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Approaches to Socialism: Comparing Reforms and Revolutions as Agents of Change

Behind the theories of revolution, their objectives, and the flaws they present, we can address why reform can be a better route to socialism than revolution. Variables such as the pre-existing character of the state heavily influence the success of reform or revolution, as one, theoretically, may be more effective in a democratic environment than an autocratic one, and vice versa. The revolutionary theories proposed by Luxemburg and Lenin are deeply rooted in Marxism, which emphasizes the consciousness of the proletariat and predicts a conscious uprising resulting from years of exploitation and alienation by the bourgeoisie. However, in the context of contemporary Western democracy, this article will also demonstrate how reform can advance a capitalist state towards socialist ideals by utilizing tools such as the use of trade unions and the promotion of equity and welfare state, despite their differences with traditional socialism.

Figure 1. The Road to Socialism (Hundertwasser, 1982)

The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (1948) defines socialism as "political and economic theories based on the belief that everyone has an equal right to a share of a country's wealth and that the government should own and control the main industries", which forms the foundation of Marxism. According to Marxism, the exploitation of the proletariat leads to the alienation of workers and deprives them of their ability to engage in conscious, mutually beneficial production. Consequently, a revolution is considered to be necessary to transition the state from capitalism to socialism, thereby facilitating the redistribution of goods among the masses.

One prominent theorist of Marxism was Kautsky, who advocated a visionary reformist approach to socialism, relying on the working-class socialists and a parliamentary path. This approach depended on the progressive consolidation of the working class, driven by class tensions and polarization, along with ongoing organization and propaganda efforts. The ultimate goal was to establish a social-democratic Germany. The consequences of social democracy would encompass the implementation of "democratic government, the abolition of inheritance," and the introduction of "gradual taxation on wealth and income" (Stephens, 1979, p.64).

Figure 2. Karl Kautsky and Karl Marx (Rodman, 2016)

Kautsky correctly anticipated the emergence of an oligopolistic economy and recognized the necessity of capital centralization through austerity measures. In this context, a social-democratic majority in parliament would have posed a challenge to the Kaiser and Reichstag. However, Lenin countered the idea of a democratic transition through parliament, asserting that it was only feasible in England and America. In a militarized state operating under a monopolized, imperialist capitalist regime, bourgeois officeholders influenced by monopoly interests would "suspend democracy to maintain class rule" and obstruct the socialist majority (Stephens, 1979, p.64).

Theories of Revolution

Lenin advocated for a Marxist-inspired revolution that involved the formation of a centralized party composed of dedicated volunteers who would serve as a sovereign, absolute central authority, and vanguard for the working class. Once a sovereign authority was established, the proletariat would develop a "trade union consciousness" and recognize the need for unionization (Lenin, 1966, p.74). Since the party held absolute and scientific authority, decisions would be made by the party congress or the central committee, and members would be obligated to carry out these decisions. Lenin (1966) proclaimed that an economic crisis would serve as a "prelude to the revolutionary outbreak"(p.74). Consequently, a period of proletarian dictatorship would ensue, leading to the elimination of bourgeois opponents. This approach was influenced by the autocratic context in which Lenin operated in Russia.

Figure 3. The Red Dawn: The October Revolution (history extra, 2017)

In hindsight, the Leninist transition began with the October Revolution in 1917. However, the conditions necessary for socialism, such as the absence of scarcity and a fully socialist labour force, were lacking. Furthermore, the working class constituted a small minority within the population and was marginalized by the dominant capitalist democracy, which alienated the masses. The demand for revolution was further reinforced by various obstacles, including residential qualifications for voting and limitations on the right to assemble, which impeded a gradual path to a parliamentary majority. In his work "The State and Revolution," Lenin (1966) emphasizes that the proletariat cannot utilize the bourgeois state for its purposes and must instead "smash the state". According to Lenin, reform is inadequate for effecting change as it merely serves as a compromise within the framework of the capitalist state. However, if one were to apply this Leninist theory within a Western democracy, would it be viable? In theory, the consequences would be more severe in a democratic state compared to an authoritarian state, as a socialist coup against the majority party would result in "social isolation" (Stephens, 1979, p.61) due to conflicting ideals with the majority. This would lead to the police and the army uniting with ruling groups to suppress such a coup.

Furthermore, similar to Lenin, Luxemburg (1961) disagreed with Kautsky's belief in the parliamentary path to socialism, as she argued that a "junker military bureaucracy" would resist such a route through a coup. Instead, Luxemburg advocated for a revolution driven by a "democratic but disciplined" (Stephens, 1971, p.60) mass-based party. She proposed a democratic commonwealth composed of the working class, rejecting the Leninist model of a dictator and emphasizing a mass-based socialist party that operates based on its principles. This approach strengthens class consciousness through political participation and fosters a close relationship between the democratic organization and the masses.

Figure 4. "Rosa Luxemburg addresses a rally in Stuttgart in 1907"(Zetkin, 2022)

Like Lenin, Luxemburg (1961) relied on crises as a political catalyst for revolution. However, she argued that capitalists prolong crises through the colonization and monopolization of foreign markets. If economic crises are deterred by capitalist adjustments and market modifications, Luxemburg believed that a political crisis, such as war, would generate enough pressure to weaken capitalist dominance. However, Marxism's reliance on a catalytic crisis has been criticized by Gorz, who argues that waiting for a crisis may dampen class consciousness and the revolutionary spirit, resulting in political paralysis. Nonetheless, Luxemburg emphasized the importance of extensive labour organization and education to achieve the desired level of labour agitation, which would eventually lead to an "explosion"of consciousness (Stephens, 1979, p.60).

