Re-forming the Reformers

Further to previous articles,1 on the Marxist Impossibilist tradition it must sound rather bizarre to modern ears that there exist political parties that do not make demands upon the present capitalist system and its protector, the State. For many people it seems common-sense that a socialist party should advocate for something right now. Labor and left-wing parties have over the years issued manifestos listing their immediate demands, formulating platforms for various minimum programs and promoting their particular menus of transitional reforms. Amelioration of conditions by palliative changes has been the bread and butter of elected politicians for generations and, in contrast, here are the Impossibilists of the World Socialist Party of the United States and the Socialist Party of Canada declaring that they stand for socialism, only socialism, and nothing less than socialism. Yet they express the original authentic view of the Marxists. It was after the dismal results of a French election in 1881, that saw a group arise which began to advocate a more pragmatic policy, declaring “We prefer to abandon the ‘all-at-once’ tactic practised until now…We desire to divide our ideal ends into several gradual stages to make many of our demands immediate ones and hence possible of realisation.” Describing themselves as the Possibilists, they regarded socialism as a progressive social process. Those who still regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as ‘the maximum program’ were henceforth labelled as Impossibilists.

Those Impossibilist parties, such as the WSPUS and SPC do not deny that reforms won by the working class have improved living and working conditions. Indeed, they see little wrong with people campaigning for reforms that enhance the quality of their lives, and some can be viewed as “successful” such as public education, housing and sanitation. They also acknowledge that the “welfare” state, socialized healthcare, unemployment payments and so on, made living standards of the working class better than they ever had been under free-market, laissez faire capitalism. Nevertheless, these “successes” have, in reality, done little more than to keep workers fit for the treadmill and their families in working order and while they may have taken the edge off problems, they have rarely managed to eradicate problems completely. The theory underlying the Impossibilist case against reformism is that a revolution is the work of a class which has gained political power in order to transform society to suit its interests; a reform is carried out only within the framework of the social system. Reforms cannot end capitalism; they can modify it to some extent, but they leave its basis untouched. To establish socialism, a revolution — a complete transformation of private property into common property — is necessary.

Impossibilist socialists do not oppose reformism lest it dampens revolutionary ardor, nor because they think that capitalism cannot deliver on any reforms but because the continued existence as property-less wage-slaves undermines whatever attempts is made to better our lives through reforms. The objection to reformism is that by ignoring the essence of class, it throws blood, sweat and tears into battles that will be undermined by the operation of the wage-labor system. All that effort, skill, energy could be instead turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our collective mutual benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing class war. It is much like medics on a battlefield, all they can do is to keep slamming in the morphine, slapping on the bandages and hope that somehow the slaughter might cease.

What Impossibilists are opposed to is the whole concept that capitalism can be tamed and made palatable by the proper reforms. They do not claim capitalist reforms stand in the way of achieving socialism. If they did, they’d logically have to oppose them — which they don’t. They actively encourage workers to fight back against employers but don’t propose or advocate reforms, and don’t oppose them if they genuinely do improve workers’ lives under capitalism. Impossibilists say that palliatives are merely irrelevant to achieving socialism and that a socialist party should not advocate reforms.

If a pipe bursts and the water is flooding the house, one can start bailing the water out while it continues to flow in, or one can turn the water off, and then start bailing it out. It may take a while to find the tap, but unless the water is turned off, the water will continue to rise and bailing is rather pointless. Human tragedies occur daily, by the millions, and generate thousands of social activist groups trying to stem the tide. The Impossibilists urges people to find the tap and turn it off.

In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been following and vacillating between four different roads:

1 ) The insurrection of a small determined group which would hold on to power until the majority were converted to socialist ideas – Blanquism/Leninism
2 ) The seizure of the means of production and distribution by some form of economic action – Syndicalism/Industrial Unionism
3 ) The accomplishment of ever more sweeping reforms until capitalism had been reformed out of existence and society had become socialist – Reformism/Gradualism
4 ) The conquest of power by a majority of class-conscious workers imbued with the single aim of abolishing the capitalist ownership of the means of production and distribution – Impossibilism

In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been built, some following one or other of the above roads. Endeavoring to change capitalism, or reformism is the route that has been taken by most who have wanted to improve society. Reformism has some attractions over revolution – especially if you lack imagination, don’t like confrontation, prefer to think only in the short term, and don’t want to be accused of not living in the real world. You are also assured of being in good company because large numbers of people think as you do that capitalism can be humanized. What is needed is for the class which is poor to dispossess the class which is rich so that we may have a society in which we will all live in a condition of security and equality.

