Reformism is a political position that posits that gradual changes within existing institutions can eventually change a society's fundamental aspects, such as its economic system and political structures. Within the socialist movement, reformism as a hypothesis of social change grew out of opposition to revolutionary socialism, which contends that some form of revolutionary upheaval is necessary for fundamental structural changes to occur in society. In contrast, reformism posits that a capitalist economy can be gradually transformed into a qualitatively different socialist system through political and economic reform.
Reformism is to be distinguished from pragmatic reforms: reformism is the assumption that an accumulation of reforms can lead to the emergence of an entirely different socioeconomic system than the present-day forms of capitalism and democracy, whereas pragmatic reforms represent attempts to safeguard the status quo from fundamental and structural changes.
There are two types of reformism. One has no intention of bringing about socialism or fundamental economic change to society and is used to oppose such structural changes. The other is based on the assumption that while reforms are not socialist in themselves, they can help rally supporters to the cause of revolution by popularizing the cause of socialism to the working class.
The debate on the ability for social democratic reformism to lead to a socialist transformation of society is over a century old.
Reformism is criticized for being paradoxical: it seeks to overcome the existing economic system of capitalism, but it tries to improve the conditions of capitalism thereby making it appear more tolerable to society. According to Rosa Luxemburg, under reformism, "(capitalism) is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened by the development of social reforms." In a similar vein, Stan Parker of the Socialist Party of Great Britain argues that reforms are a diversion of energy for socialists and are limited because they must adhere to the logic of capitalism.
The French social theorist Andre Gorz criticized reformism by advocating a third alternative to reformism and social revolution that he called "non-reformist reforms". "Non-reformist reforms" are reforms specifically focused on structural changes to capitalism, as opposed to reforms for improve living conditions within capitalism or to prop it up through economic interventions.
In 1875 German Social Democratic Party (SPD) adopted a Gotha Program that proposed "every lawful means" on a way to a "socialist society" and was criticized by Karl Marx who considered the communist revolution a required step. One of the delegates to the SPD congress, Eduard Bernstein, expanded on the concept, proposing evolutionary socialism. Bernstein was a leading social democrat in Germany. Reformism was quickly targeted by revolutionary socialists, with Rosa Luxemburg condemning Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism in her 1900 essay Reform or Revolution?. While Luxemburg died in the German Revolution, the reformists soon found themselves contending with the Bolsheviks and their satellite communist parties for the support of intellectuals and the working class.
In 1959, the Godesberg Program (signed at a party convention in the West German capital of Bad Godesberg) marked the shift of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) from a Marxist program espousing an end to capitalism to a reformist one focused on social reform.
After Joseph Stalin consolidated power in the Soviet Union, the Comintern launched a campaign against the Reformist movement by denouncing them as "social fascists". According to The God that Failed by Arthur Koestler, a former member of the Communist Party of Germany, the largest communist party in Western Europe in the Interwar period, communists, aligned with the Soviet Union, continued to consider the "social fascist" Social Democratic Party of Germany to be the real enemy in Germany, even after the Nazi Party had gotten into power.
In modern times, reformists are seen as centre-left. Some social democratic parties, such as the Canadian NDP and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, are still considered to be reformist.
The term was applied to elements within the British Labour Party in the 1950s and subsequently, on the party's right. Anthony Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism (1956) as a personal manifesto arguing for a reformulation of the term. For Crosland, the relevance of nationalization (or public ownership) for socialists was much reduced as a consequence of contemporary full employment, Keynesian management of the economy and reduced capitalist exploitation. In 1960, after the third successive defeat of his party in the 1959 General Election Hugh Gaitskell attempted to reformulate the original wording of Clause IV in the party's constitution, but proved unsuccessful.
Some of the younger followers of Gaitskell, principally Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams left the Labour Party in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party, but the central objective of the Gaitskellites was eventually achieved by Tony Blair in his successful attempt to rewrite Clause IV in 1995.
The use of the term is distinguished from the gradualism associated with Fabianism (the ideology of the Fabian Society), which itself should not be seen as being in parallel with the revisionism associated with Bernstein and the Social Democratic Party of Germany, as originally the Fabians had explicitly rejected Marxism.