The debate of revolutionary or reformist approaches to social change have been argued through the ages and has become most pertinent since the bourgeoise revolutions and in particular with the development of democratic reforms during the latter half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. The debate certainly gained prominence with the the unification of the revolutionary Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany, led by Bebel and Liebknecht, and the reformist General German Workers' Association originally established by Lassalle. One of Marx's greatest works, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), in which he firmly established his 'third phase' (libertarian socialist) thinking, is a response to that unification. In the turn of the twentieth century the debate continued on one side of Eduard Bernstein's Evolutionary Socialism (1899) and Rosa Luxembourg's critique, the equally bluntly titled Reform or Revolution (1900).
To give a very simple summary, the revolutionary perspective argued that socialism can only be won through the forced overthrow of the ruling class, whereas the reformist perspective argues that socialism can develop over time with the gradual institutionalisation of more democratic rights. Related topics include political disposition of varying degrees of conservatism versus radicalism; debates over the psychological effects of State institutions, from insidiously corrupting to subtly influential; of political realism between principles and pragmatism; of class relations, conflict and the capacity of different classes to implement social change; in political organisation, between vanguard elites versus mass parties, and, on the highest level, the debate over the foundations of society itself whether natural, technological, institutional, relations, or ideas.
Of course, there is no suggestion that the following is anything but a brief sketch to the problem, a somewhat frustrated expression of personal experiences in both reformist and revolutionary politics, a discussion of the purpose of a revolutionary approach, and a conclusion that hopes to transcend some of the common problems through 'revolutionary reformism'. The notion of transcending, or overcoming, or even better still to use Hegel's phrase from the dialectical method Aufhebung is quite deliberate, in contrast to the erroneous assertion of a 'synthesis' through partial adaption of the thesis and antithesis. As much as Trotsky argued against "No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards!" from a revolutionary perspective he was also prepared to argue in favour of co-ordinated action "March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike!" ("For a Workers' United Front Against Fascism", 1931).
In decades of political involvement I am yet to see Trotsky's dictum seriously taken up by self-proclaimed revolutionary organisations in advanced capitalist states. Determined not to dirty their hands with actual governance, they are hopelessly split on relatively minimal differences and prone towards infiltrating social movements for the purpose of recruitment, rather than social change itself. The revolutionary assertions bring no comfort either; political programmes which are ill-considered and idealistic. By the same token, equal condemnation but of a different sort, can be levelled at reformist organisations. Highly institutionalised, they typically avoid involvement in extraparliamentary activism to engage in the byzantine labyrinth of State power for minimal and specific changes rather than seeking the systematic basis for the problems to begin with; as Henry David Thoreau remarked in Walden (1854): "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root".
Revolution for What?
For all the discussion involved in the debate of revolution or reform, rarely is the meaning of revolution, the purpose of revolution, or the the causes of successful revolutions addressed. An exception to this is Hannah Arendt, whose classic study On Revolution (1963) is required reading. We understand, of course, the term revolution from its origins in astronomy but often the metaphor of a cyclical returning is avoided. This should not be the case, for the purpose of the cycle is a returning to fundamental values, the "organising principles of society" (to use Jurgen Habermas' term from Legitimation Crisis, 1973). Correctly identifying what these organising principles are should determine if change is essential and therefore determine, likewise, whether revolution is a necessity.
The usual Marxist-inspired evaluation of this question is that our society is a capitalist one, where the means of production are held in private hands and that this is the foundation of everything else that follows. Marx's famous distinction between the social relations of the economic base and the legal and political infrastructure (c.f., Contribution to A Critique of Political Economy, 1859) is the foundation of such an analysis. The argument is that regardless of varying degrees of liberalism in a society and modest victories by reformists, it is still fundamentally a capitalist one, which ultimately must be overthrown by revolution. Despite its merits and insights, there is fundamental problems with this analysis. The "economic base" is a conflation between the social relations of natural resources and those of human labour; an error in differentiating between the two results in a confusion of economic classes and, as a result, political economy.
This is no superior source to understanding political economy of course, than the classical school of economics who dedicated significant time to the question. The debate which ran from the French physiocrat Turgot, to Adam Smith and finally to Henry George was ultimately unambiguous; that individuals can belong to multiple economic classes that are workers, capitalist and landlord, their contribution to production is labour, capital and land, their receipt is wages, profit and rent. Moral justification was sought - and found - in the return to wages and profit, but not in the case of rent. Yet the conflation of land and capital into a single unit of analysis by both vulgar Marxists and the equally vulgar neoclassical economists blunted this insight in favour of revolution and war that dominated the first half of the twentieth century.
