The companion parties of the World Socialist Movement do not advocate reforms. As the heading says on the home page of this website, the World Socialist Party US ‘stands for socialism and nothing but.’
In taking this stance we go against the prevailing wisdom on the Left. Almost every left-wing group or party, while asserting that its ultimate goal is socialism, also offers its own program of reforms to improve the lives of working people in the ‘here and now.’ We do not.
Going against the prevailing wisdom often leads to misunderstandings. So first let’s make clear what we do not mean to say.
We do not mean to say that reforms cannot be of benefit to working people. Undoubtedly some are. For example, working people in the United States are more insecure than working people in Canada and Western Europe, who benefit from the ‘safety nets’ and health services of stronger welfare states.
Nor do we argue that reforms dampen ‘revolutionary spirit’ and thereby make it more difficult to achieve socialism. If we believed this we would logically have to oppose reforms — but we do not.
We do not begrudge our fellow workers any advance that makes their lives easier, whether achieved by organizing in trade unions or by demanding reforms. We understand the urge to seek improvements within capitalism because we too feel that urge.
At the same time, we always point out the limits that the broader capitalist environment imposes even on beneficial reforms. Thus, the National Health Service in Britain has to rely on pharmaceutical companies that in the pursuit of profit continue to push ineffective and dangerous drugs. In order to cut costs charges have been introduced for services that were originally free.
Erosion of Reforms
There is a general tendency for reforms to undergo such erosion over time, to be partly or even completely reversed. This is the purpose of all the austerity measures that have been adopted throughout the world in recent years. Reformers have to wage a constant struggle to defend and restore eroded reforms, working hard just to stay in the same place. That is why we talk about ‘the treadmill of reform.’
If you trace the history of some social problem, you may find that improvements have eventually taken place. But rarely, if ever, does the problem completely disappear, so after some time it grows again. In the 1950s, for instance, drugs to cure tuberculosis finally became widely available and the incidence of the disease declined sharply. Not, however, to zero. TB survived among homeless vagrants and American politicians refused to spend money on their care. As a result, TB was able to make a comeback in multidrug-resistant forms that are much more difficult to treat.
For two centuries the working class has been fighting for reforms. Especially in the United States and in underdeveloped countries, the results are not impressive. We are still wage-slaves. Capitalism remains as deeply entrenched as ever. Does it really make sense to stick to a strategy that never works?
Suppose you are in a boat with a hole in the bottom. You can bail water out while it continues to gush in, or you can find and plug the hole and only then start bailing. It may take a while to find the hole, but unless it is plugged the water level will continue to rise, however long you go on bailing.
We do not oppose reforms. We do not ask people not to support campaigns for reforms that they consider worthwhile. Even our own members are free to support reform demands, provided that they do not do so in the name of the parties of the World Socialist Movement.
As a political party, however, we do not regard it as our mission to advocate reforms. There are already more than enough parties with reform programs. What need can there be for yet another?
We have made it our mission to point out the source of countless human tragedies and organize to remove it. Who else is doing that?
You may say that both these missions are worthy and ask whether they cannot be combined. Why not advocate both a program of immediate reforms and socialism? Would that not be the ideal solution to the dilemma?
This was in fact the approach taken by most of the parties that called themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘social-democratic’ during the late 19th and early 20th century – the period of the Second International. In practice, these parties concentrated most of their efforts on reform activity, although lip service was still paid to the socialist goal on ceremonial occasions.
We think that this is bound to happen. Suppose that a socialist party embarks on a campaign to obtain better housing, hospitals, schools, and so on. Most likely it will 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 will end up consisting mainly of members who are interested solely in reforms.
What happens when such a party is voted into political office? It must use the power of the State to carry on running capitalism. It cannot use its control of the State to abolish capitalism, because most of its own members, who have joined for reformist reasons only, would be opposed to such a course. It would have to confine itself to an attempt to reform capitalism or else lose its members. Instead of ending exploitation, it would merely alter its appearance.
That is reformism. We are not against reforms, but we are against reformism. Reformism is not a path that leads to socialism, as leftists hope and conservatives fear. It is an obstacle that blocks that path.
A Final Argument
One last point. We anticipate that it is precisely the spread of socialist consciousness that will result in reforms of immediate benefit to the working class. Advocacy of socialism may prove to be an effective way of getting reforms, even though that is not its main purpose.
Governments do not feel threatened by appeals to act on single issues, even if those appeals take the form of mass protests. They feel 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 governments will take a very different view when people confront it not as supplicants pleading for this or that reform but to challenge the whole basis of society. Governments will then try to buy off the growing socialist consciousness by much more readily granting reforms. To stem the socialist tide reforms now derided as utopian will be two-a-penny.
Today ‘social-democratic’ parties are firmly committed to capitalism in both theory and 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.