In Defense of ‘Impossibilism’

The companion parties of the World Socialist Movement (WSM) have gone against the prevailing wisdom of the Left by not advocating reforms. Undoubtedly some reforms do benefit workers, but the WSM opposes the practice of reformism on the grounds that campaigning for reforms impedes progress toward the goal of achieving socialism. Once embarked upon that journey there is no limit to the number or variety of reforms to chase. Sooner or later, in the struggle to achieve more and more reforms, the revolutionary objective of changing the basis of society will be neglected and eventually forgotten altogether. Not only that, but any gains of particular reforms are transient and temporary, given with one hand to be taken away by the other. And then the same reforms have to be fought for all over again – a treadmill that goes nowhere.

Working people do not need yet another reformist party.  Of those there are plenty enough to choose from, all proposing a plethora of palliative policies. There are countless “socialist” parties that seek to win influence over the workers by helping them improve their present position (even though they know this is a futile struggle.) This is such a standard practice that it may seem bizarre that there exist some socialist 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 immediate demands, formulating minimum programs and promoting particular menus of “transitional” reforms. In the history of the working class movement a variety of different parties have been built. Most have sought to improve society by trying to change or reform capitalism.

Working for reforms is more appealing than advocating 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 share the view that capitalism can be humanized. Amelioration of conditions by palliative changes has been the bread and butter of elected politicians for generations. Here, in contrast, are the parties of the World Socialist Movement declaring that their members stand for socialism, only socialism, and nothing less than socialism.

The WSM holds that what is necessary is an organization grounded in the materialist principles of Marxism. It has always held to a clear and precise definition of its aim: a worldwide system of society in which goods and services are produced solely to satisfy human needs, not profit, with all productive resources owned in common and democratically controlled, rather than belonging as at present to private individuals or the State. Such a society cannot be brought about by promises of political leaders. It requires knowledgeable working people who understand and desire it. And a clear recognition that the working class are robbed and that the thieves are the capitalist class. Thus, the WSM takes up the political position of uncompromising hostility to all supporters of capitalism in any shape or form. If, for example, the World Socialist Party US were to run a candidate for president and win, her mission would be to abolish the very office she had been elected to.

Students of left-wing history will recognize it as an outlook represented by the now defunct Socialist Labor Party, the extinct Proletarian Party and the Socialist Party of Canada, which still exists as a companion party of the WSM. Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde of the French Workers Party were also considered part of the “impossibilist” movement that expressed the original authentic view of Marxism.

According to Wikipedia, impossibilists present a political theory and strategy:

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

The term “impossibilist” emerged as a term of political abuse for those socialists who opposed all compromises and were seen as demanding the impossible.

“Possibilists” emerged in France in the early 1880s. After the dismal results of a French election in 1881 there arose a group who began to advocate a more pragmatic policy, declaring:

We prefer to abandon the “all-at-once” tactic practiced 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 realization.

Describing themselves as “possibilists,” they regarded socialism as a gradual social process. Those who still regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what had become known as “the maximum program” were henceforth labelled “impossibilists.”

Tired of trying to bring about socialism and nothing less, they imagined that the best tactic was to chip away at the edifice of capitalism bit by bit, reforming it until it looked like socialism. Over a hundred years of demanding “the possible” or “something now” has led the reformists nowhere. The real impossibilists now seem to be these self-styled realists who sought to humanize capitalism by means of legislative edicts.

The Impossiblists introduced a new and important suggestion into the socialist debate. They argued that a socialist party should not have a program of “immediate demands” – palliative policies. While not against 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. 

Impossibilists do not advocate political legislation to reform capitalism. To do so would put socialists in the position of encouraging 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. It is one thing not to oppose those fighting for reforms, and quite another to appear to be trying to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers when all along they know it cannot. 

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? On the basis of these reformist slogans. Such a socialist party would end up consisting of members who were seeking continual amelioration. And what happens when such an organization 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 had joined for reformist reasons only, would be in opposition to it. The party would have to reform capitalism or else lose its members to another organization that did advocate remedial measures. Impossibilists can cite example after example where a party calling itself “socialist” but advocating immediate demands now and “socialism in the future” has come into political power and instead of ending exploitation merely altered its appearance.

