This 2015 article recently appeared in The Spark, the theoretical and  discussion  journal of the  CP Canada

By Sam Hammond 

“If the political debate concerns exploitation or freedom from exploitation, the rule of the bourgeoisie or its abrogation, the carrying through of capital accumulation or the requirements for emancipation of the people then it no longer concerns the this or that improvement of existing society, rather it concerns the whole of society. That distinguishes communists from members of other parties, including social-democrats and other reform socialists. Reforms for the improvement of people’s situation, which here and now and at every instant are always sensible, because politics is conducted in the interest of people now living, cannot be the aim of a communist party, rather only an aspect of its continuing struggle.

For it is not a question of managing better in this capitalist society; and it would be an illusion to believe that internal capitalist contradictions can be removed by reforms, since they are structural contradictions of the system of the production relations. It is much more a question on the route via reforms of changing the social system. It follows, from the insight into the two-class opposition of capitalist society, that there will be only one class left (and therefore no class). The aim of communist policy is thereby determined. It is revolutionary, because it seeks to bring about an end to class society.” Hans Heinz Holz

The above quote is very useful because it concisely and articulately states the position on revolution and reform from the revolution side. It also, quite correctly, identifies reforms as sensible while explaining why they cannot be the strategic aim of a Communist Party. If reforms are necessary and sensible but cannot be the aim of the party, then what exactly are they in regard to the party’s aim of destroying the exploiting class and initiating a classless society?

In short, they are “quantities” in the struggle to bring about a qualitative change, a negation, a leap, revolution. As such, they must not be viewed only as building blocks of developing contradiction, but as part of the dynamic that can, depending on the historical and social environment, plod along or explode.

The difference between Communists and social democrats is not defined by whether or not they struggle for reforms – indeed, most reforms favouring the working class quality of life were initiated by Communists – but whether or not they view them as a “quantity” on the road to social transformation or an end in themselves, a bandage to save capitalism and help it maintain hegemony as a kinder capitalism with a human face. To ·struggle for reforms is not necessarily reformism. To see them as a treadmill item in a permanent capitalism is. That is the essential difference between reformism and class struggle.

Communists see reforms as quantities in the class struggle to alleviate human suffering, interfere in the rate of exploitation, develop class consciousness, unite the working class and develop the most conscious in the strategy and tactics of resistance and revolution. They are part and parcel of the dialectical relationship between theory and practice, error and correction, application and projection.

The social democrats see the campaign for reforms as a rather vapid cap-in-hand series of campaigns, legal briefs and parliamentary trade-offs in the process of shaping the imaginary pluralistic society into an enlightened utopia of a kind and caring capital. Something closely akin to training a wolverine into a loving house pet, and just as achievable.

Communists should see the struggle for reforms as the injection point of class consciousness, raising the political level of the working people to an awareness of self and an awareness of their exploiters, in both cases within general awareness of the two main classes. This presupposes that the struggle for reforms must be won by mass action that raises class consciousness to the level of ideology and program, involving the most advanced sections of the population and developing the demand for more reforms.

This is antithetical to the vision of negotiated reforms on behalf of the people as a bartering tool for class peace or a bribe to maintain capitalist hegemony, a social contract of collaboration on the part of an aristocracy of the working class, whether a stratum or an entire nation. Now the question can be placed more articulately as “Reforms for what purpose, and towards what end?” Again, pluralism or class struggle.

If reforms are not the aim of the Communist Party but rather an instrument or a “quantity” in the class struggle, then the struggle for the kind of reforms to be sought, and the kind of mobilization of forces to achieve them, must radically differ from the tepid campaigns of social democracy for a kinder capitalism, decent work, and more crumbs from the table.

The demand for a Charter of Labour Rights, long championed by the Communist Party, which would require the mobilization of significant forces and secure the immunity of the labour unions from legislative attack, is ignored by the social democratic labour leadership because they are very well aware that massive mobilization would require changes in leadership and program that would expose collaboration and complicity in the global neo-liberal agenda.

The concept of reforms carried through on a provider-and-client basis, as found in the models of “business trade unionism,” or the sectarian proprietorship expressed by social democracy in the concept “we will look after your needs, just vote for us,” was at the heart of the major split orchestrated by the “pink paper unions” that destroyed the united fightback against the Harris Tories in Ontario years ago.

When the concept of sectarian paternalism and control won out, it set the stage for the long sleep of the Ontario Federation of Labour (in the same bed as the CLC), helped isolate the CAW and allowed Buzz Hargrove to move it to the right. The main labour leadership was quite happy to farm out political campaigning to the NDP’s sectarian parliamentarianism. The aim was to eliminate democratic member-driven mass struggle and isolate or control labour’s social justice partners.

