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When it comes to evaluating a given demand or reform proposal, social movements face a common dilemma. In response to the pressure activists generate, mainstream politicians will constantly urge patience and moderation. At best, they will endorse only the piecemeal reforms that they deem reasonable and pragmatic. The result is technocratic tweaks that might offer small gains but do not fundamentally challenge the status quo. On the other hand, at times when they are poised to extract significant concessions, some activists do not want to take “yes” for an answer. They worry that accepting any reforms whatsoever means embracing cooptation and diluting their radical vision. As a consequence, they end up in a cycle of self-isolation.
How, then, do you decide when a demand is a valid one to pursue, and when a reform is worth accepting? How can movements weigh a desire to make practical gains and avoid marginalization with a need to maintain a transformative vision?
In the past, debates in this vein have often taken place in a framework that pitted reform versus revolution: Those who held that movements could only move forward in incremental paces squared off against those who believed the system must be replaced in a moment of dramatic rupture. But in the 1960s, Austrian-French theorist André Gorz attempted to break through this fixed dichotomy and offer radicals a different path. He proposed that, in situations where revolution might be desirable but could not be seen as imminent, movements should pursue “non-reformist” or “structural” reforms — changes designed to make a practical difference in the short run, while also building toward larger transformations.
Non-reformist reforms would be characterized by several key traits: First, instead of being treated as ends in themselves, they would serve as steps toward a larger vision of change. Second, they would not merely be handed down by bureaucrats and politicians, but rather won through organizing, protest and the application of a movement’s leverage. And finally, each reform would be designed to change the balance of power between movements and status quo institutions, leaving advocates in a better position to take up battles for even greater change in the future and to commence new cycles of mobilization.
Gorz was well aware of the dangers of cooptation and the ability of status quo institutions to absorb outside challenges. Since, in his words, any change could grow “disjointed, checked, and digested by the system” over time, the willingness to engage in continued struggle was essential. Only in this way could a successive series of modest changes become part of a “progressive conquest of power” by movement forces.
Setting the standards
Since Gorz’s time, the concept of the non-reformist reform has been invoked by a wide range of activists, ranging from dedicated anarchists to the left-liberals of the American Prospect. It has been frequently employed by democratic socialists in the United States — who were few in number between the Reagan and Obama eras, but who have seen their ranks swell dramatically following electoral runs by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — often to defend demands such as the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. And the concept has made its way into recent social movement debates.
“The Red Deal,” a 2021 published manifesto by a group of indigenous organizers called The Red Nation, adopts non-reformist reforms as a central part of its strategy. Echoing Gorz’s assessment of conditions in Europe in the 1960s, the organizers argue, “We must not turn away from the truth: We do not yet possess the capacity for revolution, otherwise we would have seen a unified mass movement come out of the remarkable revolutionary energy of the past decade. And yet, we have very little time to get there.”
Endorsing a type of “non-reformist reform that doesn’t limit the possibility of what the status quo offers, but which fundamentally challenges the existing structure of power,” The Red Nation attempts to chart a course that allows for campaigns framed around short-term changes while also pushing for structural overhaul. These organizers proclaim their intent to destroy the system “in order to replace it,” and they see that as a process that can come about either through upheaval or through “a million small cuts.” Non-reformist reforms are what will provide the papercuts and razor nicks needed for the latter option.
When it comes to naming specific examples, The Red Nation points to activities that range from electoral politics to protest to mutual aid. “Our non-reformist reforms will come in many forms,” the group writes. “They will look like grassroots Indigenous seed bank networks where thousands of sustainable farmers share, trade and feed their communities. They will look like successful runs for city council elections where left candidates implement a people’s platform for climate and social justice at city and municipal levels. They will look like land back camps or tribal council resolutions that reject colonial water settlements. … Whatever form they take, we must simply get to work.”
The variety of groups that have taken interest in non-reformist reforms highlights the fact that Gorz’s definition of the concept is ambiguous enough to invite debate about what specific demands should or should not be included. As different groups and individual strategists have formulated their own iterations of the idea, they have often provided lists of questions for activists to use in assessing a reform. Examples from various sources include:
“Does the initiative increase decentralization and the diffusion of power and control, both economic and political, rather than their concentration?”
Does it “[get] us closer to an emancipatory vision, or [put] us in a better position to reach it[?]”
“Is this struggle putting pressure on fault lines in the state?”
“Does it legitimize or expand a system we are trying to dismantle?”
And, “Will we have to undo this later?”
Such questions diverge in their ideological content, and some are more consistent with Gorz’s original intent than others. But it is not necessary that all groups agree on an absolutely uniform standard for what changes they endorse. In fact, a main point of the concept is to allow for a strategic debate, one based neither in utopian schemes nor in the narrow confines of what establishment lawmakers conceive as expedient, but rather in the desire of a movement to create wins that can build on one another.
