Often, ideas of revolution and reform are pitted against each other. People argue that systemic change will either come through gradual, incremental steps to create a new society or a sudden break from existing political and economic systems through revolution.
However, during the New Left of the 1960s, theorist, socialist thinker and philosopher André Gorz attempted to move beyond this binary and present another idea, known as non-reformist reform. Here’s why this idea still matters today.
What is Non-Reformist Reform
Non-reformist reform refers to any reform that is created not just considering what is possible within the current framework of a system, but also seeks to expand what can be made possible for meeting human needs and demands.
A reformist reform, at its core, maintains the status quo and doesn’t threaten existing structures. Minor changes are implemented from the top down, but don’t address the root causes of issues or systems that need to be dismantled. Instead, non-reformist reforms are anti-capitalist in nature, because they don’t base their right to exist in capitalist thinking or needs, but instead on human ones.
Gorz proposed that non-reforming reforms could help movements both make immediate gains and build strength for a wider struggle, eventually culminating in revolutionary change. These reforms could pave the way for more long-term and radical change while allowing justice movements to gain wins that shift power away from those at the top immediately.
The term was coined by Gorz due to a consistent impasse between reform and revolution in leftist debates over political strategy. Instead, it popularised the idea of working within but against. When it comes to police and prison abolition, for example, reformist reforms may entrench or increase the reach of policing. Non-reformist reforms could be implemented within current systems but instead would work to reduce the overall reach and impact of policing while increasing the resources available to strengthen communities.
Origins of non-reformist reform
Gorz’s book A Strategy for Labor, published in French in 1964 and English in 1967, and essays from the same period were some of the first places he advanced the idea of non-reformist reforms. He disagreed with those who believed electoral politics and parliamentary deals could right the wrongs of capitalism, but also criticised those who waited for a revolution that wasn’t yet imminent. Left-wing movements in capitalist countries had a policy of ‘waiting for the revolution’, as capitalism made the conditions of the working class worse and caused them to rise up. However, this didn’t happen as expected. Poverty and oppression existed, but not for the entire population, and those who were affected were not one homogenous and unified group. The oppressed were a diverse group of people that couldn’t simply overthrow an entire system.
Instead, Gorz proposed that, in situations where revolution might be desirable but not immediately achievable, movements should pursue non-reformist reforms: changes designed to make a practical difference in the short term, while also building toward larger, long-term transformation.
Non-reformist reforms are determined by context, however they can be characterised by several key factors including:
- Serving as steps toward a larger vision of change. They are the means, not the ends, connected to a broader, long-term goal.
- They’re not simply handed down by politicians or the systems but won through organising, protest and collective action. Demands must be a “living critique” of existing social relations. For example, rights for workers won by industrial unionised struggle.
- Participation of marginalised people is also key. As those most harmed by current systems, they must be active “in reordering social relationships, diagnosing social inequalities, and mobilising for a better way of socially organising the world”.
- Each reform should be designed to change the balance of power between movements and status quo institutions and elites, leaving communities in a better position to fight for even bigger changes in future.
- They help illuminate the path to alternative ways of organising the world, giving these incremental battles wider context, as they are continuing struggles for the “proper valuing of human and natural resources, for control over working conditions, and for the social satisfaction of the social needs created by industrial civilization”. They move in a specific and clear direction.
Short vs long-term struggle
A key component of non-reformist reform is a sense of short and long-term vision. Politicians and others within status quo institutions, even when sympathetic to a social movement, will often advocate for options that are politically convenient. They’re often willing to compromise and tell activists that this is the best they can get, arguing that something is better than nothing. But weak reforms can be disheartening and breed cynicism, while telling the public something is being done. Plus, these types of ‘wins’ can often come at the cost of a concession elsewhere. As Gorz cautioned, unless a new cycle of mobilisation around the next step is quickly initiated, an incremental change can be safely absorbed into the system, with its transformative potential worn away over time.
Campaigners and activists, therefore, must think critically when considering reform options, weighing negatives against possible short-term benefits.
The lens of social movement ecology provides one way of thinking and strategising for this:
Instead of looking at efforts to create change from the perspective of a single organization, this viewpoint takes into account the entire ecosystem of people working on an issue. It recognizes the differing organizing models and sets of biases that the various groups bring. Those occupying different positions in the ecology include: individuals trying to play the inside game by lobbying or working from within institutions of power, groups committed to structure-based organizing (such as unions and community organizations), mass protest movements, and people working outside the system to build radical alternatives or to promote personal transformation.
Each of these groups will have different priorities that require different timescales such as immediately meeting community needs, or immediately changing the balance of power within systems, influencing public opinion, encouraging more support for a cause, or educating people on wider transformative visions over a long period of time. Non-reformist reform, when implemented well, can serve multiple groups.
