppose participation in struggles for immediate and partial demands; their hostility to every working-class revolution of this century testifies to that.

Capitalism always attempts to buy off every popular movement that it cannot pervert, misdirect, or crush. But there are limits on what it can accomplish along these lines, as the fact that one-third of the world has been torn out of its grip demonstrates. The dangers of co-optation must not be underestimated, but neither should they be overestimated. The reforms and concessions of recent years have not mollified, conciliated, or co-opted the masses of black Americans (even though they bought off some potential leaders). It really takes a lot of faith in the power of capitalism to believe that it is capable of satisfying the demands of the black masses—the only kind of “co-optation” that could end their struggle.

Struggle is the school of the masses. All demands that move the masses into struggle and raise the level of their consciousness are worth raising, fighting for, and incorporating into the overall revolutionary strategy.

None should be excluded because they are “only reforms,” or because through sharp struggle they may be won partly or wholly under capitalism, or because the capitalists will try to utilize them for their own purposes, or because they don’t conform to the dogmas of sectarians and abstentionists, who have so little self-confidence that whenever they get involved in anything outside of their own tight little warm circles theybegin to ask, “What are we doing wrong?”



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