Reform or Revolution?

Rosa Luxemburg’s most widely known pamphlet is REFORM OR REVOLUTION. This was written as a reply to Eduard Bernstein’s revisionist articles which had been published in the SDP periodical NEUE ZEIT and which were later collected together in an influential book “EVOLUTIOINARY SOCIALISM”(1899). Bernstein was a close friend of Engels and spent many years in London where he came across the ideas of the Fabians. His revision of SDP policy was to build up a party capable of getting reforms through parliament, and to support co-operatives and the trade unions as well as making alliances with other political parties. Bernstein was for reform not revolution.

The first section of Luxemburg’s reply to Bernstein appeared in the LEIPZIGER VOLKSZEITUNG in September 1898. In 1899 she published a second article which dealt with many of Bernstein’s arguments against Marx. The two articles were published together in 1900 as REFORM OR REVOLUTION, and a second edition appeared in 1908. It was only in 1938 that an English edition appeared in print. Although considered as one of Luxemburg’s more important pamphlets, “REFORM OR REVOLUTION” contains a serious flaw with respect to social reforms. Despite demolishing Bernstein’s revisionism Luxemburg did not criticise the reform programmes or “palliatives” of the German Social Democratic Party.

In 1891 the SDF had adopted a new political programme at its conference in Erfurt, known as the Erfurt Programme. This became the template for other social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere and, although having a socialist goal it also contained numerous reform proposals including free medical treatment, midwifery services and burials. There was even a reform proposed to abolish “servant’s regulations” (for a critique of the Erfurt Programme see “THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS”, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1948 pp. 22 to 27).

Luxemburg, like most people associated with the Second International, was not opposed to social reforms as part of the aim of achieving socialism. Her opposition to reforms was because of Bernstein’s relegation of socialism to a far-off goal in favour of a reform programme within capitalism, a social system which he believed could be incrementally changed to meet the needs of all society: a reformed and regulated capitalism with a human face. In short: political gradualism rather than revolution – something which he associated with violence and chaos.

Socialism, Luxemburg argued, had its end in social revolution or it was nothing. Bernstein’s revisionism, she countered:

... tends to counsel us to renounce the social transformation, the final goal of Social-Democracy and, inversely, to make of social reforms, the means of the class struggle, its aim. Bernstein himself has very clearly and characteristically formulated this viewpoint when he wrote: “The Final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.”(page 5)

On her own support for social reforms Luxemburg wrote:

Can the Social-Democracy be against reforms? Can we contrapose the social revolution, the transformation of the existing order, our final goal, to social reforms? Certainly not. The daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions, offers the Social democracy 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-labour. Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social Democracy an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means, the social revolution, its aim” (REFORM OR REVOLUTION, Introduction p. 5 1899).

Luxemburg was of the belief that reforms had to be offered to workers to attract them to social democracy and the class struggle for socialism. She thought that reforms were the only means to make socialists, not the hard work of persuading workers to become socialists put forward by the Socialist of Party of Great Britain. Unlike the SPGB Luxemburg was for reforms. She did not believe workers could become socialists in any other way.

The pursuit of reforms as a precondition for the establishment of socialism has two serious flaws.

First, reforms do not solve the problems facing the working class but can sometimes even make them worse, or have unintended consequences, or cannot be enacted or are withdrawn by another political party at a later date. This policy also lets in other political parties to offer similar reforms to gain support from and divide the working class voters; a strategy adapted by Bismarck in Germany with the introduction of pension and other social welfare reforms to check the rise and influence of the SDP, and later by the Liberal Lloyd George in Britain with the enactment of the National Insurance Act in 1911 to undercut the Labour Party.

Another objection is that a party claiming to be socialist, but with a list of reforms or “immediate demands”, attracts both reformers who are not socialists as well as a non- socialist electorate behind who are more interested in these reforms than the socialist goal. Even if such a party obtains political power and forms a government, it is useless for the purpose of furthering socialism. The reforms take up all the time and often meet unknown obstacles like an economic crisis and trade depression or a war.

The position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain could not be more different over the question of social reform or revolution. The SPGB has as its sole and immediate object, not a struggle for reforms with or without socialism as an ultimate goal, but the establishment of socialism and only socialism. It is a revolutionary party based on the class struggle, and is not a reform party.

Socialists insist upon the need of first educating the workers to understanding the case for socialism. To achieve socialism as a social system requires workers’ class consciousness, their understanding of their position in the class struggle, and their recognition of the necessity for socialism. Workers cannot take the far-reaching step of making the means of production and distribution common property under democratic control without being fully aware of what they are doing. A political programme of reforms is, therefore, useless to a socialist party even if seen as a strategic or tactical move.

The immediate need of the working class is not the passing of reforms but emancipation from capitalism, which can only be achieved by the establishment of socialism. Socialists hold that no social reform minimising the impact of capitalism on the workers’ condition can be obtained under the profit system that would be worth the amount of time and energy spent in working and organising to obtain it. Socialists are opposed to the waste of such time and energy, and to the confusion involved in attempting to improve capitalism by means of reforms, thus obscuring the class struggle. The Socialist Party of Great Britain put it this way:

For the party of the working class, one course alone is open: unceasing hostility to all parties that lend their aid to the administration of the capitalist social system and thus contribute, consciously or otherwise, to its maintenance. Our object is its removal and replacement by socialism” (THE FUTILITY OF REFORMISM, Questions of the Day, 1976, p. 33).

Now, we Socialists continue along this path. Yet generations of workers have backed the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and a number of ‘Left’ parties labelling themselves Socialist, Communist, Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist, sometimes under the banner of the Second International, the Leninist-Bolshevik Third International, the Trotskyist Fourth International, and their successors etc,– too many to mention. All with reform proposals galore! But all these parties were fatally flawed. Instead of the revolutionary Socialist demand for the abolition of the wages system, all relied on the support of short-sighted workers satisfied with the contaminated junk food of reformism. And so we still continue to live in a capitalist world, of wars, poverty and class exploitation, with many reforms still being proposed – but never abolition of the wages system.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.