Impossibilists do not oppose reforms on the grounds that it dampens revolutionary ardor, nor do they claim that capitalist reforms stand in the way of achieving socialism. If they did, they would logically have to oppose reforms — which they do not. Nor do they think that capitalism cannot deliver on any reforms. They actively encourage workers to fight for  whatever gains they can if they really do improve workers’ lives under capitalism. But our continued existence as property-less wage-slaves undermines whatever attempts are 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, and energy could instead be turned against class society, to create a society of common interest where we can make changes for our common benefit. So long as class exists, any gains will be partial and fleeting, subject to the ongoing class war. The situation is much like that of medics on a battlefield: all they can do is keep slamming in the morphine, slapping on the bandages, and hoping that somehow the slaughter might cease.

Impossibilists are against the whole concept that capitalism can be tamed and made palatable by the appropriate reforms. Impossibilists say that palliatives are irrelevant to achieving socialism and that a socialist party should not advocate reforms.

If a water-pipe bursts and is flooding the house, you can start bailing water out while it continues to gush in, or you can turn the water off at the mains, and then start bailing. It may take a while to find the faucet, but unless it is turned off the water level will continue to rise and bailing will be pointless. Human tragedies occur daily, by the millions, and generate many thousands of activist groups trying to halt the flooding. The Impossibilists urge people to find the mains faucet and turn it off.

Those convinced that political parties promising reforms deserve support should consider the following.

1. 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. We are witnessing precisely that in all the recent austerity measures being adopted throughout the world. Reforms rarely if ever actually solve the problems 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, does the problem completely disappear, so after some time it grows again, or other related problems emerge to fill the vacuum left by the “solution.”
  •  Impossibilists anticipate that 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 start to demand the maximum program of full and complete appropriation and nothing less. To stem the socialist tide reforms now derided as utopian will be two-a-penny in an attempt to fob off the workers.
  • A government does not feel threatened by appeals to it to act on single issues, even if those appeals take the form of mass protests. It feels a sense of power and security in the knowledge that the protesters recognize it as the supreme arbiter to which all appeals must be made. As long as people are only protesting over single issues, they remain 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 actively work from a position of political strength for its replacement by the socialist alternative. In such circumstances the government’s 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 why impossibilists resist the siren song of reformism as a tactic to gain support from workers is that people who join a socialist party because they are attracted by its reformist tactics will eventually turn it into a purely reformist organization, constantly working on the terrain of capitalism. History shows the fate of the social democratic parties that despite a formal commitment to socialism as an “ultimate goal” admitted non-socialists and sought non-socialist support for a minimum reform 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 admitting non-socialists and advocating reforms of capitalism. That is another reason why they have always advocated socialism and decline to call for the reform of capitalism. A socialist party advocating reforms would be the first step toward 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 they know that this is a recipe for failure. Thus the Left actually helps 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 act in their interest. It is far better to say what you really think and feel to be the case, however unpopular or out of touch it might make you seem. Workers will not thank you for leading them up the garden path and you will certainly not gain their confidence as a result.

Urging people to vote against a politician or a party is not the way forward. Instead of negativism,the WSM has to promote a vision of the future to work toward. We fully acknowledge that our task is not going to be accomplished in a few election cycles. It means education, organizing and agitating. We must convey a genuinely revolutionary message. 

The WSM has a clear vision of socialism as a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments of production and distribution in the interest of the entire community. Socialism will be a global community without borders, where goods are produced only for use. Buying and selling, and with them prices, wages, money, and banks, will disappear. Instead, everyone will have free access to the common store according to his or her needs.

Socialism will be a fully democratic society. The coercive state machinery of class society will be replaced by democratic administration of the affairs of society.  For the WSM, the words “socialist state” or ”workers’ state” are oxymorons and contradictions. Where there is socialism there is no state, and where there is a state there is no socialism. It maintains that insurrection and street-fighting are redundant tactics. In the modern political situation — the overwhelming numerical superiority of the working class, universal suffrage, political democracy, a civil service and a military recruited from among workers — the working class can and must use the elections and the various legislatures as a way leading to power for socialism. A socialist party should contest elections as often as possible  but only on a socialist platform. Where there are no socialist candidates, voters should be urged to return blank or spoiled ballot papers, yet without engaging in anti-election propaganda of the anarchist type. The anarcho-syndicalist idea of a general strike of industrial unions as a means of overthrowing capitalism is obviously impractical because it would leave the means to crush such a strike, the state apparatus, in the hands of the capitalists.

Today the social democratic parties are firmly committed to capitalism in theory and in practice. We say that this was the inevitable result of admitting non-socialists and advocating reforms of capitalism. Anything less than the demand for full free-access socialism does not go far enough.

As William Morris said:

Have you not heard how it has gone with many a Cause before now: First, few men heed it; Next, most men condemn it; Lastly, all men ACCEPT it — and the Cause is Won.