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the label given to political and social policies whose object is to modify a political practice or aspect of social legislation without changing the fundamental political and social structure. For example, in the context of welfare states in capitalist societies, the term is used to refer to social policies which ameliorate social inequalities without challenging the capitalist economic system on which many of those inequalities are based. For example, postwar social security policies in Britain have been seen to ameliorate the hardship of primary POVERTY without fundamentally changing the unequal DISTRIBUTION OF INCOME AND WEALTH.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in the working-class movement, a political current, the representatives of which deny the need for the class struggle, a socialist revolution, and the dictatorship of the proletariat; advocate class cooperation; and hope that a series of reforms implemented within the framework of bourgeois legality will transform capitalism into a welfare state characterized by social justice.

Reformism emerged in the last quarter of the 19th century, when a number of Social Democratic leaders, impressed by the successes of the working-class movement and the development of bourgeois democracy, urged a revision of Marxism and a policy of reforming and improving bourgeois society, so that it would gradually “grow into” socialism. Among the Social Democratic leaders who adopted this position were E. Bernstein, G. H. von Vollmar, and A. Millerand. Marxists in the European Social Democratic parties struggled stubbornly but not always consistently against Bernsteinism. Nonetheless, the Social Democratic parties yielded to reformism on more and more issues, although this trend was not always clear-cut. Of the major political organizations in the Second International, only the Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of V. I. Lenin, consistently defended the revolutionary line in the working-class movement.

After the October Revolution of 1917 and the end of World War I (1914–18), the struggle between Marxism and reformism turned into a fight between two separately organized political currents in the working-class movement. The revolutionary wing of the movement was represented by the Comintern (Communist International). The reformist wing was represented by the Second and Second-and-a-Half Internationals and, after their merger in 1923, by the Labor and Socialist International. During the period between the world wars the Social Democratic parties evolved from Marxism to anti-Marxism.

After World War II (1939–45) the reformists broke definitively and completely with Marxism. This development was officially expressed in the new programs of the European Social Democratic parties (1958–61). “Democratic socialism,” the official doctrine of contemporary reformism, was proclaimed in the declaration of the Frankfurt Congress of the Socialist International in 1951, as an alternative to scientific communism and Marxism-Leninism. The theoretical roots of democratic socialism are in neo-Kantianism, with its message of ethical socialism.

From the standpoint of the theorists of contemporary reformism, socialism is not the natural result of historical development but a moral ideal that is equally accessible to the members of all strata of society. Because they view the socialist transformation of society as a moral problem of educating people in the eternal values of socialism, they reject revolutionary methods of influencing social development. Reform, the antithesis of revolution, remains the foundation of reformist thought. The reformists believe that socialism can arise only “democratically,” as the result of political, economic, and particularly, cultural and educational measures carried out by Social Democratic and even bourgeois governments. According to the reformist creed, socialism can exist only as a “democracy”—as a harmonic unity of all social groups, including the capitalists. Although the documents and programmatic declarations of the Social Democratic parties contain references to “socialism,” the meaning of this concept is becoming more and more nebulous.

The ambivalent, vacillating character of the practical policy of the Social Democratic parties is a result of their leaders’ striving for an eclectic combination of bits of capitalism and bits of socialism. Nothing has been done to undermine the foundations of capitalism in any country where the Social Democrats have headed the government. Thus, the Social Democratic prime minister of Sweden, O. Palme, admitted that the Social Democrats could not realize the basic vision of the future that is the moving force of the Social Democratic movement and could not establish the type of equality demanded by socialism. Moreover, they could not create a sense of community, and they could not gain influence over society as a whole or over the everyday lives of the people. The principal aims of the contemporary reformism of the right-wing socialists are the modernization of capitalism and its adaptation to new historical conditions.

The reformist political parties and their close allies, the reformist trade unions, continue to play a definite role in raising the standard of living and improving the social conditions of the working people. This guarantees them mass support in the developed capitalist countries. In 1971 the reformist Social Democratic parties in the Socialist International had more than 13.5 million members and polled more than 73 million votes in elections. In mid-1973, Social Democrats were heads of government or members of cabinets in 20 states.

The Communist parties, convinced that no progress can be made toward socialism until the split in the working-class movement has been overcome, and criticizing the right opportunist ideology and policy of reformism, advocate a constructive dialogue, free of prejudices, between communists and socialists, and support broad cooperation with the Social Democrats.

The major obstacle to unity of action between the revolutionary and reformist currents in the working-class movement is the anticommunism of right-wing Social Democratic leaders. Anti-communism, as well as the virtual disappearance of differences between the Social Democratic and liberal bourgeois conceptions, has caused a profound ideological and political crisis in social reformism. Under the conditions of this crisis many reformist parties have continued an overall policy of class cooperation with the bourgeoisie. However, these parties are characterized by increasing internal differentiation and by the growing strength of left-wing groups. There have been positive changes in the positions of the Social Democratic leadership on several important international problems. Social Democratic leaders have become less adamant in their hostility to unity of action with the communists. There has been an expansion of contacts between many parties of the Socialist International and the governing Communist parties.

Under contemporary conditions the “communists, attaching primary importance to working-class unity, favor cooperation with the socialists and Social Democrats in order to establish a progressive democratic system in the present and to build a socialist society in the future” (Mezhdunarodnoe Soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii: Dokumenty i materialy, Moscow, 1969, p. 306).


Marx, K., and F. Engels. “Tsirkuliarnoe pis’mo A. Bebeliu, V. Libknekhtu, V. Brakke i dr.” Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 19.
Lenin, V. I. “Marksizm i revizionizm.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 17.
Lenin, V. I. “Reformizm v russkoi sotsial-demokratii.” Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “O nekotorykh osobennostiakh istoricheskogo razvitiia marksizma.” Ibid., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Marksizm i reformizm.” Ibid., vol. 24.
Lenin, V. I. “Krakh II Internatsionala.” Ibid., vol. 26.
Lenin, V. I. Proletarskaia revoliutsiia i renégat Kautskii. Ibid., vol. 37.
Programmnye dokumenty bor’by za mir, demokratiiu i sotsializm. Moscow, 1964.
Mezhdunarodnoe Soveshchanie kommunisticheskikh i rabochikh partii: Dokumenty i materialy. Moscow, 1969.
Ideologiia sovremennogo reformizma: Kritika kontseptsii pravykh sotsialistov. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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