Building Power and Advancing: For Reforms, Not Reformism

  • Posted on: 9 October 2017
  • By: thecollective

via Black Rose Federation

“We shall carry out all possible reforms in the spirit in which an army advances ever forwards by snatching the enemy-occupied territory in its path.” – Errico Malatesta [1]

By Thomas Giovanni

As anarchist communists, we are against reformism. However, we are for reforms. We believe that fundamentally the entire system of capitalism, the state and all systems of hierarchy, domination, oppression and exploitation of humans over humans must be abolished and replaced with a direct democracy, egalitarian social relations and a classless economy that bases contribution according to ability and distribution according to need. However, such a social revolution can only occur through the power of the popular classes themselves from the bottom-up. In advancing towards such a social revolution and a free and equal society, we must build our power in preparation for this fundamental transformation of the world, building on struggles along the way. Ultimately our demands will be too threatening to the elite classes for them to bear; and their resistance to our drive for freedom will be too much for us to tolerate any longer.

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.

For example, the problems under capitalism aren’t because some capitalists are greedy or unfair- which they are; but rather that capitalism itself is the problem. Our global wealth has been historically created from the labor, resources and land from around the world. While the genius of human technology, innovation and hard work have been a factor; so slavery, exploitation, monopolization and theft have been a factor. But regardless of the degrees to which oppression or human genius played their respective roles in the creation of wealth, there can be no doubt that every advance is completely rooted in social relations and circumstance, as well as historical processes. Kropotkin describes this from one perspective in The Conquest of Bread. [2] If this is so, why are some allowed to own and control the land, wealth and the means of production? Shouldn’t these be the common property of all as the inheritance of all that has been contributed by human history and the complex social processes that interacted to bring us to, and maintain the wealth that we have today? So how can we justify maintaining a system where some benefit more than others from the historically developed and socially maintained wealth? And how can we call only for reform of that system? It’d be like sitting at a family dinner where your brother claims to own the kitchen even though you’re cooking dinner with your parents. Your brother then receives all of the food produced and gives you and your parents each 10% of the food while he keeps 70% of it as the owner. A reformist response would be to say that if only each member of the family were able to get a 15% or 20% portion each (leaving your brother with a 55% or 40% share for being the “owner”), everyone would be alright and less hungry. Our response would be that it’s not about redistribution, the original distribution itself is flawed, and so is the system of ownership and work responsibility of the family. We must create a completely new system in which people share the common products of labor, which is carried out according to each person’s ability.

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.

So what is the solution for anarchist communists? We seek to build power towards a revolution. We feel that only the mass movements of the oppressed, exploited and dominated classes will be able to end oppression, exploitation and domination. As members of these classes, we seek to contribute to these movements. In the short-term, we seek to make gains in consciousness, capacity, skills, solidarity, and organization. From a revolutionary perspective this involves what the FARJ calls social work and social insertion. [3] At first we are participating in the social movements – social work – often times without being able to have our views gain traction. Through consistent, principled and effective participation, we are able to build relationships with others; establish trust and respect; and dialogue with others about our views and positions. After a while, we hope to achieve some degree of social insertion: the influencing of social movements in the direction of being more directly democratic, more combative, more class-conscious, more anti-hierarchical, more infused with a long-term revolutionary consciousness, and so on.

In the short-term, we also want to win reforms. Losing in a reform struggle can demoralize participants around the possibility of struggle achieving gains; and winning in a reform struggle can demobilize participation and energy as people feel that they have succeed. But likewise, winning in reform struggles can build confidence, organization, capacity, solidarity, skills, and power; and losing in a reform struggle, can strengthen resolve and sharpen strategy. The point is that although we want reforms because they improve the lives of the oppressed and popular classes of which we are a part; even more fundamental to struggle– whether we win or lose- is developing the strength of the movement, which can 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.

In the medium term, we want to build power. Of course we want to lessen exploitation, oppression, and domination where possible; but in the medium term – regardless of whether any given reform is won or lost – the struggle itself must serve to strengthen the social movements and class-based organizations so that they are able to grow and be more effective in future struggles. We want to create a dynamic in which bottom-up, directly democratic, anti-hierarchical, collective and anti-oppressive class-based power grows stronger and stronger over time. This power is the result of increased and shared consciousness of the causes of exploitation, domination and oppression and of the ways to fight and eventually end them. It’s the result of better functioning organizations; more solidarity; less internal oppression between members and a shared commitment of all to centrally challenge different manifestations of institutional, systemic and cultural oppression; more skill development and more equal distribution of skill development; greater commitment to struggle; a realization of more effective ways to struggle; and so on.

