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Reformism is a political doctrine advocating the reform of an existing system or institution instead of its abolition and replacement. [1] Within the socialist movement, reformism is the view that gradual changes through existing institutions can eventually lead to fundamental changes in a society’s political and economic systems. Reformism as a political tendency and hypothesis of social change grew out of opposition to revolutionary socialism, which contends that revolutionary upheaval is a necessary precondition for the structural changes necessary to transform a capitalist system to a qualitatively different socialist economic system.

Reform means the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc. The use of the word in this way emerges in the late 18th century and is believed to originate from Christopher Wyvill’s Association movement which identified “Parliamentary Reform” as its primary aim.

In geopolitics, a political system defines the process for making official government decisions. It is usually compared to the legal system, economic system, cultural system, and other social systems. However, this is a very simplified view of a much more complex system of categories involving the questions of who should have authority and what the government influence on its people and economy should.

Economic system system of production and exchange

An economic system, or economic order, is a system of production, resource allocation and distribution of goods and services within a society or a given geographic area. It includes the combination of the various institutions, agencies, entities, decision-making processes and patterns of consumption that comprise the economic structure of a given community. As such, an economic system is a type of social system. The mode of production is a related concept. All economic systems have three basic questions to ask: what to produce, how to produce and in what quantities and who receives the output of production.


As a doctrine, left of center reformism is distinguished from right of center or pragmatic reform which instead aims to safeguard and permeate the status quo by preventing fundamental structural changes to it, whereas leftist reformism posits that an accumulation of reforms can eventually lead to the emergence of entirely different economic and political systems than those of present-day capitalism and democracy. [2]

Democracy system of government in which citizens vote directly in or elect representatives to form a governing body, sometimes called "rule of the majority"

Democracy is a system of government where the citizens exercise power by voting. In a direct democracy, the citizens as a whole form a governing body and vote directly on each issue. In a representative democracy the citizens elect representatives from among themselves. These representatives meet to form a governing body, such as a legislature. In a constitutional democracy the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a representative democracy, but the constitution limits the majority and protects the minority, usually through the enjoyment by all of certain individual rights, e.g. freedom of speech, or freedom of association.


There are two types of reformism. One has no intention of bringing about socialism or fundamental economic change to society and is used to oppose such structural changes. The other is based on the assumption that while reforms are not socialist in themselves, they can help rally supporters to the cause of revolution by popularizing the cause of socialism to the working class. [3]

The debate on the ability for social democratic reformism to lead to a socialist transformation of society is over a century old.

Reformism is criticized for being paradoxical as it seeks to overcome the existing economic system of capitalism while trying to improve the conditions of capitalism, thereby making it appear more tolerable to society. According to Rosa Luxemburg, under reformism "[capitalism] is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened by the development of social reforms". [4] In a similar vein, Stan Parker of the Socialist Party of Great Britain argues that reforms are a diversion of energy for socialists and are limited because they must adhere to the logic of capitalism. [5]

Rosa Luxemburg Polish Marxist theorist, socialist philosopher, and revolutionary

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist, anti-war activist and revolutionary socialist who became a naturalized German citizen at the age of 28. Successively, she was a member of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) is a socialist political party in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1904 as a split from the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), it advocates using the ballot box for revolutionary purposes and opposes both Leninism and reformism. It holds that countries which claimed to have established socialism had only established "state capitalism" and was one of the first to describe the Soviet Union as state capitalist. The party's political position has been described as a form of impossibilism.

French social theorist Andre Gorz criticized reformism by advocating a third alternative to reformism and social revolution that he called "non-reformist reforms", specifically focused on structural changes to capitalism as opposed to reforms for improve living conditions within capitalism or to prop it up through economic interventions. [6]


In 1875, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) adopted a Gotha Program that proposed "every lawful means" on a way to a "socialist society" and was criticized by Karl Marx, who considered the communist revolution a required step. One of the delegates to the SPD congress was Eduard Bernstein, who expanded on the concept, proposing what he termed "evolutionary socialism". Bernstein was a leading social democrat in Germany. Reformism was quickly targeted by revolutionary socialists, with Rosa Luxemburg condemning Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism in her 1900 essay Reform or Revolution? . [7] While Luxemburg died in the German Revolution, the reformists soon found themselves contending with the Bolsheviks and their satellite communist parties for the support of intellectuals and the working class. In 1959, the Godesberg Program (signed at a party convention in the West German capital of Bad Godesberg) marked the shift of the SPD from a Marxist program espousing an end to capitalism to a reformist one focused on social reform.

