Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible

In a previous article on the World Socialist Party of the United States reference was made to Impossibilism. Students of  America’s left history will recognise it as an outlook represented by the now defunct Socialist Labor Party, the extinct Proletarian Party and the still (only just) going Socialist Party of Canada which Larry Gambone describes in a brief history of the SPC.  Also considered part of the Impossibilist movement were Jules Guesde (at least up to 1914) and the French Workers Party.

According to Wikipedia, Impossibilists may be characterised as presenting a political theory and strategy:

that stresses the limited value of political, economic and social reforms within a capitalist economy…and that pursuing such reforms is counterproductive as they only strengthen support for the existing system…such reforms are irrelevant to the realisation of socialism and should not be a major concern for socialists.

The term “impossibilist” emerged as a term of political abuse. Socialists who stood for the end of capitalism and no compromises along the way were seen to be demanding the impossible. The possibilists emerged in France in the early 1880s, and they were the reformists, tired of trying to bring about socialism and nothing less, who imagined that the best possible option would be to chip away at the edifice of capitalism bit-by-bit, reforming it until it looked like socialism. Over a century has passed since these undoubtedly sincere people embarked upon their futile course and everywhere reformist gradualism has ended in the most abject failure. Over a hundred years of demanding “the possible” or “something now” has led the reformists to no-where. The real impossibilists now seem to be these self-proclaimed realists who sought to humanise capitalism by means of legislative reform. So, perhaps it is time for workers to be rather more practical and demand “the impossible”. Revolution rips up social evils by its roots; reform merely shifts it from one spot to another.

Impossibilists argue that socialists should be engaged in class struggle, in trades unions and elsewhere but that capitalism imposed limits to the gains for the working class that such activism could achieve. Impossibilists are generally not hostile to such actions to raise workers’ wages and improve living conditions as best as can be achieved within capitalism.

Impossibilists hold that the political struggle for socialism ought to aim beyond the “guerilla war” of the struggle for immediate demands within capitalism or risk being swallowed up by those struggles. They are not necessarily opposed to individual reforms within capitalism but to a strategy and definition of socialism defined by the reform of capitalism. The possibilists regarded socialism as a progressive social process rather than an ‘all-at-once’ end and presented voters with a platform of immediate demands. Those who regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to concede their revolutionary position of what became known as ‘the maximum programme’ were labelled as impossibilists.

The Impossiblists introduced a new and important suggestion into the socialist debate. They argued that a socialist party should not have a programme of “immediate demands” –  palliative policies. While not setting themselves up to oppose the attempts of the workers to improve their status under capitalism, they understood the limitations of these attempts. Even to this day, too many workers have yet to learn them.

But it is one thing to say that the socialist impossibilist should not oppose those fighting for reforms, and quite another to state that they should place themselves in a position of trying to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers, when all along they know it cannot. There are innumerable self-styled “socialist” organisations which seek to gain leadership over the workers by aiding them to improve their present position even while at the same time they know this is a futile struggle.

Suppose a socialist party were to embark on a campaign to obtain better housing, hospitals, roads, and so forth. Most likely it would get a lot of people to join but on what basis would they have joined? The same basis of the slogans which the campaigns appealed to them to join. So, in the end, a socialist party would consist of members who were seeking continual amelioration. And what happens when such an organisation is voted into political power? It merely uses the power of the State to carry on running capitalism. It cannot use its control of the State to abolish capitalism, because its own members who joined for reforming reasons only, would be in opposition to it. The Party would have to carry out reform of capitalism or lose its members to another organisation which advocated remedial measures. Impossibilists could cite example after example where a party calling itself “socialist,” but advocating immediate demands now and “socialism in the future” came into political power, and instead of ending exploitation, merely changed the form of it.

Impossibilists do not advocate political legislation to reform capitalism. To do so would put the socialists in a position of mis-educating the workers to believe that the capitalist State can function in their interests when, in the final analysis, the State is the agency by which the capitalist class maintains its domination over the working class.

This approach has remained unchanged during the turbulence of domestic and world history experienced during the twentieth century and has often infuriated and frustrated friends as well as foes.  This it owes in part “to a certain political style which steers an unsteady course between uncompromising clarity and doctrinaire intolerance” according to Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (Rubel and Crump) but also to a strategy that places its emphasis on persuasion and rational argument – to the development of socialist consciousness – and does not offer the immediate hopes (or jobs for careerists) of “practical” political activism or single-issue campaign politics.

For our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth.

James Connolly, “We Only Want the Earth“, from Songs of Freedom, 1907

Alan Johnstone is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a companion party of the World Socialist Movement. He contributes to the blogs: Socialism or Your Money Back and Socialist Courier. Alan can be reached at: Read other articles by Alan.