Reform - when is it worthwhile?

Author:Martin, Brian

Revolutionaries sometimes write off efforts at reforming the system as pointless or worse than nothing, propping up what needs to be overthrown. On the other hand, some of those working to improve society see revolutionaries, who want to tear down the system and build a new one, as dangerous wreckers. Are reform and revolution compatible? (1) Andre Gorz, writing in the 1960s, distinguished between two types of reform. (2) The first, 'reformist reform', is a reform that reinforces the system. The second, 'non-reformist reform', is a reform that lays the basis for further change. A strike for higher wages might simply buy off discontent and solidify capitalist control: it is a reform that strengthens the system. In contrast, pushing for greater worker control over shop-floor decisions can lay the basis for further worker initiatives: it is an example of non-reformist reform.

Gorz's idea is used implicitly by many progressives who select and develop campaigns according to their potential for empowering participants and laying the basis for further campaigning and mobilisation. But campaigners seldom sit down to articulate their long-term goals and then choose issues, campaigns and actions that best help to move towards these goals. For example, campaigners on issues such as nuclear power or climate change often focus on short-term objectives rather than long-term social change. (3) The result is an ongoing tension between current action and radical alternatives.

My aim here is to develop a set of categories and issues that can be used for assessing reform efforts in relation to more fundamental change. To do this, I look at a series of case studies in three areas where campaigners have been and continue to be active: education, defence and electoral politics. For each one I describe a self-managed alternative and then assess three reform efforts in relation to this alternative. (4) In the conclusion, I bring together the threads from the case studies to reflect on the potential for reform and on the relationship between reform and revolution.

In each of the three areas - education, defence and electoral politics - I pick three case studies that span a range from working within the system to challenging its fundamentals, in other words from reformist to non-reformist, on the surface at least. For example, in education, opposing student cheating is an attempt to make the system work better in its own terms, progressive content is an attempt to operate within the system but achieve broader purposes, and self-managed learning is a challenge to the standard teacher-student relationship. By using case studies located at different positions on the reform spectrum from reformist to non-reformist, it is easier to see commonalities across the spectrum.

None of these case studies is definitive. After all, even those who promote radical change disagree about their visions for society. My intention is not to argue whether particular actions are or are not contributing to long-term change, but rather to use the process of examination to highlight some of the key issues, in particular the relationship between methods and goals.

Anarchists have taken initiatives in relation to many of the case studies, for example on self-managed learning, opposition to nuclear weapons, and voting. Occasionally I mention connections to anarchist campaigning and theory, but not systematically. That is because my purpose is not an examination of anarchist theory and practice in relation to education, defence and electoral politics - though that would be a significant and worthy endeavour - but to examine areas of reform in relation to self-managed alternatives.

In the next three sections dealing with the case studies, I do not attempt to draw conclusions, but rather outline factors that relate to social change. In the conclusion, I pull out from the case studies several key features that can be used as criteria for examining the potential of reforms to move towards self-managing alternatives.

The process of examining case studies is not designed to judge whether actual campaigns help move towards alternatives. Instead, the process is intended to generate ideas about the dimensions of campaigns that are relevant for judgements about their potential for contributing towards self-managing alternatives. In other words, my goal is to suggest areas worth thinking about; campaigners are the ones who will decide how to proceed in practice.


Formal education systems in most of the world today are creatures of the state. The state mandates attendance at school, usually runs much or all of the school system, and regulates independent providers. Most schools themselves operate on the principle of command and authority: the principal and board determine policy (or implement state policy); teachers run classes; pupils do what is required, or try to resist.

In self-managed alternatives along the model of free schools, pupils and teachers collectively run the education process, deciding on methods and content of learning. Anarchists have long promoted and supported free schools, seeing them as exemplars of educational alternatives. (5)

Another radical alternative is deschooling, popularised by Ivan Illich. (6) Deschooling means getting rid of the domination of education by professional teachers in institutionalised schooling systems. Instead, children would learn through their involvement in community activities, for example through helping out in workplaces or participating in organisations, as well as voluntary learning activities arranged by themselves or others. The deschooling alternative is not well-defined, but is certainly compatible with self-management.

Looking today for educational alternatives in action - examples of what Colin Ward calls anarchy in action (7) - there are numerous examples. Some instances of home schooling, in which parents enable their children to learn independently of formal schooling, fit the self-managed model. So do numerous free schools, often small and known to relatively few. (8) Within a few schools and colleges, teachers are enabled and encouraged to give maximum autonomy to students, for example through learning contracts that are alternatives to conventional curricula.

The alternative exists, but only in a few pockets surviving next to or occasionally within conventional educational systems. With this background, I canvass three examples with the aim of showing a variety of implications for reform and revolution.

Opposing student cheating

Evidence suggests that many students cheat on assignments and in examinations at least some of the time. (9) Measures to reduce cheating have been on the education agenda since schooling became institutionalised. Policies and practices to reduce cheating rationalise educational competition, thus seeming to help sustain the role of schools as sorting devices that reproduce social inequality: they would seem to be a classic example of non-reformist reform.

Looking a bit more closely, though, opposing student cheating can be pursued in several different ways. The most long-standing and still most common approach is through stronger systems for teachers to monitor students and for penalties to be applied to cheaters. This approach relies on and reinforces the authority structure.

A different and often effective approach is to involve students in developing and running systems for student honesty. Some universities and high schools have honour codes that are participatory: older students help instruct new students in the code, and the disciplinary panels have student representatives or even are run by students. (10) With what might be called participatory honour codes, students collectively have a stake in their own honesty.

The conclusion: student cheating can be approached in different ways. Some ways reinforce hierarchy; others give an experience in self-management. (11)

Progressive content

Education systems are often seen as tools for enforcing a conventional picture of society and the world. (12) But within the system, many teachers introduce ideas critical of the status quo, for example concerning economic inequality, media bias and racial discrimination. (13) This is easiest in subjects like social studies, which deal with current issues, but is even possible in subjects like mathematics, through careful selection of examples.

Progressive content, when introduced by teachers on an individual basis, involves operating within the existing system to enable students to see other ways of understanding the world besides the dominant one. However, when progressive content is presented using conventional teacher-centred pedagogy, this apparently does little to challenge educational structures.

Progressive content can be turned into a reform in the usual sense by embedding this content into standard syllabuses and standardised examinations. This often occurs bit by bit, through the gradual efforts of curriculum designers and sympathetic teachers. Occasionally public debates erupt over the content of teaching, for example concerning the teaching of evolution in the US or the history of Japanese imperialism and militarism...

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