No, we are not. While most anarchists are against reformism (namely the notion that we can somehow reform capitalism and the state away) they are most definitely in favour of reforms (i.e. improvements in the here and now).

The claim that anarchists are against reforms and improvements in the here and now are often put forth by opponents of anarchism in an effort to paint us as extremists. Anarchists are radicals; as such, they seek the root causes of societal problems. Reformists seek to ameliorate the symptoms of societal problems, while anarchists focus on the causes.

In the words of the revolutionary syndicalist Emile Pouget (who is referring to revolutionary/libertarian unions but whose words can be generalised to all social movements):

“Trade union endeavour has a double aim: with tireless persistence, it must pursue betterment of the working class’s current conditions. But, without letting themselves become obsessed with this passing concern, the workers should take care to make possible and imminent the essential act of comprehensive emancipation: the expropriation of capital.

“At present, trade union action is designed to won partial and gradual improvements which, far from constituting a goal, can only be considered as a means of stepping up demands and wresting further improvements from capitalism…

“This question of partial improvements served as the pretext for attempts to sow discord in the trades associations. Politicians … have tried to … stir up ill-feeling and to split the unions into two camps, by categorising workers as reformists and as revolutionaries. The better to discredit the latter, they have dubbed them ‘the advocates of all or nothing’ and the have falsely represented them as supposed adversaries of improvements achievable right now.

“The most that can be said about this nonsense is that it is witless. There is not a worker … who, on grounds of principle or for reasons of tactics, would insist upon working tend hours for an employer instead of eight hours, while earning six francs instead of seven…

“What appears to afford some credence to such chicanery is the fact that the unions, cured by the cruel lessons of experience from all hope in government intervention, are justifiably mistrustful of it. They know that the State, whose function is to act as capital’s gendarme, is, by its very nature, inclined to tip the scales in favour of the employer side. So, whenever a reform is brought about by legal avenues, they do not fall upon it with the relish of a frog devouring the red rag that conceals the hook, they greet it with all due caution, especially as this reform is made effective only of the workers are organised to insist forcefully upon its implementation.

“The trade unions are even more wary of gifts from the government because they have often found these to be poison gifts…

“But, given that the trade unions look askance at the government’s benevolence towards them, it follows that they are loath to go after partial improvements. Wanting real improvements … instead of waiting until the government is generous enough to bestow them, they wrest them in open battle, through direct action.

“If, as sometimes is the case, the improvement they seek is subject to the law, the trade unions strive to obtain it through outside pressure brought to bear upon the authorities and not by trying to return specially mandated deputies to Parliament, a puerile pursuit that might drag on for centuries before there was a majority in favour of the yearned-for reform.

“When the desired improvement is to be wrestled directly from the capitalist, the trades associations resort to vigorous pressure to convey their wishes. Their methods may well vary, although the direct action principle underlies them all…

“But, whatever the improvement won, it must always represent a reduction in capitalist privileges and be a partial expropriation. So … the fine distinction between ‘reformist’ and ‘revolutionary’ evaporates and one is led to the conclusion that the only really reformist workers are the revolutionary syndicalists.” [No Gods, No Masters, pp. 71–3]

By seeking improvements from below by direct action, solidarity and the organisation of those who directly suffer the injustice, anarchists can make reforms more substantial, effective and long lasting than “reforms” made from above by reformists. By recognising that the effectiveness of a reform is dependent on the power of the oppressed to resist those who would dominate them, anarchists seek change from the bottom-up and so make reforms real rather than just words gathering dust in the law books.

For example, a reformist sees poverty and looks at ways to lessen the destructive and debilitating effects of it: this produced things like the minimum wage, affirmative action, and the projects in the USA and similar reforms in other countries. An anarchist looks at poverty and says, “what causes this?” and attacks that source of poverty, rather than the symptoms. While reformists may succeed in the short run with their institutional panaceas, the festering problems remain untreated, dooming reform to eventual costly, inevitable failure — measured in human lives, no less. Like a quack that treats the symptoms of a disease without getting rid of what causes it, all the reformist can promise is short-term improvements for a condition that never goes away and may ultimately kill the sufferer. The anarchist, like a real doctor, investigates the causes of the illness and treats them while fighting the symptoms.

Therefore, anarchists are of the opinion that “[w]hile preaching against every kind of government, and demanding complete freedom, we must support all struggles for partial freedom, because we are convinced that one learns through struggle, and that once one begins to enjoy a little freedom one ends by wanting it all. We must always be with the people … [and] get them to understand … [what] they may demand should be obtained by their own efforts and that they should despise and detest whoever is part of, or aspires to, government.” [Errico Malatesta, Life and Ideas p. 195]

Anarchists keep the spotlight on the actual problems, which of course alienates them from their “distinguished” reformists foes. Reformists are uniformly “reasonable” and always make use of “experts” who will make everything okay — and they are always wrong in how they deal with a problem.

The recent “health care crisis” in the United States is a prime example of reformism at work.

The reformist says, “how can we make health care more affordable to people? How can we keep those insurance rates down to levels people can pay?”

The anarchist says, “should health care be considered a privilege or a right? Is medical care just another marketable commodity, or do living beings have an inalienable right to it?”

Notice the difference? The reformist has no problem with people paying for medical care — business is business, right? The anarchist, on the other hand, has a big problem with that attitude — we are talking about human lives, here! For now, the reformists have won with their “managed care” reformism, which ensures that the insurance companies and medical industry continue to rake in record profits — at the expense of people’s lives. And, in the end, the proposed reforms were defeated by the power of big business — without a social movement with radical aims such a result was a forgone conclusion.

Reformists get acutely uncomfortable when you talk about genuinely bringing change to any system — they don’t see anything wrong with the system itself, only with a few pesky side effects. In this sense, they are stewards of the Establishment, and are agents of reaction, despite their altruistic overtures. By failing to attack the sources of problems, and by hindering those who do, they ensure that the problems at hand will only grow over time, and not diminish.

So, anarchists are not opposed to struggles for reforms and improvements in the here and now. Indeed, few anarchists think that an anarchist society will occur without a long period of anarchist activity encouraging and working within social struggle against injustice. Thus Malatesta’s words:

“the subject is not whether we accomplish Anarchism today, tomorrow or within ten centuries, but that we walk towards Anarchism today, tomorrow and always.” [“Towards Anarchism,”, Man!, M. Graham (Ed.), p. 75]

So, when fighting for improvements anarchists do so in an anarchist way, one that encourages self-management, direct action and the creation of libertarian solutions and alternatives to both capitalism and the state.