After Joseph Stalin consolidated power in the Soviet Union, the Comintern launched a campaign against the reformist movement by denouncing them as "social fascists". According to The God that Failed by Arthur Koestler, a former member of the Communist Party of Germany, the largest communist party in Western Europe in the Interwar period, communists, aligned with the Soviet Union, continued to consider the "social fascist" Social Democratic Party of Germany to be the real enemy in Germany even after the Nazi Party had gotten into power. [8]

In modern times, some reformists are seen as centre-right. For example, the historical Reform Party of Canada advocated structural changes to government to counter what they believed was the disenfranchisement of western Canadians [9] . Some social democratic parties, such as the aforementioned SPD and the Canadian New Democratic Party, are still considered to be reformist and are seen as centre-left. [10]

Reformism in the British Labour Party

The term was applied to elements within the British Labour Party in the 1950s and subsequently on the party's right. Anthony Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism (1956) as a personal manifesto arguing for a reformulation of the term. For Crosland, the relevance of nationalization (or public ownership) for socialists was much reduced as a consequence of contemporary full employment, Keynesian management of the economy and reduced capitalist exploitation. After the third successive defeat of his party in the 1959 general election, Hugh Gaitskell attempted to reformulate the original wording of Clause IV in the party's constitution, but proved unsuccessful. Some of the younger followers of Gaitskell, principally Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams, left the Labour Party in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party, but the central objective of the Gaitskellites was eventually achieved by Tony Blair in his successful attempt to rewrite Clause IV in 1995. The use of the term is distinguished from the gradualism associated with Fabianism (the ideology of the Fabian Society) which itself should not be seen as being in parallel with the revisionism associated with Bernstein and the SPD as originally the Fabians had explicitly rejected Marxism.

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Leninism political, social, and economic theory developed by Vladimir Lenin

Leninism is the political theory for the organisation of a revolutionary vanguard party and the achievement of a dictatorship of the proletariat as political prelude to the establishment of socialism. Developed by and named for the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Leninism comprises socialist political and economic theories, developed from Marxism and Lenin's interpretations of Marxist theories, for practical application to the socio-political conditions of the Russian Empire of the early 20th century.

Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

Communist Party of Germany former political party in Germany

The Communist Party of Germany was a major political party in Germany between 1918 and 1933, and a minor party in West Germany in the postwar period until it was banned in 1956.

Eduard Bernstein German politician

Eduard Bernstein was a German social-democratic Marxist theorist and politician. A member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Bernstein had held close association to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but he saw flaws in Marxist thinking and began to criticize views held by Marxism when he investigated and challenged the Marxist materialist theory of history. He rejected significant parts of Marxist theory that were based upon Hegelian metaphysics and rejected the Hegelian dialectical perspective.

Social Reform or Revolution? is an 1899 pamphlet by Polish-German Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg argues that trade unions, reformist political parties and the expansion of social democracy—while important to the proletariat's development of class consciousness—cannot create a socialist society as Eduard Bernstein, among others, argued. Instead, she argues from a historical materialist perspective that capitalism is economically unsustainable and will eventually collapse and that a revolution is necessary to transform capitalism into socialism. The pamphlet was heavily influential in revolutionary socialist circles and along with Luxemburg's other work an important precursor to left communist theory.

The Godesberg Program was the party program outline of the political course of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). It was ratified on 15 November 1959, at an SPD party convention in the town of Bad Godesberg, which is today part of Bonn.

Blanquism refers to a conception of revolution generally attributed to Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–1881) which holds that socialist revolution should be carried out by a relatively small group of highly organised and secretive conspirators. Having seized power, the revolutionaries would then use the power of the state to introduce socialism. It is considered a particular sort of "putschism"—that is, the view that political revolution should take the form of a putsch or coup d'état.

Social democracy is a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist mixed economy. The protocols and norms used to accomplish this involve a commitment to representative and participatory democracy, measures for income redistribution and regulation of the economy in the general interest and welfare state provisions. In this way, social democracy aims to create the conditions for capitalism to lead to greater democratic, egalitarian and solidaristic outcomes. Due to longstanding governance by social democratic parties during the post-war consensus and their influence on socioeconomic policy in the Nordic countries, social democracy has become associated in policy circles with the Nordic model in the latter part of the 20th century.

Centrism has a specific meaning within the Marxist movement, referring to a position between revolution and reformism. For instance, the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) were both seen as centrist because they oscillated between advocating reaching a socialist economy through reforms and advocating revolution. The parties that belonged to the "so-called" Two-and-a-half and Three-and-a-half Internationals, who could not choose between the reformism of the social democratic Second International and the revolutionary politics of the communist Third International, were also exemplary of centrism in this sense. They included the Spanish Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), the ILP, and Poale Zion.

