Change: Reform or Reformism

“Have you rehabilitated yourself?”
(Arlo Guthrie Alice’s Restaurant)

Change – means to alter.

Busharama 2002

  • The White House today announced it has frozen the assets of all Pretzel manufacturing companies in the US and has arrested the managing directors of all Pretzel companies until it can rule out the possibility that they conspired with Bin Laden in an attempt to assassinate President Bush.
  • An unnamed  White House source said that “It is daily becoming obvious that the quality of American Presidents is declining. We thought it was bad enough when we found out Gerald Ford couldn’t walk and chew gum simultaneously but  President Bush hasn’t learnt to eat and breathe at the same time.”

Reform – (Macquarie Dictionary)

  • re-form verb. to form again.
  • reform noun. 1. the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, etc.: social reform. 
  • Reform 4. to restore to a former and better state; improve by alteration, substitution, abolition, etc. to cause (a person) to abandon wrong or evil ways of life or conduct. 6. to put an end to (abuses, disorders, etc.)  7. to abandon evil conduct or error


  1. the act of reforming.
  2. the state of being reformed.




  • the policy of bringing about reform within the means and limitations of the existing system , usually without radically changing the current political system of government.

Do politicians always use the words: 

  • change
  • reform, and
  • reformism

in line with the Dictionary’s definition?

Ok where are we up to?

If we are really attempting to usher in a

  • major,
  • significant,
  • radical change

which will, if achieved, substantially improve the conditions for members of your community.  Then, and only then, should you talk about reforming the system.

The Tax ‘reform’ Package

  • IF THEY LIE ON THE COVER  can you believe anything on the inside?

Save our ABC

  • Ill informed response:  “Why? I did not know the alphabet was under challenge.”

The Politics of Social Services  by JEFFRY H. GALPER, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1975

We suggest that the reformist approach to social change cannot be successful in solving the basic problems that we face. The fundamental reason for this failure is that reformism accepts, works within, and ultimately supports the very values and institutions that must be challenged and changed if we are to develop a humane society.

Reformism is frequently equated with incrementalism.  This is the notion that planned change in a society will and should occur through modest changes, each a small departure from previous practice.

However, incrementalism ought not to be taken as a defining characteristic of reformism. With very few exceptions, all change, including change that could be called revolutionary, consists of relatively small departures from previous practice.

Revolutions themselves are as often the public and symbolic recognition of a variety of changes that have taken place in the society over time as they are the moment at which the change actually occurs.

Revolutionary change will necessarily have many incremental aspects.  Radical change strategies conceptualize and utilize incremental changes quite differently from the way that reform strategies do.

Nonetheless, the incremental nature of change efforts does not necessarily distinguish reformism from other approaches.

Radicals who do not understand the necessarily incremental nature of radical work may disparage their own efforts when the results are not cataclysmic. It is important for radicals to realize that, by and large, only small changes are possible at any one time.

It is the nature of these changes, as well as their “size,” that distinguishes them from reformism.

Reformism also ought not to be equated with strategies of change that are nonmilitant or peaceful. Some efforts at reform, historically and currently, have been quite militant and have utilized conflict and even violence as a strategy.

For example, union struggles for higher wages may be militant and may involve violent conflict, but they are not, as a consequence, revolutionary.

In addition, reformism ought not to be characterized as a strategy that is “reasonable” – in contrast to radical change which has been labelled “unreasonable”. The appeal to reason has too often been an appeal to compromise principles of social justice and human dignity for the sake of some more easily achievable but unfulfilling or destructive outcomes.

What equating reform with feasibility has meant in practice is that reform, like politics, has come to be seen as the art of the possible. However, what is considered possible often bears (only a) remote resemblance to desirable change and should not be graced with the label of reform.

What then are the distinguishing characteristics of reform? Reform is “a movement aimed at removing political or social abuse,” or an effort “to make better by removing faults or defects,” or by “putting a stop to abuses or malpractices or by introducing better procedures.”

A radical analysis points to underlying causes and unifying themes in the approach to social problems and social change.  Whatever the particular point of entry, the radical is always trying to reach the more basic dynamics and more basic strategic levers for change in the whole society through the particulars with which be or she is engaged.

That is why I keep talking about:

  • racism
  • ageism
  • urbanism
  • sexism
  • classism, and
  • the way we treat people with disability as central features which structure/organise our society.

The radical engages in particular struggles also, but does so with an eye toward creating greater political consciousness and political organization in the process, with the long-term aim of changing the system that produces the particular problems.

The liberal philosophy in which reformism is rooted does not contain a developed vision of the good society or a means for achieving such a society. As a consequence, reformism tend to focus, on the moment, on ongoing processes, and to see the future as being simply an elaborated version of the present.

The underlying limitation of reformism is that it fails to understand that social problems are rooted in the social structures of society and, consequently, confuses dealing with the symptoms of problems with dealing with the problems themselves.

Because reformism accepts the basic values and structures of the society, it has no way to work back from manifestations of problems to the causes of problems.  Furthermore, it shares liberalism’s belief that desirable social outcomes can emerge from the competitive interplay of the disparate units of society.

This belief in the beneficial effects of competition and the negotiated settlements of interest groups is a fundamental part of the ideology of reformism.  Because it is not a critical ideology, it is not adequate to the tasks before us.

Staying together in the struggle

  • The final reason why radical political consciousness is so essential is that in the absence of this consciousness, the gains that reformist groups seek may result in a loss of resources to other equally exploited groups and in the failure to consider dilemmas common to all.
  • As long as the analysis and struggle are at the level of trying to obtain some resources for a particular group or in a particular area of need, a victory will most likely mean the redistribution of scarce goods to one group and away from some other equally needy group.

Pluralist  Crap

The entire functionalist school of Amerikan political science/ sociology

  • pontificated about democracy being built on competition amongst the various “plural” interest groups.
  • Not much in advance of Hobbs
  • life is nasty brutish and short
  • the struggle of one against all.

To the extent that reformers support these struggles, they support the historical technique of the forces of the status quo that keep the disadvantaged in society fighting with one another.

  • For example, efforts by reformers and by clients to create changes in the welfare system have aggravated the tensions between interest groups in the society that, hopefully, will someday come together to make common cause against the larger patterns of economic maldistribution in the society.

A critical question for all of us is how the achievement of a more decent society can be pursued in the context of day-to-day life.

Reformism tends to isolate change efforts from one another, to play them off against one another, to fail to work from the specific case to the general issue.
Reformers often want to do things TO people
or to do things FOR People.
Radicals want to do things
WITH people.