At present, when the Harper Tories are launching an attack against the Rand Formula (read, right-to-work legislation)[1] , the same leaders are launching “Why Unions are Important”- and “We Gave You the Weekend” type campaigns that are patently patronizing to the class that created the trade unions, the weekends, and the history of extra parliamentary campaigning, including strikes that won virtually every reform the leaders claim as their accomplishment.

This is a campaign that either targets the ignorance of the masses as the danger to organized labour or seeks to convince workers that paying union dues is something important enough to do even if you don’t have to pay. In reality, the attack comes from the ruling class and can only be repelled by mobilizing those very masses of people who are ignorant or passive, but definitely leaderless.

Most Canadian workers do not come face-to-face with the capitalists in their workplace, as workers did in the earlier stages of capitalism, when the capitalists self-managed their enterprises and the workforce. However, they come face-to-face with the professional representative strata who manage enterprises and financial institutions, services and the state itself on behalf of the ruling class. Along with this are the increasingly complex and diversified forms of social production, the escalating alienation of workers from the products of their labour, and the complete subservience of the mainstream to the corporate agenda.

It is apparent how the buffer zone of deception can hide the class brutality of exploitation and create a breeding ground of reformism not oriented against the capitalist class directly but against the representatives of that class. Wealth, as viewed directly in exorbitant salaries, bonuses and stock options for the managers of capital can obscure the fundamental relationship between exploiters and exploited, and promote the concept of fair distribution as a solution.

For the working class to seize and hold as much as possible of the wealth they produce is a necessary battle, but only as a quantity in the struggle for emancipation, and not as a payment for class peace. Entire ownership of the means of production and 100% social expropriation is the only alternative.

The self-awareness and self-identification of working people as an exploited class must emerge from a worldview that has components about the past, present and future. This of course dictates a completely different view of process. This is a political development and therefore requires a political party armed with a scientific worldview, dialectical and historical materialism, Marxism-Leninism.

Development of social consciousness, first of all as an awareness of, or bewilderment with, injustice, grievances and defencelessness, can and does arise in individual people, but it is impotent rage and only takes on a sociopolitical character when it is nurtured and developed in social groupings. There is also an accelerating factor in group action that can provide the equivalent of years of experience from moments of activity.

One strike, no matter how small or isolated, brings the reality of class power, the need for organization and the need for class unity to the forefront. The strike of necessity precedes the realization that the workers must own and control their own bodies and the product of their labour, and that the withdrawal of their labour power is the economic lever of reforms and of reprisal, and is strengthened by mass unity.

Social consciousness is developed in social formations, and among the working class the trade unions are by far the most advanced and organized social formations. This situates them in the class struggle and defines them as an essential ingredient, and not just one grouping among others. The trade union struggles historically are the first stage in the developing of social consciousness – of class consciousness. The initial stages of struggle are, naturally, economic, part of the workers’ struggle for subsistence, and tend to shape the organization/ structures of the labour unions and their goals.

The labour unions exist in the terrain of capitalist society, and their social concepts and demands reflect the reality of their environment. They are reformist and economist initially because they deal with the immediate needs of living people.

“The development of total alternative conceptions for society is not their task. Socialist concepts certainly arise and continue within trade unions, but they are not the content of trade union struggles nor of trade union conceptions of organization.” Hans Heinz Holz

The worldview and the scientific revolutionary ideology of Marxism-Leninism did not arise from trade union struggles, but nevertheless the fertile ground of awakening class consciousness and the historical phenomenon of permanent workers’ institutions within the exploiting state creates a natural and essential merging of theory and practice, a pool of fermentation where dialectical thought can flourish.

This phenomenon is at the root of much recent class history – including the need for the bourgeoisie to inject into the trade unions the self-destructive ideology of counter-revolutionary anti-communist crusading in the form of McCarthyism and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Social democracy was the willing accomplice of the bourgeoisie in these campaigns in Canada.

The isolation, defeat and even physical expulsion from the ranks of the labour unions of members of the Communist Party was and is a project of the capitalist class and will continue as long as there is a class struggle. Conversely, their offensives, no matter how damaging, have never been complete because there were and will always be advanced members of the working class, including left social democrats, who refuse to abandon Communist workers precisely because Communists have been the advance guard in the struggle for reforms that have shaped their lives. There is no blanket or pot-lid in this world opaque enough to hide this history completely.

No matter how the tides rise and fall, the Communist Party must never give up its right of presence amongst the most organized sections of the working class and must never deny these workers the weaponry of revolutionary ideology that they need, which will propel the struggle for reforms into the struggle for socialism. The much-peddled concepts of retreat – Eurocommunism, pluralism, Gorbachev’s “new thinking” or a “party of all the people” – are a withdrawal from the concept of the vanguard and partisan role of the Communist Party and an abandonment of the proletariat itself.


[1] This legal proviso legitimizes “union shop” collective agreement clauses whereby an employer agrees to deduct union dues from the pay of every employee in a bargaining unit whether the employee chooses to join the union or not.