In the long-term, we want this popular bottom-up power to grow to the point where it can effectively end all systems of oppression, domination and exploitation, and replace them with directly democratic, egalitarian, anti-hierarchical and cooperative political, economic and social systems. We see this revolutionary situation coming about after decades of battles- wins and losses- in which the popular classes steadily increase their power and continue to demand more and more until the demands of the popular classes are too much to concede for the elite classes; and the power of the popular classes is enough to effectively carry-out revolution: the abolition of the state and all forms of government that dictate from above, and the replacement of this with directly democratic popular decision-making; the expropriation of the land and means of production from the capitalist class and its bottom-up socialized self-management by the workers and communities; the establishment of classless, egalitarian and cooperative global economies in which economic contribution is according to ability and economic distribution is according to need; the abolition of all systems of oppression and their replacement with social systems, cultural practices and relations that value and respect all people in their full humanity and individuality; the abolition of national systems that value one people over another and their replacement that gives dignity, self-determination and freedom to all human beings and values them equally as human beings across the globe; the end of environmental devastation and its replacement with practices of environmental sustainability and stewardship.

In short, we must reject the mentality – reformism – that sees any given reform, or even series of reforms, as the final objective in our struggles. We also must reject the mentality – purism – that rejects all reforms as reformism, and as counterproductive and useless. Instead, we must engage in struggles for reforms in the short-term. These reform struggles must be the means by which we build bottom-up and horizontal popular power- and the corresponding consciousness, skills, solidarity, capacity and organization- in the medium-term. We must not stop building this power, but continue grow, develop and advance – even if we falter or are defeated temporarily at times – towards the possibility of a revolutionary situation in which we destroy the fundamental causes of exploitation, domination and oppression themselves, not just their symptoms.

1. Malatesta, Errico. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924- 1931, Pg 81.

2. Kropotkin, Peter. The Conquest of Bread, Chapter 1: Our Riches.

3. “Especifismo in Brazil: An Interview with the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janeiro (FARJ)” by Johnathan Payn.



"However, such a social revolution can only occur through the power of the popular classes themselves from the bottom-up."

When are we going to address that this notion is outdated? This notion has only resulted in worse societal formations.

And what is a big reason for that is that democracy and dictatorship are often interchangeable. Psychologically democracies can be worse than outright dictactorships, because adherents think they're above being propagandized, perceptions managed. 'The American way of life,' is one such mythology that has sold so well.

So well, in fact, that when power was handed over from the state to the financial institutions the operative logic became risk avoidance. Things much change to stay the same. And that's worked well with social atomization (where fear and the unreal world's personally tailred endless feedback loops), and made for easily managed populations in the face of growing fragmentation and complexity. It's efficient to avoid risks. Revolutions are dangerous. Let's face it.

But let's face that Marx was also the first managerial revolutionary. And such outlooks completely ignore the unlimited creative potential of daily relations. The managerial mindset engenders externalities it can never account for. Humans aren't the planet's managers. All of life is made of inter-dependent, complex, continually unfolding and transforming relations. All we have is now.

I don't think the general concept of not letting a few ego-tripping jackasses rule the rest of us by the capitalist version of divine right is "outdated".

I'm also not somebody who thinks of Marx as anything more than an economic theorist. He merely out-lined the obvious aspects of the problem and suggested that the current system can't last forever, due to inherent contradictions.

How to reorganize it (or weather its inevitable collapse) is still up for grabs until the nukes start popping or climate change dramatically reduces the food and water supplies. Step on to the stage or hide out in the woods, whichever you prefer :)

There's indeed nothing worse then a collective tyranny of the majority, where simply by siding with the majority or the consensus you end up obliterating the perspectives and views of minorities or individuals.

Is "obliterating perspectives" the only sort of tyranny you're familiar with? I'm pretty sure there's much worse...

Yes, like the extremely collectivistic Nazis attempting to obliterate the Jewish and Roma minorities, for instance.

Their perspectives weren't the issue.

Does the platform require every essay begin with "As anarchist communists..."? Feels like it.

It's a relatively honest writer that starts by acknowledging their own biases.