Reforms can be defined as political measures brought forward to amend the operation of capitalism in some way. Because in a class-divided system like capitalism, it is the State which is the institution operating this entire process. By extension, reformism is the attempt to seek support so that political power and influence over the state can be obtained to enact reforms. The role of hegemony – that powerful combination of ruling ideas filtered through the mass media is important in understanding how reformism is actually carried out. Concerned as they are to maintain the profit system, reformists persuade themselves to do what is best for “the economy.” Reforms are implemented by political parties that seek and get a mandate to run capitalism. Politicians’ logic prevails:

1. Capitalism is terrible.
2. We must do something.
3. Reforms are something.
4. Therefore we must enact reforms.

While political and economic measures are often intertwined, without their political character, they can’t be reformist. So the key issue for Impossibilists is not to advocate nor seek political support for reform programs, as this is reformism. It is for others such as trade unions and the many one-issue activists to engage with the State for the purpose of gaining relief from the effects of capitalism.

Important to note (and perhaps the most common mistaken criticism of them) is that Impossibilists do not accept the view that nothing but socialism are of concern and accept that a non-revolutionary phase of the struggle between the classes is as inevitable as the revolutionary. When the worker acquires revolutionary consciousness he or she is still compelled to make the non-revolutionary struggle, fighting in the here and now, where they can and how they can. Opposition to everything that does and can happen in capitalism in the guise of being true to socialist principles would be ridiculous. Impossibilists argue that while the working class should organise for socialism, it doesn’t mean that nothing can be done this side of the revolution. Such things as basic healthcare and education came into being because the working class fought for them. Without the threat of action we would never have won such concessions. Industrial action helped to improve wages and working conditions. We have the ability to change things if we act together. The power to transform society lies in the hands of those who create everything – the working class. This is the source of our power, should we eventually use it. It is the class power not to make a few reforms, but to change the whole system, to make a social revolution. Leading the workers along the path of reform is not equipping them for their revolutionary role.

Those convinced that political parties promising reforms deserve support should consider the following points. The campaign, whether directed at right-wing or left-wing governments, will often only succeed if it can be reconciled with the profit-making needs of the system. In other words, the reform will often be turned to the benefit of the capitalist class at the expense of any working class gain. Any reform can be reversed and eroded later if a government finds it necessary and we are witnessing that from all the recent austerity measures happening from Scandinavia to Spain. Reforms rarely, if ever, actually solve the problem they were intended to solve. One can pick any single problem and find that improvements have taken place, usually only after a very long period of agitation. But rarely, if ever, has the problem actually disappeared, and usually other related problems have arisen to fill the vacuum of left by the “solution”. Impossibilists choose to use their time and limited funds to work to eliminate the cause of the numerous social problems. They hold the opinion palliatives and ameliorations will be offered and conceded by a besieged capitalist class in a desperate attempt to retain ownership rights if the working class were demanding the maximum program of full and complete appropriation and nothing less. To stem the socialist tide reforms now derided as Utopian aspirations will be two-a-penny in an attempt to fob off the workers. Governments do not feel threatened by appeals to it to act on single issues – even if those appeals take the form of mass protests. A government feels a sense of power and security in the knowledge that the protesters recognize it as the supreme arbitrator to which all appeals must be made. As long as people are only protesting over single issues they are remaining committed to supporting the system as a whole. But a government will take a very different view when people confront it not to plead from a position of weakness for this or that legislative change, but to challenge the whole basis of the way we live – in other words to question the inevitability of buying and selling and production for profit, and to actively work from a position of political strength for its replacement by the socialist alternative. In such circumstances, the governments’ aim will be to buy off the growing socialist consciousness of workers. In other words, reforms will be much more readily granted.

Finally, another reason the Impossibilists resist the siren song of reformism as some sort of tactic to gain support from workers, is that people who’d join a socialist party because they are attracted by its reformist tactics would eventually turn it into a pure and simple reformist organization, constantly working on the terrain of capitalism. History shows the fate of the social democratic parties, which despite a formal commitment to socialism as an “ultimate goal”, admitted non-socialists and sought non-socialist support for a minimum reform program of capitalism rather than the maximum socialist program. In order to maintain their non-socialist support , they were themselves forced to drop all talk of socialism and become even more openly reformist. Today the social democratic parties are firmly committed to capitalism in theory and in practice. Impossibilists say that this was the inevitable result of the admission of non-socialists and advocating reforms of capitalism. That is another reason why they have always advocated socialism and declines to call for the reform of capitalism. A socialist party advocating reforms would be the first step towards its transformation into a reformist party. Regardless of why or how the reforms are advocated, the result is the same: confusion in the minds of the working class instead of growth of socialist consciousness. The Left always wish to have the ear and confidence of the working class and will say to fellow-workers “Carry on with your reformist struggles. We’re with you all the all way” even though it is known that this is a recipe for failure and so, in the end, the Left actually helps to weaken not strengthen the working class by tying it ideologically to capitalism, fostering the illusion that capitalism can be run in the interests of workers and entrenching their dependence on capitalist governments to do it for them. It is far better to say what you really think and feel to be the case however unpopular or out of touch it might might make you seem at the time. Workers will not thank you for trying to lead them up the garden path and you will certainly not gain their confidence as a result.

  1. Here and here []
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: alanjjohnstone@yahoo.co.uk. Read other articles by Alan.