Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Reformism is not a “more materialist” approach to the struggle for socialism

by the Collective of Thirty


First Published: In Struggle! No. 277, January 12, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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The following text is the result of discussions by a collective of thirty or so members and former members in the Quebec region. They met to develop a criticism of the text published in no. 276 of the newspaper the December 15 issue under the title of “For a materialist approach to the struggle for socialism”. Given the scope of the questions raised and the rapidity we thought we should proceed with, it will be understood that those who support this text reached a consensus on its basic contents, but do not necessarily agree 100% with everything said in it.

* * *

Should IN STRUGGLE! continue to exist as a revolutionary organization specifically engaged in the struggle for socialist revolution in Canada and the world? Or should it take up a path that will gradually but surely lead it to reformism, a path that would in practice lead to its liquidation?

This is what we believe is at stake in the debates being carried on at the present time, following the publication of the position of two members of the Political Bureau (PB). Their position seems perhaps appealing, new, more realistic, “more materialist”, to use their terms. In our opinion, however, it would represent a step backwards: to adopt this position would be to adopt theses that are certainly nothing new, theses whose implications have already been proven in the struggle for socialism, in Quebec and Canada in particular.

In presenting their position, the two members of the PB in practice raise many questions that call for comment. But commenting on them all would require many discussions and more than one supplement to the newspaper. We have therefore decided to deal with what seems most essential right now: we want to warn the members of IN STRUGGLE! of the dangers involved in an attitude that seeks rapid answers to the questions confronting us, without any really materialist analysis of our societies and their history and without debating, on the basis of this analysis, the many contradictory positions held by Marxists today on a number of subjects.

We will probably be accused by some of defending the “status quo”. It might be worth asking what status quo is meant, for much has changed in IN STRUGGLE! over the last five years. Yet we would like to emphasize that we too want to break with the idealism that characterized us in the past, re-examine our political positions on a certain number of subjects and transform our internal political life to make it more democratic. To give an idea of our positions, we can say that we tend to share the approach presented by the comrades from British Columbia in the supplement to no. 273 (November 24, 1981) of the paper. The following text is a first contribution; we intend to intervene again to help prepare for the Congress.

1. Concerning the evaluation at IN STRUGGLE!

Beginning in the introduction to their text, the two comrades from the PB emphasized that their fundamental challenge to our Programme and Constitution was grounded in the development of our theoretical work, the debates and our practice over the last two years. They mentioned Charles Gagnon’s analysis of the history of the struggle for socialism, published in Internal Bulletin no. 40 in the spring of 1980, and his On the crisis in the Marxist-Leninist movement, published in November 1981; the Central Committee’s April 1981 resolution on the question of women; the criticism of the line underlying the structure and functioning of IN STRUGGLE! which appeared in the first issue of the Liaison Bulletin; and the evolution of our practice since the Third Congress. “All of these things have contradicted, in theory and in practice, the basic approach contained in our Programme.”

We think this initial statement is the first thing that is wrong in their text. Its effect is to perpetuate a great deal of confusion about the precise nature of the positions held by various people at the present time.

We too have read Gagnon’s texts on the critique of “static, ossified Marxism-Leninism”. And if there is one thing we have understood, it is this: Marxist-Leninists must break with the idealism that has characterized them as well as the left as a whole for decades. There are no sure answers answers to the questions raised by the development of the struggle for socialism in the last 60 years and the evolution of imperialism on a worldwide scale. Why? Because the left has mainly concentrated on judging the political lines of the various actors in the struggle for socialism through until today. What is needed above all is a materialist analysis of our societies. This means we have to work at understanding the dynamics of the evolution of the relations of economic production on a world scale and the resulting class relations.

What out two comrades from the PB do, however, is exactly the opposite of the method proposed by Gagnon. Faced with questions, we need answers, and fast. Marxist-Leninists were idealist? The contrary of what they said in the past must be true for the future... But where is the scientific analysis to found their conclusions? We would find it very surprising that they had had the time to do in the space of a few weeks what IN STRUGGLE! has just begun to do with its work of the last two years.

As for the April 1981 resolution of the Central Committee (CC) on the women’s question, we would simply like to recall what this resolution said about the programme: “Our Programme and our line remain correct on essential elements of women’s oppression and on the strategy for their liberation. We must nevertheless work systematically at developing, implementing and clarifying certain questions for which we have not yet found satisfactory answers.”.

The only challenges consistent with the point of view put forward by the two comrades from the PB are the “criticism of the line underlying the structure and functioning...” in the first issue of the Liaison Bulletin, and certain aspects of our practice since the Third Congress. As for the rest, invoking it is false representation – be it intentional or not on the part of the authors.