For organizers preoccupied with the immediate value of incremental changes, the concept represents a push to think bigger—to look beyond present circumstances and adopt a strategy that is aligned with a more substantive vision of change. At the same time, the idea of non-reformist reforms encourages radicals to be hard-headed in plotting a course of practical action. It pushes them not to stay pure, but to stay principled in times when purity is not an option.
Gorz was clear that if movements were not strong enough to win a revolution outright, neither would they be strong enough to demand changes that would dismantle the system directly. As contemporary organizers have argued, “We must not turn away from the truth.” The point is to create a path through which popular forces, step by step, can build strength and change the balance of power. It is to signal in the direction of a movement’s desires, even while, for the moment, falling short of its most radical ambitions. It is to find measures that might be less than ideal, but nevertheless worthwhile, and with them chart a course toward transformation.
Essentially, reform isn’t the end goal, but a stepping stone towards long-term transformation that can “undermine the prevailing political, economic, social system from reproducing itself and make more possible a radically different” future.
“Medicare for All doesn’t just offer much-needed and greatly-deserved relief to working people,” writes author and journalist Meagan Day. “It also increases our ability to intentionally push back against the ruling class. If unions didn’t have to make major sacrifices to protect health benefits, what else could they fight for? If a worker didn’t have to worry about losing health insurance when they lose their job, how much bolder could they be in standing up to their boss? If health care coverage is made independent from employment, how much less power would the bosses have over workers in the economy and in politics?”
Examples of reformist reforms include:
- The introduction of police body and dashboard cameras, which failed to address the root issue or reduce instances of police brutality.
- Anti-bullying legislation that has expanded school punishment programs that target BIPOC students while failing to reduce bullying or made school environments safer.
- The criminalisation of domestic violence in the US – while white feminists were likely to support law and criminal approaches, BIPOC feminists aren’t protected by a racist system that can result in them being arrested, harmed or deported. Additionally, sexual violence perpetrated by police inside the correctional system is rife, and criminalisation has not addressed the root cause of domestic violence.
Examples of non-reformist reform, however, include:
- Degrowth, which requires the gradual implementation of environmental, social and economic proposals like UBI, shorter work weeks, and reduced extraction and consumption as steps to moving from a capitalist society to a different alternative.
- The Red Deal, a 2021 manifesto from Indigenous organisers The Red Nation, which charts a course of short-term changes for structural overhaul. The system is dismantled in order to be replaced, which can be achieved through “grassroots Indigenous seed bank networks where thousands of sustainable farmers share, trade and feed their communities… successful runs for city council elections where left candidates implement a people’s platform for climate and social justice at city and municipal levels… land back camps or tribal council resolutions that reject colonial water settlements. … Whatever form they take, we must simply get to work.”
- Prison and police abolitionist steps, such as “abolishing solitary confinement and capital punishment; moratoriums on prison construction or expansion; freeing survivors of physical and sexual violence, the elderly, infirm, juveniles, and all political prisoners; sentencing reform; ending cash bail; abolishing electronic monitoring, broken windows policing, and the criminalization of poverty; and a federal jobs and homes guarantee for the formerly incarcerated.”
Graphic by @rowanweatherwax, developed in summer 2020 by abolitionist academics, organisers and NGO workers from a range of groups to support British and Irish based abolitionist work
Context is key
Creating non-reformist reforms can be difficult. In particular, ideas can be co-opted, flattened or mainstreamed in ways that are seen as respectable to current systems. This leads to reformist reforms that prop up harmful systems, for example feminism becoming aligned with ‘girl boss’ narratives that see some women at the top of major corporations. To implement proper non-reformist reform, one has to avoid expanding the systems you’re trying to change; more female billionaires don’t liberate the working class, which is itself comprised of many oppressed women and marginalised genders.
There are no anticapitalist institutions or conquests that cannot in the long run be whittled down, denatured, absorbed, and emptied of all or part of their content if the imbalance created by their initiation is not exploited by new offensives as soon as it manifests itself,”
…And yet, while the possibility of cooptation is real, this outcome is not inevitable. “The risk must be run,” he argues, “for there is no other way.”
Gorz was clear that the consequence of insisting on purity removes people from any struggle at all. He recognized that putting together a short-term plan could not simply be a matter of coming up with the most radical demands possible. Reforms that would immediately eliminate capitalism would be ideal, but workers didn’t yet have the power to implement these types of changes. So people need to find intermediate, acceptable steps to get there.
These steps will differ depending on context and specific factors of each unique struggle. Rather than a step-by-step plan to change, non-reformist reform is a framework that activists can use. It involves weighing up benefits and costs of reform demands but, more importantly, it remains focused on action that balances transformative vision with the practicalities of the present. And ultimately, it’s a tool that can help us find a way to achieve the long term goal of liberation.