An animus declares, "There's indeed nothing worse then a collective tyranny of the majority...."
But our problem is not the "tyranny of the majority." It is that a minority of the population--the capitalist class, the so-called "one percent"--rule. They rule (are tyrants) through the mis-education and corruption of the majority. The majority is deluded into supporting policies against their real best interests. The task of the revolutionary minority (anarchists) is to win over that majority, to get it to see its own interests and values are opposed to the actual tyranny of a capitalist minority and the state.

Is any one group of people really in control, despite the appearances of weilding influence?

I really doubt this is, as the world is extremely complex, so complex that the blinders of this influence and supposed control are called 'externalities,' and really go to show just how little control even the most influential humans have in general outcomes.

Typical marxism, always reducing everything down to economics. Such a blinder, and so dull. There's so much more to life. I guess 150 years wasn't long enough to figure out that it's not all about the so-called managerial qualities of humans.

The managerial revolution has already been had, although we must realize the promises of reafan and thatcher were empty, and never fulfilled.

What does a world look like that is not one big attempt to economically manage every square inch of the earth? Riddle me that, Marxist.

Marx was vapid by 1848.

refuse to identify targets and strategy, tactics. I'm so sick of polemic...

of scarce resources in favor of reforms? Reform as a tactic in a larger freedom-society building?
I can't make heads or tails of this. Perhaps it would help to be more specific in your situation,
targets, actions of reform, institutions which must me attacked, ... I don't think there are any general recipes,
in some locales reform of socialism is certainly desirable, in the us, it seems hopelessly misguided to reform a straight-on,
vicious, capitalist socius... in Detroit we have groups fighting against the evictions, that's pure kindness
but not a strategy against banking and land ownership, ughh, I can't tolerate any more of this...

It's nice that anarcho-leftist groups are so eager to let us know their all-important opinions on the burning issues of the day -- and never give accounts of their efforts to act on these noble sentiments in any public, sustained, credible, real world context.

1st paragraph: A lot of platitudes and some empty phrases. Ends up in the nonsensical conclusion: "Ultimately our demands will be too threatening to the elite classes for them to bear; and their resistance to our drive for freedom will be too much for us to tolerate any longer." Except that has never happened, it is not what is happening, and honestly it is not very likely to occur like that.

2. paragraph: Well, okay then. How you not gonna avoid ending up with nothing else than reform when you don't address the systemic problems other than a reiteration of marxist garbage (power and the allocation of it)?

3. paragraph: More platitudes. Capitalism is only a part of larger whole. To suggest, as Kropotkin did, that we basically can just replace the economical incentives of the present system might have made sense a 100 years ago. These days, not so much. And slavery and exploitation were and are not only a "factor", it is fucking it. So how you gonna run a system based on resource colonialism, slavery, exploitation, war, coercion? Just make sure it is worker managed?

4. paragraph: Well, yeah, it would be like celebrating pain to suggest otherwise? But then again, what is the function of reform? What is the power relation? Reform is also an effective way to recuperate and maintain the present system (look at the history of social democracy). It is an effective way to pacify and solidify the hegemony of the state and capital. As long as the state and capital are seen as the only logical solution to our material needs, then accordingly reform (and the support of) would mean that your notion that "our demands will be too threatening to the elite classes for them to bear" would not come to pass. Contrary to what you seem to think, being clear on the fact that I don't support reform does not mean "all or nothing", it just means that it is illogical and against my interests to support it.

5. paragraph: Good luck mate. Whatcha think, that the proles just need to read the fucking bread book? Perhaps it is cause they are clever enough to see through your little pantomime? Perhaps they have a point and instead of supposing that you need to raise their consciousness (that is some patronizing shit right there), perhaps they have something to teach you? Perhaps there is a reason as to why they act against their supposed self interest? Perhaps they don't want your revolution?

And now I actually can't be bothered anymore. Why don't you rather just go and do some shit instead of this paternal crap? Why argue for the right to self organize a corpse? I don't fucking know. If you actually speak to people, you'd perhaps be surprised to find out that they actually get that capitalism is a shit deal. And instead of this social insertion, and supposing that since you've read Kropotkin you can go and get them to organize better, be better and all such shit. Why don't you actually figure out what it is these people themselves want? And insofar as your interests meets theirs, then this would be where you organized?

Here's some things anyone with authentic conviction, physical energy, staying power, wit and style can do in today's United States, instead of nebulous pontificating:

Since the early 1990's, actions in the San Francisco Bay Area around mass transit, described here,

the initial impetus behind this,

efforts to disseminate this among US military personnel,

and the anti-gentrification Mission Yuppie Eradication Project

have been part of an ongoing effort to establish a new kind of anti-state/anti-market, autonomous class struggle praxis among mainstream working people in the contemporary United States.

