In a famous scene of Spanish literature, noble Don Quixote, dominated by madness, fought against windmills believing them to be giant warriors. A character that sought to change the world, forcing it on his ways, and went from one mess to another. He attempted with all his strength to be a hero, but he fought the wind in vain. For Marx, reformist are like Don Quixote. In a previous text to The Capital called Grundisse, he called reformist actions Quixote-like. It is a reference to the Don Quixote character. For Marx, to attempt to reform capitalism is useless. However, what did Marx understand by reformism?

By Gustavo Machado

What is Reformism?

Reformism is characterized by the belief that it is possible to fix capitalism. The belief that capitalism does not work because there is a maladjusted part somewhere. It would suffice to fix what is wrong for the entire system to work rationally, coherently and fairly. In this sense, reformists part from what society should be, not from what it actually is. It is curious then that many consider Marxism as utopic, when utopic is believing that capitalism may be reformed and it is possible to fix it. We will see this later on.

A very interesting example was the influential French socialist Joseph Proudhon. In 1848, the working class fought directly, for the first time, the bourgeoisie. The 1848 revolution began. Proudhon kept his distance from all struggles despising their leaders. For him, the essential was to implement his reform project. With his project of ideal society in his head, Proudhon did not spend any time with mobilizations, barricades and street fights in the ongoing revolution. He was elected representative, and he presented his project in the 1848 French parliament. This project was rejected by 600 votes against 2.

His project was as follows: to substitute money for some sort of bonus or ticket that would compensate the hour of labor. The main measure, however, was to transform the enterprises into labor cooperatives. These cooperatives would continue to produce commodities and sell them in the market. The worker would now be an employer and a worker at the same time. Proudhon wanted to maintain commodities and end money. To maintain the accumulated capital in the enterprises and end the capitalist. Would this be possible?

Capitalism as an Articulated System

All of Marx’s economic works, mainly The Capital, seek to show that it is not possible to solve the problems of capitalism through reforms, as Proudhon wanted. Opposite to the Quixote-like elements that characterize utopic socialists and reformists of the time, wanting to build the society of the future through a “reform in the bag” or a bank that emitted hour bonus, Marx stated the radically contradictory and potentially explosive character of capitalist social relations. These generated within themselves the conditions that enabled its overcoming.

“Competition generates capital concentration, monopolies, anonymous societies”, “private exchange generates world trade, private independence generates complete dependence from world market”, “labor division generate agglomeration, coordination, cooperation”, and mainly “ the anti-theses of private interests generates class interests”. As one may see, capital is a “mass of antithetic forms of social unity whose antithetic character […] may never be exploded through silence metamorphoses” (MARX, 2011, p. 107; our translation).

Marx shows how each part of capitalism is related to the other. It is an irrational system by nature, contradictory, oppressive and because of this, uncontrollable. Let us see!

The center of this system is production oriented by wealth accumulation by individual enterprises. Enterprises that are private property. It does not matter if they are cooperatives or controlled by one or more capitalists. Within these enterprises, as for private property, there is a fierce control of activities, functions, schedules with the objective to produce a greater amount of wealth and obtain profit.

If, on one hand, within enterprises everything is strictly controlled, on the other, there is no control regarding the relation between enterprises and society. Each enterprise produces commodities to be exchanged in the market, consumed by a buyer who, from starters, no one know who it is. As everything, it is exchanged in market. The need of money emerges to compare all commodities. As we may see, within the enterprise, everything is standardized, divided and regulated. Outside it, unsafety rules, and nothing may be exactly foreseen. Will vehicles produced by an assembly factory be sold? Will the ore extracted from the mines find buyers? May be or maybe not. No one knows for certain when and where.

In this immensity of enterprises, there will be those dedicated to producing commodities themselves: industrial capital. Here we have vehicle assembly factories, shoe producers, food producers, and so on. However, it is necessary to make commodities reach the individual consumer hands, mostly workers. Therefore, there is commercial capital, responsible for distributing commodities. However, there is no control of the countless relations between enterprises. Two sectors developed to establish the minimum conditions for this system to continue to exist.

The first is banking capital, which provides credit and loans with a given interest rate. Credit is a specific form of capital bearing interests. Excessive parts of enterprises that compose industrial capital need gigantic investments. Its facilities are enormous and the machine system is very expensive. This way, banking capital must provide all enterprises, in the form of loans, the capital to enable its business to work: it is the trade of money. To oppose banking and productive capital is absurd. As Marx said,

The credit system completes its development as a reaction against usury. However, this must not be misunderstood, and in no way interpreted as the former authors, the Church priests, Luther, or former socialists. The credit system does not mean anything besides the submission of capital bearing interests to conditions and needs of the capitalist production mode. (MARX, 2017, p.659-60; our translation).

This way, the credit system is a necessary demand of the capitalist production mode. Without it, the reproduction of the entire system becomes impossible. For this, Marx speaks with irony of Proudhon’s reform proposal, which is founded on free credit.

… As long as the capitalist mode of production continues to exist, it will also endure as one of its forms, the capital bearing interests, which actually constitutes the bases of its credit system. Only the tabloid writer, Proudhon, who wanted to sustain commodity production and abolish money, was capable of imagining the monstrous free credit, this alleged realization of the merciful wish of the perspective of the petty bourgeoisie. (MARX, 2017, p.667; our translation).

