Theory and Society

, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 603–630 | Cite as

How limited is reformism?

A critique of Przeworski and Panitch
  • Winton Higgins
  • Nixon Apple


According to the reformist limitations thesis, a labor movement that organizes around a reformist program can never mount a challenge to capitalism itself. This program can be implemented without touching the sides, as it were, of the reigning system. Our own interpretation of the post-war history of the British and Swedish labor movements suggests the opposite. Unless the dominant political element in a reformist labor movement can be deflected from its program, and the internal cohesion of the movement thereby destroyed, a challenge to capitalism is inevitable.

In the British case, the labor party remained the politically dominant component in the labor movement, and it turned its back on its own reformist commitments and espoused the defense of profits and managerial prerogatives. For historical reasons, the British trade-union movement never escaped from this dubious political guardianship and hence never developed the resources to continue a reformist political struggle in spite of the labor party.

The Swedish social-democratic party shared throughout the post-war period the same focus on stabilization on the terms of an ongoing capitalist system as its British counterpart. But its escape from its reformist commitments was only partial, as its egalitarian traditions and ties to LO were stronger. To the extent to which it kept its political faith and went beyond mere welfarism, it saved itself from the disintegration and marginality of the British labor party and sustained the outward unity of the labor movement. To the extent to which the party fell from reformist grace, the trade-union movement displaced it as the political leading edge of the organized working class. The measure of reformism's compatibility with capitalism is thus the relationship between LO's (and increasingly also TCO's) policies and organization on the one hand, and the vital institutions of capital on the other.

The dynamics of class conflict under capitalism point to two institutions the integrity of which must be defended if the system is to survive as such. The first of these is private property coupled to a market mechanism that gives private managements exclusive power over the allocation of productive resources. The social power of private property is exercised impersonally by “market forces” on the capital market, and personally in managerial prerogatives in the firm. The second vital institution of capitalism is its labor market under-pinned by the bourgeoisie's power to create unemployment and thus subvert opposition to its rule through deflation and failures of business confidence. Here lie the clues to what a progressive - cumulative - transition to socialism looks like. The normal mechanisms and règles du jeu of these two markets give way to political resource allocation, and corporate management yields up more and more of its prerogatives to the mobilized collective will of the workforce. Labor is “de-commodified,” and the investment function is enmeshed in a net of direct and indirect social controls.

To project these changes in a written manifesto would presumably be revolutionary. The development of Swedish trade unionism suggests that, to go on pursuing the basic social justice and job security that reformists have always plodded after, meant implementing these changes anyway - piecemeal and as a matter of pragmatic necessity. The difference between revolution and reform thus boils down to their relative effectiveness in working-class mobilization and thus their historical potential.


Labor Movement Labor Party Swedish Labor Managerial Prerogative British Labor 
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Copyright information

© Elsevier Science Publishers B.V 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Winton Higgins
    • 1
  • Nixon Apple
    • 1
  1. 1.MacQuarie UniversityAustralia

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