However, a revolution cannot succeed without the legitimacy of socialist accession. Therefore, a parliamentary election would be necessary for the socialist party to gain political power and neutralize the military. However, securing the compliance of bureaucratic officials could impede progress, as capitalists may deliberately instigate an economic crisis to hinder the socialist party's efforts. In such cases, the support of the people becomes crucial to improve their economic conditions. Other challenges may arise as well. For instance, during the 1918 German Revolution, the German social democrats followed the masses, but the masses ended up supporting the conservative faction of the movement (Harrington, 1972). This resulted in a futile attempt to dismantle the "junker control of the military and bureaucracy"(Stephens, 1979, p.62). This example highlights the Marxist reliance on the consciousness of the socialist working class. However, the bourgeoisie dominates public opinion through control of the media, effectively turning the proletariat against their interests.

Reform in Contemporary Western Democracies

Figure 5. Eduard Bernstein (1850 – 1932). (n.d)

However, reforms offer gradual compromises that help alleviate the disenfranchised within society without posing a threat to the bureaucracy and, in the case of capitalist democracy, the majority. Bernstein (1907) presents an alternative gradualist approach to Kautsky's, acknowledging that centralization did not occur at the pace predicted by Marxists. This can be attributed to the increase in managerial positions and the spread of stock ownership, which reduced class polarization. As a result, owners no longer had full control over their companies, as they employed proletarian managers to oversee their operations, effectively granting the working class control over the means of production. Elements of socialism can be argued to be in effect in this scenario, as managers, not driven solely by massive profits, are more inclined to prioritize stability due to their fixed salaries. The social democrats, faced with factors such as a minority of proletariats and a declining rate of impoverished working-class members, shifted their focus toward the growing middle class. Yet, Bernstein's theory of widespread stock ownership did not materialize, as only a small percentage of Americans owned stock. Therefore, the distribution of capital ownership envisioned by Bernstein seemed unlikely. Bernstein advocated for a gradual transition by persuading people to become socialists, recognizing that socialist consciousness was not automatic among the middle class. Moreover, reforms within a capitalist framework appeared more appealing to Bernstein (1907), as he famously stated, "The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything" (p.175). In other words, capitalism has proven to be a resilient system, capable of overcoming economic crises and contributing to decreases in poverty and mortality rates, as well as the establishment of a welfare state. Crosland argued that welfare policies lead to significant income redistribution, diminishing the role of property ownership. This aligns with the ideals of distributive socialism that seeks to alter income distribution and promote broader stock ownership (Crosland, 1956). However, Wilensky and Jackman argue that welfare is contingent on economic growth and that equality primarily stems from market forces rather than political ideologies. Furthermore, Parkin suggests that welfare fails to address class disparity effectively, as it redistributes income from the well to the sick and from the young to the old, rather than from the rich to the poor. This failure to uplift the working class can be attributed to structural constraints, such as the state's emphasis on meritocracy to appeal to the expanding middle class.


In conclusion, the methodological theories of both reformists and revolutionaries highlight their respective challenges and limitations in their contemporary political contexts. Revolutionaries, such as Leninists, may find success in autocratic regimes like Russia but face significant obstacles in democratic settings, while reformists' ideas do not necessarily represent traditional socialist values. Nonetheless, these theories are still valid in contemporary society, as they contribute to the ongoing discourse on political and social change. They provide valuable insights into the complexities of power dynamics, systemic transformation, and the pursuit of social justice. By critically examining and engaging with these theories, we can strive to develop nuanced approaches that address the unique challenges and aspirations of our times.

Bibliographical References:

Bernstein, E. B. (1907). Evolutionary Socialism. Huebsch.

Crosland, C. A. R. (1956). The Future of Socialism. Schocken Books.

Gorz, A. G. (1964). Strategy for Labor (M. Nicolaus & V. Ortiz, Trans.). Beacon Press.

Gramsci, A. G. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

Haarder, B. B. H. (2016). The Nordic Model: Why and How? In A. Simonyi & D. Cagan (Eds.), Nordic Ways (pp. 6-12). Brookings Institution Press.

Lafferty, W. L. (1971). Economic Development and the Response of Labor in Scandinavia. Oslo: UniversitetsflSrlaget.

Lenin, Y. I. (1966). Essential Works of Lenin. New York: Bantam Books.

Luxemburg, R. L. (1961). The Russian Revolution. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Parkin, F. P. (1971). Class Inequality and Political Order. New York: Praeger.

Stephens, J. D. (1979). The Transition from Capitalism to Socialism. Springer.

Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. (n.d.). In American English (date accessed, 18/11/2019). Retrieved from

Visual sources

Figure 1. The Road to Socialism [Painting]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Figure 2. Einige Stunden bei Karl Marx [Photograph]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Figure 3. The Red Dawn: The October Revolution [Photograph]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Figure 4. Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary Eulogy by Clara Zetkin [Photograph]. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Figure 5. Nyt Liv til en Gammel Renegat [Photograph]. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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Joseph Norris

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