As author and journalist Meagan Day writes, addressing members of the Democratic Socialists of America, “Socialists can have reasonable disagreements over what exactly constitutes a structural reform struggle. That’s okay, and that’s exactly the kind of debate the socialist left should be having with itself.” She adds, “We should, however, dispense with conceptions that counterpose reform struggles to the ultimate goal of socialism as a different kind of society. The logical conclusion of hostility to reform fights is abstention from working people’s ongoing efforts to improve their quality of life. That kind of perpetual bench-warming leads to a kind of sectarian isolation made sterile by a lack of meaningful contact with the millions of people who currently stand outside the fold.”
Reform and abolition
Perhaps the liveliest engagement with the possibility of non-reformist reforms has come from prison and police abolitionists, many of whom give credit to Ruth Wilson Gilmore for popularizing the concept. (Indeed, Red Nation organizers point to these activists for inspiring their own adoption of the idea.) In her 2007 book, “Golden Gulag,” Wilson Gilmore calls on abolitionists to seek out “changes that, at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization.” She notes that such structural aims are particularly difficult to target when movements become overly professionalized and beholden to well-heeled funders. Yet she contends that dedication to this path is nonetheless necessary, writing that “the chronicles of revolutions all show how persistent and small changes, and altogether unexpected consolidations, added up to enough weight, over time and space, to cause a break with the old order.”
In a June 2020 essay in the Boston Review on the long civil rights struggle against policing and incarceration, African American history professor Garrett Felber writes, “The relationship between abolition (as the goal) and reform (as a means to an end) remains a live debate.” He cites a variety of specific objectives that have been included in calls for intermediate change: “Examples of non-reformist reforms,” Felber notes, “include, but are not limited to: abolishing solitary confinement and capital punishment; moratoriums on prison construction or expansion; freeing survivors of physical and sexual violence, the elderly, infirm, juveniles, and all political prisoners; sentencing reform; ending cash bail; abolishing electronic monitoring, broken windows policing, and the criminalization of poverty; and a federal jobs and homes guarantee for the formerly incarcerated.”
While police reform and abolition are often juxtaposed with one another as competing paradigms, Mariame Kaba, a leading abolitionist thinker, uses the concept of non-reformist reforms to suggest areas of overlap. “Somehow what people think is that either you’re interested in reform or you’re an abolitionist — that you have to choose to be in one camp or the other,” Kaba explained in a 2017 interview. “I don’t think that way. For some people, reform is the main focus and end goal and for some people, abolition is the horizon. But I don’t know anybody who is an abolitionist … who doesn’t support some reforms.” While Kaba affirms that it is legitimate to be concerned that a given reform might end up reinforcing the system, she cautions against falling into the trap of thinking “we can’t do anything until we overthrow the state.” As a guide to choosing demands, she asks, “How do we think about reforms that don’t make it harder for us to dismantle the systems we are trying to abolish? That don’t make it harder to create new things? What are the reforms … that will help us keep moving towards the horizon of abolition?”
In late 2014, amid widespread Black Lives Matter protests, Kaba wrote a blog post proposing more concrete standards for which reforms movements should support, and which they should avoid endorsing. She advised that activists reject reforms that allocated more money to police departments; that advocated “for MORE police and policing (under euphemistic terms like ‘community policing’ … )”; that were primarily based on using technology; or that “focused on individual dialogues with” police officers. Among other measures, she argued that movements should instead support demands that provided reparations to victims of police violence, redirected funds for prison and policing to other social goods, or that “promoted data transparency.”
The post was an unexpected sensation, and it would become a reference point in debates for years to come. “I wrote it so quickly,” Kaba reflected. “I was asked some questions by several young organizers who identify as abolitionists who were struggling mightily when all these proposals around body cameras and stuff were coming out. These organizers wanted to support something, but didn’t know what and didn’t think they knew how to figure that out on their own. I wrote that piece very fast and put it out on my blog. It went viral — somebody emailed me from London to say that they’re using it there. I was like, my God, that’s really amazing and great for something to be helpful to a lot of people.”
In 2020, during mass uprisings in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, the debate about demands in the Movement for Black Lives heated up further. As protests surged in early June of that year, Campaign Zero, an organization co-founded by prominent, if controversial, activist DeRay Mckesson launched a campaign called #8CantWait. This drive put forth a set of immediate demands that it framed as “eight specific reforms local communities can adopt to reduce police violence by up to 72 percent.” These included measures such as barring police from using chokeholds and from shooting at moving vehicles, requiring officers to provide verbal warnings before using deadly force, and compelling police to provide comprehensive reporting each time they used or threatened to use force against civilians. The list was widely shared on social media and gained endorsement from both mainstream politicians (such as former Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro) and celebrities (including Oprah Winfrey and Ariana Grande).