Concerning our practice since the Third Congress: obviously space and time do not allow us to do a thorough evaluation of this in this text, but we would nonetheless like to point out that we believe it is precisely because we based ourselves on our Programme that we were able to develop activities like the defence of Quebec’s right to self-determination; the agitation against class-collaborationist policies in the labour movement, in particular with the pamphlet Dump McDermott; our work in solidarity with the struggle of the Salvadoran people; our intervention at the Ottawa “Popular Summit” in July 1981, where we encouraged the unity of progressive forces on the basis of a denunciation of all Western imperialists, thus demarcating from the social-democratic line that restricted itself to denouncing U.S. imperialism and on on.

To achieve a clear understanding of our practice, it is surely necessary to evaluate our work and activities more thoroughly, and not simply content ourselves with assertions that in our opinion remain purely gratuitous.

But first of all, we have to at least agree on a common conception of the Programme. And this is our second point of disagreement with the text: the vision of the Programme presented by the two PB members is biased in a number of respects and in some cases in outright contradiction with what the Programme in fact says. To allow the readers to judge, we have included a comparison of some of the assertions made in their text with excerpts from the Programme (see the box) [MIA Note: not included here].

2. Their vision of the world distorts this reality of world imperialism

We would like to comment on the vision of the world presented by the two members of the PB in point 4 of their text. Summed up briefly, they say: to the underdeveloped countries, the decisive problem is to move from pre-capitalist economic forms to a modern capitalist society; in the advanced countries, the issue is a different use of the existing economy and technical possibilities to redistribute wealth more equally; but above all, the most pressing issue in the latter countries is the “full democratization” of society.

First of all: if the issue for three-quarters of humanity is to achieve capitalism, and if for the other quarter the issue is democracy and a better distribution of wealth, are we then to conclude that in practice, socialist revolution – the radical transformation of relations of production – is not the decisive question on the agenda anywhere in the world?

As well, this vision of “two worlds” with separate, parallel developments completely distorts the reality of imperialism, which is first and foremost a world system. The way the situation evolved in the underdeveloped countries directly affects the situation in the advanced countries, and vice versa, and this must be taken into account in developing revolutionary strategy. The affirmations further on in the text about looking at things from an internationalist perspective sound rather hollow, given that right from the beginning they define the strategy for advanced countries without basing it on an understanding of the evolution of capitalism’s contradictions on a world scale.

This leads them to say, for example, that major economic and political reforms can still be won in the advanced countries because the profound technological revolution now under way gives capitalism an additional capacity for substantial material progress. “Although the present crisis is serious, it would be naive to predict that “this is the real final crisis” this time around and that capitalism will be unable to adapt and restructure itself.” Perhaps. But in our opinion it is just as naive and very dangerous to conclude the contrary when such a conclusion is not founded on even a minimal amount of serious analysis of the world economic situation today. It is one thing to recognize that the communist movement’s conclusions about the imminent collapse of capitalism ever since the 1930s were not founded. But recognizing this does not authorize us to predict that this situation will remain unchanged for the next fifty years. In opposition to this approach, we could invoke the studies done by people who do not believe in the miracles of the technological revolution. The magazine Le temps fou, for instance, recently published an interview with Benjamin Coriat, a French specialist on the organization of work, who condemned what he sees as the myth of the technological, revolution. [1] But we refuse to take a stand on whether or not revolutionary conditions will soon exist, because we do not have the information we need to make such a decision.

If we take the technological revolution as given, can capitalism find new markets to sell its new production, to find new jobs in new sectors for the workers who will be replaced by robots? How developed are capitalist relations in the underdeveloped countries? What are the possibilities for extending them? Can States continue to carry such large burdens of debt indefinitely? All these factors are what has so far enabled capitalism to overcome its crises.

And in order to begin to understand the evolution of power relations on a world scale, it is these factors that we have to grasp, rather than simply brandishing the spectre of a universal hecatomb that of course makes the preservation of bourgeois democracy look like the lesser evil. War is still the continuation of politics by other means – even in the nuclear era.

3. If IN STRUGGLE! chooses this path, then IN STRUGGLE! no longer has a raison d’etre

This brings us to the heart of the problem. The question is not whether IN STRUGGLE! is for or against reforms; the question is not whether IN STRUGGLE! is for or against parliamentary struggle as a tactic in certain specific conditions. Since we have to reject the Programme, the question is rather which reforms IN STRUGGLE! refused to support in the past that it should fight for today. The question is much more whether IN STRUGGLE! should consider the electoral struggle as a strategic path for progressing towards socialism.

According to the two comrades from the PB, “In North America and Europe, the full and complete democratization of society is a more important part of what socialism is about.” In their point 6 (Reforms and revolution), they specify that they are not calling for the building of a socialist alternative within the framework of present-day society. “Concretely, this means encouraging the creation of various community groups (ed. note: is our Programme opposed to this?) and the election of progressives and revolutionaries at different levels of the State (school boards, municipal government, etc.) to implement democratic policies and make structural changes to encourage more direct democracy and get more people involved in making decisions.”

But that lessons do they draw from current events in Poland? Or from the Chilean experience? It’s true, one is an East European country and one is an underdeveloped country. It’s true, conditions in the two are not the same as here. Yet Washington’s democracy is nourished with the blood of Santiago’s totalitarianism. Here again we refuse to dissociate these two realities.