Today, as we know, some currents that believe it is possible to tame capitalism do the opposite. They take productive capital as sacred and banking capital as the demon, without understanding the necessary link between them.

However, the main institution is the State. The State guarantees a currency pattern, like the dollar or the real, that is accepted both by sellers and buyers within a country. To regulate competition between enterprises, the State determines a work shift and the minimum rights for each workers. Since labor force is a commodity sold and bought in market, a struggle between workers and capitalists defines the pattern of minimum rights. The State instituted this patter for all enterprises.

It even defines the conditions to buy and sell commodities from enterprises in different countries, and therefore, it negotiates with other States. As we may see, the State is not capable of controlling the market, but of establishing the minimum conditions for it to work. For this, to guarantee capitalist economy does not get off track, capitalists may concentrate their strength through the State to repress all and any threat to this system. For example through armed forces, the law and judges. The constant changes in the political forms of the State to adapt to the needs of the moment come from here, taking into account the sustaining of the system and the parasite social classes.

In this sense, nothing could be more contradictory with the Marxist conception than the idea of transforming society betting on the capitalist state. Marx said,

Juridical forms where these economic transactions appear as acts of will of those involved, as exteriorizations of their common will and as contracts whose execution may be imposed to the contractual parts by the State, cannot determine the content, since they are mere forms. They may merely express it. When it corresponds to the mode of production, when it is adequate, this content is fair; when it contradicts it, it is unfair. Slavery, based on a capitalist mode of production is unfair, just as fraud regarding the quality of commodity. (MARX, 2017, p.386-7; our translation).

As one may see, criticism to bourgeois society exposed by Marx is not based on moral condemnation of it, neither is it based on universal ethics of men based on eternal principles of justice. Before this, the prerequisites for socialist production relations appear in the heart of bourgeois society. If “we did not find in [bourgeois] society as such, the veiled material conditions of production and the corresponding exchange relations of a classless society, all attempts to explode it would be Quixote-like.” (MARX, 2011, p. 107; our translation).

Reformism is not a Lesser Evil

The entire system, therefore, is oriented to guarantee the origin and the source of all wealth within enterprises. In other words, for the enterprise owner to appropriate part of the wealth produced by his workers, to continue doing so year after year.

The illusion of reformists, therefore, is to believe that some of the parts of this system may be changed in nature and make the whole work differently. As Proudhon thought, it is possible to abolish money and maintain commodities. To end capitalists and maintain capital accumulation within enterprises.

Just as Proudhon, today, countless organizations believe it to be possible to humanize capitalism. In other words, to solve to problems of the working class without destroying the system, which produces these issues, as a whole. Some, like Ciro Gomes in Brazil, believe that the problem is banking and financial capital. His program stands for productive and industrial capital versus capital that commercializes money. Others believe that through the State, it is possible to transform society and transfer the wealth produced for the poorer, pushing consumption policies for families. There is yet a nationalist trend. They believe that the solution is to favor national enterprises, private or state-owned, against foreign enterprises. As we may see, these are several types of reformism.

All these reformist programs may even be right on some of their criticism to a specific issue. However, when they attempt to alter the system by using its own mechanisms, they are swallowed by it. This happens because all these parts are articulated amongst themselves and are part of one same system: commodities, money, workers and capitalists, industrial and banking capital, and the State itself. They all feed the same mechanisms. For this, Marx fought against nationalist reformists like the Italian Mazzini, a leader of the Italian unification in to a single State. He also fought unionist reformists who limited to wage and employment demands within capitalism and laws instituted by the State.

However, the main issue for Marx is not the fact reformist ideas are wrong. The main issue is that such ideas compete within workers organizations. When they are set in practice, these reform projects lead to demoralization because they prove impotent in achieving their ends. Here emerges the need of a clear program that points in the sense of the destruction of capitalism and its State, and the impossibility to reform it. Therefore, reformism for Marx was not a lesser evil. Its conceptions had to be defeated and destroyed within worker organizations.

Therefore, all his economic work had more than a solely theoretical interest. His first manuscript about The Capital, the Grundisse, was precisely written during the European crisis and the possibility of a revolution. In this sense, Marx informed Engels: “I am working like a fool, well into the night, to gather my economic studies to be able to at least understand the outlines clearly before the storm [the storm is the European revolution that Marx foresaw]” (our translation). Why did Marx want to finish a study on economy when a revolution was coming?  The answer is in a different letter sent to his friend Joseph Weydemeyer where he said, in this writing “Proudhonian socialism is destroyed in its bases, which is currently in fashion in France, and apparently substitutes private production, but it organizes the exchange of private products. It wants commodities, but not money. Communism must first get rid of this false brother.” (Our translation).

Marx’s struggle against reformists, therefore, was the struggle against the false brothers of Communism. In the end, good intentions do not suffice. A mistaken path leads movement to demoralization and defeat. As Marx said in The Capital, “the path to hell is paved with good intentions”. A program with the objective of destroying capitalism in its bases is necessary. Otherwise, we will be fighting wind.


MARX, K.. O capital – Crítica da Economia Política . Livro III. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

MARX, K. Grundrisse. Rio de Janeiro: Boitempo Editorial, 2011.

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