Many activists, however, were decidedly unimpressed by Campaign Zero’s reforms and lashed out at its creators. The demands, they charged, were “toothless” and “irresponsible” — or possibly even “dangerous” — in ignoring more thorough-going proposals for change. The uproar revealed a split that would become the subject of considerable discussion. Interestingly, at least some of the #8CantWait reforms could be considered consistent with Kaba’s standards for reforms outlined in her 2014 blog post: They were not technologically based, premised on expanded community policing, or focused on dialogue with individual officers. Requiring reporting, as one example, both promotes data transparency and is a resource drain on police departments, which are made to spend more time on paperwork. Other reforms proposed by Campaign Zero would not be considered controversial on their face: After all, no abolitionists want police firing guns at moving vehicles. So what, then, prompted the controversy?
A first problem was that, violating one of Gorz’s key standards, Campaign Zero did not offer its demands as incremental steps in the service of something larger. Rather, they presented their slate of reforms as the solution, invoking “proof” from data science to give their proposals the veneer of objectivity. Not surprisingly, the merits of the data in use turned out to be very debatable — and the idea that the problem of police violence targeting communities of color could be substantively resolved with a few minor tweaks remains highly doubtful.
Secondly, there was the sense that the demands sold the movement short. At a moment when mass protests were poised to propel forward ambitious changes to the institution of American policing, the #8CantWait demands, in the words of one activist quoted by Colorlines, offered “the easy way out for politicians.” The slate of reforms completely ignored the core idea, which was rapidly gaining traction, that the country should redirect resources away from the police and toward social services. Moreover, from an organizing perspective, #8CantWait’s narrow demands were out of step with the imperative to radicalize a flood of new protesters and rally them around a deeper vision of change.
Critics pointed out that many of the proposed #8CantWait reforms had already been adopted by major police departments. As commentator Olivia Murray wrote for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, “In fact, the largest police departments in the country already have half or more of these policies in place, including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia police. In Chicago, where police are subject to seven of the eight policies, it seems there would be little room for improvement under the 8 Can’t Wait proposal.” And yet, Murray noted, “Chicago police still kill Black people at 27.4 times the rate of white people.” Instead of being oriented toward building movement power for ongoing struggle, the #8CantWait demands purported to apply “the science” to create a technocratic resolution.
Facing a wave of backlash, Campaign Zero issued an apology for having “unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment.” It also added material to its website indicating that the eight demands were meant only as an immediate strategy of harm reduction, and that more substantive proposals for “comprehensive community safety” and “abolition” were also needed for the long haul. But by that time, a rival campaign called #8toAbolition had released its own slate of proposals which, mimicking Campaign Zero’s infographic look, called for measures to defund police, demilitarize communities, remove cops from schools, and invest in care. The abolitionist group Critical Resistance similarly promoted its own rubric for distinguishing reformist reforms from abolitionist ones. Overall, the controversy raised the profile of the movement’s internal debate about demands and spread awareness of the call for non-reformist reforms to new participants.
An ecology of demands
There will always be tension between movements with a transformative vision, on the one hand, and more mainstream politicians and liberal reformers, on the other. Elected officials and other establishment-oriented actors — even those who claim to be sympathetic to movement goals — will reliably advocate for whatever compromise is politically expedient at a given time. They will counsel activists that such a deal is the best they can hope to get and that something is better than nothing.
Even among those with radical aspirations, there will be disagreements about whether a particular demand is valid or a particular compromise worthwhile at any given time.
While there is often some truth to this position, these officials do not acknowledge that there are genuine downsides to many deals. First, reforms can dampen the energies of activists and divert public attention, causing demobilization. Second, a win on one point of contention often comes at the cost of a concession on another point, which may mean abandoning an important constituency. Third, compromises can shift the focus away from promoting new demands toward questions of how past reforms will be implemented and monitored, sometimes co-opting movement organizers into administrative roles. Finally, as Gorz cautioned, unless a new cycle of mobilization is promptly initiated, an incremental change can be safely absorbed into the system, its transformative potential steadily worn away with the passage of time.
Social movement groups, therefore, must engage in a complex calculus when considering such reforms, weighing these negatives against possible short-term benefits to their constituencies. Not all groups will come to the same conclusions. Even among those with radical aspirations, there will be disagreements about whether a particular demand is valid or a particular compromise worthwhile at any given time.