Ultimately, "social relations" are political rather economic. Economic systems rise from political systems rather than the other way around. In this sense, the liberal-bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century, specifically the French and American, provide insight to this question by looking at their results. Even considering the particular objective circumstances (the French republic surrounded by enemies, the American with but a modicum of local opposition), the relative success and failure of the two can be assessed in terms of their approach to liberty and the way they sought to establish a new society. In general, the more successful elements where those which ultimately provided the greatest respect to "negative freedom" and left firm foundations for the individual to engage in their own "pursuit of happiness" - such deliberate limitations on government and opportunity set as constitutio libertatis providing a novus ordo saeclorum (these being chapter headings from Arendt). Without this orientation, revolutions that impose a supposed 'general will' of society onto others by an elite inevitably end in disaster; "Thinkers prepare the revolution; bandits carry it out." (Mariano Azuela, The Flies, 1918). Unless the State, as Lenin pointed out in his 'almost anarchist' text State and Revolution (1917), begins to wither away from day one with its machinery smashed, the old diseases of control and authoritarianism will arise again (an unfortunate prediction with the Soviet Union).
Although those on the political left are often loathe to admit it, the most successful revolution of modernity has been that of the United States. When neo-conservative forces attempt to impose their will on the populous, they find that the constitution stands in their way. Sometimes they do have victories - such as the subversion of the Second Amendment, which was designed to minimise the influence of a standing army and imperialist wars. Often they must dig in their heels and make clearly ridiculous interpretations, such as the application of obscenity laws as a 'public health' issue over the First Amendment and, even more so, the Dredd Scott case where the courts determined - at least for a while, as it helped lead to the U.S. Civil War - that the Founding Fathers could not have possibly meant negroes were to be included in the opening of the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."). Undoubtedly one day there very well might be a U.S. government that so ignores the constitutional rights of the people that violent action may be needed to remove such an administration from office; but even the possibility of such an event does not deny the strength of the lasting institution of a constitution founded on the principle of liberty.
Liberty and Commonwealth
The purpose of political action is freedom, whether that is in the negative sense, reducing the ability of the State to interfere in the free and consensual relations of autonomous citizens, or in the positive sense, whereby the government provides freely available enabling infrastructure, both social and physical, to its citizenry. As fiscal policy, provision of the latter does not necessarily require the reduction of the former, although it is certainly the case at the moment. The abolition of the landlord class, and the socialisation of resource rents at a freely-determined market value can certainly provide positive freedom without the current (effective) corvée labour of workers and investor to the coffers of the State. It also provides the most workable incentive structures to ensure environmental sustainability.
Likewise, the purpose of all political organisations is to create the conditions where they are no longer needed. Justified cynicism may be given to Pitt The Younger's remark that one day parliament would complete all the laws necessary and thus dissolve itself, but as a task for political radicals the spirit of this intent is requisite, as the strength of liberty depends on the involvement of the public. 'Vanguardism' by a cadre elite, is insufficient to guarantee that a revolutionary spirit is not hijacked by authoritarian opportunists, regardless of perceived advantages in a division of labour. It is not therefore "the Party" that should seek to achieve power on behalf of the masses, but rather such political parties should be engaging in a constant campaign that they masses become their own vanguard, led by their own "organic intellectuals", to use Gramsci's phrase. Ideally, the Party should cease to exist after a revolution; if it has fulfilled its revolutionary potential, the people will know how to manage their own affairs.
In conclusion, with a interesting management and economics intepretation, Mario Ferrero's recent essay Revolution or Reform? Socialism's Dilemma as Rational Choice Problem (in the journal Homo Oeconomicus, 2004) is worthy of reference. It argues that the revolutionary party is a producer cooperative that requiress a parallel commercial reform sector to provide worker incentives and consumer trust. Success in the reform sector, along with a sorely lacking proper use of public democratic institutions (Georg Lukács's The Question of Parliamentarianism, 1919 is critical reasoning in this regard) creates loyalty and attachment to those more radical proposals not yet implemented. In a liberal-democratic state (and not dictatorships which do require revolutions), with their supposed organising principle based on personal freedom and social democracy, there is far greater opportunity for extending these principles to their logical conclusion.