Introduction to the problem
The debate of revolutionary or reformist approaches to social change have been argued through the ages and has become most pertinent since the bourgeoise revolutions and in particular with the development of democratic reforms during the latter half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The debate certainly gained prominence with the the unification of the revolutionary Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany, led by Bebel and Liebknecht, and the reformist General German Workers' Association originally established by Lassalle. One of Marx's greatest works, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), in which he firmly established his 'third phase' (libertarian socialist) thinking, is a response to that unification. In the turn of the twentieth century the debate continued on one side of Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism (1899) and Rosa Luxembourg's critique, the equally bluntly titled Reform or Revolution (1900).
To give a very simple summary, the revolutionary perspective argued that socialism can only be won through the forced overthrow of the ruling class, whereas the reformist perspective argues that socialism can develop over time with the gradual institutionalisation of more democratic rights. Related topics include political disposition of varying degrees of conservatism versus radicalism; debates over the psychological effects of State institutions, from insidiously corrupting to subtly influential; of political realism between principles and pragmatism; of class relations, conflict and the capacity of different classes to implement social change; in political organisation, between vanguard elites versus mass parties, and, on the highest level, the debate over the foundations of society itself whether natural, technological, institutional, relations, or ideas.
Of course, there is no suggestion that the following is anything but a brief sketch to the problem, a somewhat frustrated expression of personal experiences in both reformist and revolutionary politics, a discussion of the purpose of a revolutionary approach, and a conclusion that hopes to transcend some of the common problems through 'revolutionary reformism'. The notion of transcending, or overcoming, or even better still to use Hegel's phrase from the dialectical method Aufhebung is quite deliberate, in contrast to the erroneous assertion of a 'synthesis' through partial adaption of the thesis and antithesis. As much as Trotsky argued against "No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards!" from a revolutionary perspective he was also prepared to argue in favour of co-ordinated action "March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike!" ("For a Workers' United Front Against Fascism", 1931).
In decades of political involvement I am yet to see Trotsky's dictum seriously taken up by self-proclaimed revolutionary organisations in advanced capitalist states. Determined not to dirty their hands with actual governance, they are hopelessly split on relatively minimal differences and prone towards infiltrating social movements for the purpose of recruitment, rather than social change itself. The revolutionary assertions bring no comfort either; political programmes which are ill-considered and idealistic. By the same token, equal condemnation but of a different sort, can be levelled at reformist organisations. Highly institutionalised, they typically avoid involvement in extraparliamentary activism to engage in the byzantine labyrinth of State power for minimal and specific changes rather than seeking the systematic basis for the problems to begin with; as Henry David Thoreau remarked in Walden (1854): "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root".