One pitfall that organizations commonly encounter is the assumption that the demand they have chosen as most strategic for their own campaigns is the same as what all groups will prioritize. Even if such alignment were desirable — which is not always clearly the case — it is unrealistic to expect that it will occur frequently. Groups bring different ideologies, represent different constituencies, draw from different funding streams and possess differing theories of change. Even once a movement organization decides what is right for it, the group will still have to engage in nuanced decision-making about how to relate with the priorities of others.
The lens of social movement ecology provides one means of understanding how different groups approach their calculus about demands — and of strategizing for how to interact with these diverse actors. Instead of looking at efforts to create change from the perspective of a single organization, this viewpoint takes into account the entire ecosystem of people working on an issue. It recognizes the differing organizing models and sets of biases that the various groups bring. Those occupying different positions in the ecology include: individuals trying to play the inside game by lobbying or working from within institutions of power, groups committed to structure-based organizing (such as unions and community organizations), mass protest movements, and people working outside the system to build radical alternatives or to promote personal transformation.
Ultimately, the idea of non-reformist reforms presents a challenge to both those focused on short-term gains and those with their sights on long-term transformation.
Groups from each of these categories will evaluate demands and reforms in distinct ways. And although some organizations may try to adopt multiple strategic approaches or blur the boundaries between the categories, they will almost always have a predominant orientation, based on the approaches to organizing and theory of change most central to them. For each set of groups there are different qualities of a demand or reform that will be valued most, and these differences in perspective often lead to tension between organizations in a movement ecosystem, even when the groups profess similar goals.
Those working within mainstream institutions will ask, “Does a proposed reform provide an immediate, tangible gain that meets a community need?” In other words, they are interested in the instrumental value of a given demand or compromise. They will assess its value based on the concrete benefit it provides to one or more targeted constituencies. For Machiavellian politicians, such gains are important parts of their patronage operations and essential in their drives to preserve political power; however, they will only pursue these changes if they do not generate significant flak or alienate other parts of the coalition that supports them. Radicals attempting to take control of the levers of power and pull them toward justice will also be concerned with incremental reforms that bring concrete improvement to people’s lives. And, because they are working to push the best deals possible through legislative and bureaucratic channels, the near-term viability of a demand will largely shape their perception of its value.
Structure-based organizations are certainly interested in the instrumental benefits a reform could bring to their members. But the more visionary leaders in these groups also ask, “Will it change the balance of power in the system?” In this vein, unions often engage in “bargaining to organize,” winning concessions from employers or other powerholders that allow them to bring in additional members and thereby gain greater capacity to engage in future struggles.
For mass protest movements, a critical question to ask of a demand is, “Does it influence public opinion and rally active support to our cause?” Here, the symbolic resonance of a proposed change is key. The value of a demand is in winning over ever larger blocs of the public to a cause (thereby expanding passive support for a movement) or in rallying the movement’s base and bringing in greater numbers of active participants.
Finally, for those working to create alternatives outside of dominant institutions or to promote personal transformation, a central question will be, “Does a demand educate people about or build legitimacy for a deeper program of change?” The priority of these activists is to maintain the integrity of a transformative vision and promote consciousness of it. Whether a demand is immediately viable — and whether it resonates with the wider public — is of lesser importance. If insiders focused on the instrumental aspects of a reform prioritize the short-term impact of a change, those pushing toward alternatives hold the longest view. And if mass protest organizers are focused on reaching a wider outside audience, those building alternatives are working to build a smaller, more dedicated community that prefigures the values of the society they ultimately wish to create.
A step toward better strategies
Understanding the social movement ecology surrounding an issue allows for greater insight into the conflicts that arise between different groups. And while an appreciation of different perspectives need not require concluding that all actors are equally right in their assessment of a demand or compromise, recognizing different positions and biases helps groups to maximize the strategic contribution they can make.
Ultimately, the idea of non-reformist reforms presents a challenge to both those focused on short-term gains and those with their sights on long-term transformation. For organizers preoccupied with the immediate value of incremental changes, the concept represents a push to think bigger — to look beyond present circumstances and adopt a strategy that is aligned with a more substantive vision of change. At the same time, the idea of non-reformist reforms encourages radicals to be hard-headed in plotting a course of practical action. It pushes them not to stay pure, but to stay principled in times when purity is not an option.
Gorz was clear that if movements were not strong enough to win a revolution outright, neither would they be strong enough to demand changes that would dismantle the system directly. As contemporary organizers have argued, “We must not turn away from the truth.” The point is to create a path through which popular forces, step by step, can build strength and change the balance of power. It is to signal in the direction of a movement’s desires, even while, for the moment, falling short of its most radical ambitions. It is to find measures that might be less than ideal, but nevertheless worthwhile, and with them chart a course toward transformation.
Research assistance for this article provided by Akin Olla.