May 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Why does the World Socialist Movement not get involved in social activism, in trying to do something now under capitalism?
There is an endless stream of issues under capitalism and a myriad of organizations are involved in them. These issues are clearly attractive to people and generate a huge amount of donations. For example, Greenpeace International has 2.9 million members, six ships and a $153-million budget (as of September 1996). So why don't Socialists get involved too?
Every organization has to decide what it is working for, and whether that aim is important. When the first of the parties in the World Socialist Movement was founded in 1904, it decided it was going to work for socialism.
The socialist analysis of society shows that capitalism itself is the underlying cause of most of the problems which the social activists want to solve. The social activists attack the symptoms but ignore the cause. Social activists work to reform capitalism, socialists work to eliminate capitalism: the cause of the problems.
If people eliminate the cause of the problems, the problems won't keep cropping up. Instead of trying to fix the symptoms, year in and year out, forever, people can eliminate the cause, once. Then we can all get on with living our lives in a world where solutions actually solve problems, instead of just covering up symptoms.
This approach can be emotionally difficult. It may even mean that someone dies today, who might have been saved by social activism. A simple analogy to explain the socialist perspective.
If a pipe bursts and the water is rising on the floor, 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 may take a while to find the tap, and some valuables might be destroyed while searching, but unless the water is turned off, the water will continue to rise and bailing is rather pointless.
Socialists are not immune to the human tragedies which occur daily, by the millions, and which generate thousands of social activist groups trying to stem the tide. Socialists suffer those tragedies as severely as anyone else, but work to encourage people to find the tap and turn it off.
If the reform actions of the social activists saved everyone who might have died today, it would be harder to question their approach. But the fact is they don't even come close. After the Holocaust in the 1940s, people said "Never Again". In the 1990s, genocide was on people's minds again, for a few hours, when the atrocities in Srebrenica, Bosnia hit the front pages. Genocide didn't stop for 50 years. It continued all along in places such as East Timor, but wasn't, apparently, important enough to make the front pages. The environment promoting genocide didn't go away, and so neither did genocide.
If the social activists had solved the myriad of problems, or were even to be able to say that things were steadily improving, that would argue in favour of their approach to social activism.
But that is not the case. The reality is that the reforms which the social activists promote do not work. The social activists are not gaining much, if any, ground, and the same problems continue to appear. It is often one step forward, several steps back.
That is the reality of capitalism. Social activism cannot change that.
Or rather what most people call "social activism" can't change it. Socialists are social activists, and suggest that working to eliminate the cause of the problems is the most valuable type of social activism.
Socialists make a choice. We choose to use our time and limited funds to work to eliminate the cause of the problems. One can pick any problem and often one can find that real improvements have taken place, usually after a very long period of agitation. Rarely, if ever, has the problem disappeared, and usually other related problems have cropped up to fill the vacuum of destruction or suffering left by the "solution".
After hundreds of years of social activism, both the problems of war and poverty, which most people consider to be rather important, are still major problems and are nowhere near solution. War didn't stop in 1918 or 1945, it continues every day, somewhere in the world. The anti-war movement seems to be fading out without ending war.
The anti-poverty movement is now marginal. Eliminating war and poverty are no longer even in the realm of discussion for reformists. The reformists have failed.
Reformism has failed
Some environmentalists tell us that if the environment is destroyed all the rest won't matter. That is true enough, but there is little indication that the huge, well-funded environmental movement is making much real headway. For example, since the Rio Earth Summit, the forests of Brazil, sometimes called "the lungs of the planet", are being destroyed faster than before.
Worldwatch Institute tells us that millions of hectares of tropical and deciduous forest still disappear each year, and carbon dioxide emissions are at record highs.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently reported that major air pollutants have decreased by nearly 30 percent over the last 25 years, while the economy grew. That's good. But does anyone think that the fight for breathable air is over? It isn't, and if industry moves out of a country to get less strict (cheaper) regulations, the fight will get a lot harder.
Maurice Strong, who was Secretary General of the Rio Earth Summit, and now heads the Earth Council, says "far too few countries, companies, institutions, communities and citizens have made the choices and changes needed to advance the goals of sustainable development." Strong also tells us that 100 countries are worse off today than 15 years ago, with 1.3 billion people earning less than $1 a day.
Socialists have been saying for over 90 years that reforming capitalism won't solve the problems and we have been proven correct so far. People who say that it is too early to accept that verdict seem willing to wait another 90 years to see what has, by then, transpired.
If socialists are correct, that would mean another 90 years of war, of poverty, of economic crises, of environmental destruction. It means that and more, as the destructive capability of society increases daily. There is no even moderately compelling evidence that socialists are wrong. There is compelling evidence that socialists are right.
Socialism is what socialists want, so socialism is what they work for, not the reforms of the "social activists".
The Companion Parties of Socialism, in the World Socialist Movement, are socialist parties. They promote socialism because that is all a socialist party can promote.
If you find a "socialist" party promoting "social activism", you'll have found a non-socialist party ignoring socialism and working for reforms, not solutions.
A tiny group of socialists can't solve the world's problems; only a huge, socialist majority can do that. It is up to every individual to create that majority, and to use it to turn off the tap of capitalism, so that the problems can be solved.