Democratic socialism Form of socialism that advocates political democracy alongside a socially owned economy

Democratic socialism is a political philosophy that advocates political democracy alongside a socially owned economy, with an emphasis on workers' self-management and democratic control of economic institutions within a market or some form of a decentralised planned socialist economy. Democratic socialists argue that capitalism is inherently incompatible with the values of liberty, equality and solidarity and that these ideals can be achieved only through the realisation of a socialist society. Democratic socialism can support either revolutionary or reformist politics as a means to establish socialism.

State socialism is a classification for any socialist political and economic perspective advocating state ownership of the means of production either as a temporary measure in the transition from capitalism to socialism, or as characteristic of socialism itself. It is often used interchangeably with state capitalism in reference to the economic systems of Marxist–Leninist states such as the Soviet Union to highlight the role of state planning in these economies, with the critics of said system referring to it more commonly as "state capitalism". Libertarian and democratic socialists claim that these states had only a limited number of socialist characteristics. However, Marxist–Leninists maintain that workers in the Soviet Union and other Marxist–Leninist states had genuine control over the means of production through institutions such as trade unions.

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Impossibilism is a Marxist theory that stresses the limited value of political, economic, and social reforms under capitalism. As a doctrine, impossibilism views the pursuit of such reforms as counterproductive to the goal of achieving socialism for stabilizing and therefore strengthening support for capitalism, thereby helping to ensure its continuation. Impossibilism holds that reforms to capitalism are irrelevant or outright counter-productive to the goal of achieving socialism and should not be a major focus of socialist politics.

Revolutionary socialism is the socialist doctrine that social revolution is necessary in order to bring about structural changes to society. More specifically, it is the view that revolution is a necessary precondition for a transition from capitalism to socialism. Revolution is not necessarily defined as a violent insurrection; it is defined as seizure of political power by mass movements of the working class so that the state is directly controlled or abolished by the working class as opposed to the capitalist class and its interests. Revolutionary socialists believe such a state of affairs is a precondition for establishing socialism and orthodox Marxists believe that it is inevitable but not predetermined.

Orthodox Marxism body of Marxist thought that emerged following the death of Karl Marx which became the official philosophy of the socialist movement

Orthodox Marxism is the body of Marxism thought that emerged after the death of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and which became the official philosophy of the socialist movement as represented in the Second International until the First World War in 1914. Orthodox Marxism aims to simplify, codify and systematize Marxist method and theory by clarifying the perceived ambiguities and contradictions of classical Marxism.

Ethical socialism is a political philosophy that appeals to socialism on ethical and moral grounds as opposed to economic, egoistic, and consumeristic grounds. It emphasizes the need for a morally conscious economy based upon the principles of altruism, cooperation, and social justice while opposing possessive individualism. In contrast to socialism inspired by rationalism, historical materialism, neoclassical economics, and Marxist theory which base their appeals for socialism on grounds of economic efficiency, rationality, or historical inevitability, ethical socialism focuses on the moral and ethical reasons for advocating socialism.

Karl Kautsky Czech-Austrian philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician

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The history of socialism has its origins in the 1789 French Revolution and the changes which it wrought, although it has precedents in earlier movements and ideas. The Communist Manifesto was written by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels in 1848 just before the Revolutions of 1848 swept Europe, expressing what they termed "scientific socialism". In the last third of the 19th century, social democratic parties arose in Europe, drawing mainly from Marxism. The Australian Labor Party was the world's first elected socialist party when it formed government in the Colony of Queensland for a week in 1899.

Socialism in Italy is a political trend that was born and developed in the period of Industrial Revolution, and it has more than 120 years history. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were a growing number of social changes.Despite the pressure from the social problems, the outbreak of the First World War accelerated economic differentiation, leading to the increasingly wider wealth gap.All of these factors triggered the awake of personal consciousness, and pave the way for the emergence of Italian socialism.


  1. Collins English Dictionary. "Reformism". HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved 8 August 2017. a doctrine or movement advocating reform, esp political or religious reform, rather than abolition.
  2. Paul Blackledge (2013). "Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today". International Socialist Journal. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  3. Stan Parker (March 2002). "Reformism - or socialism?". Socialist Standard. Retrieved 21 June 2015.
  4. Duncan Hallas (1973). "Do We Support Reformist Demands?". Controversy: Do we support reformist demands?. International Socialism. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  5. Stan Parker (March 2002). "Reformism - or socialism?". Socialist Standard. Retrieved 21 June 2015.
  6. Lois Clifton (November 2011). "Do we need reform of revolution?". Socialist Review. Retrieved 3 September 2015.
  7. Rosa Luxemburg. Reform or Revolution (1900)
  8. Koestler, Arthur. The God That Failed. Edited by Richard Crossman. Bantam Matrix, Tenth Edition. pp 41-42.
  9. "Reform Party of Canada". Retrieved 2019-06-27.
  10. Dowson, Ross. "The Socialist Vanguard and the New Democratic Party". Retrieved 2018-05-18.