1. These efforts take place "on the terrain of everyday life" of the wage-earning class, where we confront what market relations do to our lives, and where the market system's antagonism to human needs gives rise to the possibility of an organized, conscious, mass collective response. These efforts have not been directed towards the left-liberal protest ghetto, or toward academic, anarchist or self-styled Marxist subcultures.

2. Mass collective class struggle includes the fight against the boss in the workplace, but is not limited to the workplace.

3. The methods used to help create a new politics of working class resistance to capital and it's political apparatus have to be qualitatively different from the politics of the left. In all its statist, populist and directly democratic flavors the left is simply the left-wing of capital.

4. Authentic enemies of capitalism in the 21st century cannot use strategies, tactics or communication methods used by pro-wage labor leftists in the 20th century.

5. The armed forces are themselves vulnerable to social forces at work in the larger society that spawns them. Revolt in civilian society bleeds through the apparent hermetic separation of the military from mainstream civilian life into the ranks of enlisted people. The relationship between officers and enlisted people mirrors the relationship between bosses and employees, and similar dynamics of class conflict emerge in the military and civilian versions of the workplace.

6. With the virtual disappearance of the conventional left, and the accelerating decline of the United States as a world power, the way is now open for the creation of a new type of autonomous working class oppositional praxis. We can borrow from the best insights of authentic revolutionary working class tendencies in the past. We can use these insights as a point of departure, but not as an end-point. Anarcho-syndicalism and council communism were both useful in their day. That day has passed. Everything has to be recreated fom scratch.

Efforts like the ones around mass transit described in the articles above have a much greater future subversive potential than the Mission District anti-gentrification efforts of the late 1990's. They have the potential to directly involve a larger number of working people over an entire urban area, and under the right circumstances these actions can also have a "bleed-through" effect, spreading resistance in other areas of contemporary life.

What's being examined here is mostly a method of communication. These methods can be a template for similar anti-state/anti-capitalist proletarian actions elsewhere, including but not limited to fights around housing, social space and against austerity measures targeting employees and passengers of mass transit systems.

Please just stop, Kev. This constant repetitive compulsion to showcase your decades-old FAILURE (despite your "best" intentions) to people you despise is nothing short of an intellectual tic, a sign of mental instability. We all know you're lonely because of your uncanny ability to alienate everyone you interact with, but we all know you dislike anarchists, so why are you trolling for friends here? It's pathetic. Go away

It would be great to read some critical response from Black Rose Federation to the "short and sweet" post above; a series of real world alternatives to endless anarchist round peg in square hole federations.

Going back to the late 1970's, various North American anarchist attempts at real world organizing efforts have consistently gone nowhere. And they always end up being the exact same place in nowhere...

A little discussion and debate would be a good thing.

piece of shit article haven't engaged, at all, with its content; and as I can't fucking sleep, here goes. First, the idea that there is some fundamental real-world difference between advocating reform because it could build working class power and hence produce a social revolution sometime in the next 500 years or advocating reforms because one believes in the dominant system is bullshit. If you advocate reform, you are a reformist, period. And what if one should be so lucky as to actually effect reform, what then? Well you've painted a smiley face over the savage visage of a society based in exploitation, suffering, war and death. Good job, that really helped. Next is the simple empirical question of history...can anyone point to a single reform movement that has spawned anything even remotely resembling a revolutionary organization or even better...a social revolution? Marx, of all people, got this right in his disdain for the Chartists, realizing that the more people were enfranchised to vote, the greater their reliance on and faith in the bourgeois state and by extension, Capital.
As Wilde in his scathing individualist anarchist essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism says," The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism... They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease."

Is there then a black anarchist/post-left response to the post-Christian ethics of our red comrades? Yes-- sabotage, circumvent, nihilate, avoid and destroy those institutions and practices that one finds most egregious. Will this build power revolutionary consciousness for the working classes? Who cares. All I know is that individuals acting as agents of destruction are far more likely to realize an insurrectionary moment, and I would trust them for just that reason, as opposed to a gaggle of anti-reformism reformists whose skill set is limited to soliciting signatures for a petition or buttonholing elected officials.

When ever people talk of destruction they are thingifying their problems as opposed to looking at the underlying relations. I would argue like Stirner that this is the true mode of insurrection. Grey is also the color of choice not black. You need both the affirming white and the destructive black.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Enter the code without spaces.