The history of North America itself reveals how little respect the bourgeoisie has for democracy when its interests are seriously threatened. You just have to think back to the banning of the Communist Party of Canada in 1939; the anti-communist campaigns of the 1950s, led by Duplessis in Quebec; the use of the War Measures Act in 1970; the wage control act (Bill C-73); and all the attacks on the right to strike; the repression of Native peoples and minorities like the Haitians, who are crowded into concentration camps in the United States. Need we point out that 48% of American citizens abstained from voting in the last U.S. presidential election?

As a matter of fact, a former high-level U.S. civil servant, Bertram Gross, published a book in 1980 in which he argued that America was in great danger of slipping into a comfortable new kind of totalitarianism. He called it “friendly fascism”, in which there is no dictator, no glorification of the State, but merely a very sophisticated method of technological and political manipulation. [2] We are not obliged to analyse things this way, but we should perhaps study them a bit before claiming that bourgeois democracy holds many more advantages for the struggle of the proletariat than we used to think.

This is not necessarily the opinion of the majority of workers, despite the powerful media working daily to promote such ideas about bourgeois democracy. But we cannot help remembering how many Chileans believed that democratic institutions were much more solid in Chile than in other Latin American countries. Nor can we help noting how many Poles apparently did not seem to believe that the Polish army would attack Polish workers. The answer will of course be that “if ever a left-wing coalition should be elected to parliament, its task in our opinion would be to dismantle the forces of repression.” Of course, how simple! Why didn’t we think of it? We would nonetheless be curious to learn what kind of “left-wing coalition” in Canada would be able to win an electoral majority on the basis of a programme calling for the disbanding of the army and police the arming of the people – inasmuch, obviously, as this coalition survived long enough to get to the Parliament buildings after its election...

More seriously: history up until now has shown that the parties and coalitions that relied on an electoral path to power were necessarily led into making a series of compromises that caused them to become defenders of collaboration with the bourgeoisie, if not direct agents of repression against the working-class movement in times of crisis, once they took power. It is not simply a question of good will: once you have chosen in a non-revolutionary period to be “at the level of the masses” as much as possible and to move towards power as rapidly as possible, you are caught up in a dynamic in which your initial radicalism gradually peters out. In this respect, when we review and judge the “ossified” Marxist-Leninists, we should also keep in mind the analysis of how the traditional communist parties have evolved since the 1950s.

But let’s leave history aside for the time being and look concretely at the lessons we can draw today from the struggles for reforms and self-management waged by the Quebecois and Canadian popular and working-class movement in a period when capitalism was expanding, namely since the 1960s.

Have the reforms the State was forced to make in the fields of union organization, occupational health and safety, day care, abortion, etc., enabled the “vast majority of workers to participate directing in the exercise of power”?

What has happened to the various experiences of self-management in the factories, in the countryside, in services? A few day-care centres and people’s health clinics are confined to a daily struggle for survival and a marginal role; companies like Tricofil and Cobano and the co-operatives in the wood industry in the Lower St. Lawrence have been forced to play according to the capitalist rules of the game. Between the two, there is not much margin for manoeuvring.

We would be seriously overrating ourselves if we thought anything is going to change in this situation simply because Marxist-Leninists put themselves in the vanguard of the workers’ control movement or the movement to democratize the State.

But IN STRUGGLE! has to stop being dogmatic and purist. It has to propose concrete programmes to improve the lots of workers. We should also turn our attention to problems like nationalizations, the decentralization of powers, the democratization of education. etc...

But what exactly does all this mean? Take the Quebec national question, for example. Should we have supported sovereignty-association in the referendum, on the pretext that it is a reform that favours the decentralization of powers? Or should we support a special status for Quebec? There is more unemployment in Quebec because of national oppression. Solutions are needed. Should we fight for the maximum possible power and resources for the Quebec government so that it can nationalize foreign and Canadian enterprises and strengthen our own, home-grown small businesses?

We will probably be accused of exaggerating. Yet basically, we have not invented these questions. They have already been voiced by others, including the spokesperson for the Organization at the 8th Anniversary celebration in Montreal. While the immediate demands in IN STRUGGLE!’s Programme are judged by some to be abstract, with little practical application, for our part we can only interpret the appeal to work out “intermediate solutions” as an appeal to support the strengthing of our own national or regional bourgeoisie to reduce the impact of the crisis. This is the dynamic we would gradually but inevitably be caught up in.

And if IN STRUGGLE! chooses this path, then IN STRUGGLE! no longer has a raison d’Ítre. The CNTU, QFL, CLC and the CCU already dispose of much more substantial human and material resources than we do to work out programmes of demands and define short and medium-term solutions for inflation, unemployment and high interest rates, or to encourage the democratization of powers, etc. There is also the NDP, the CP and the WCP, which all regularly contest elections with concrete programmes to fight unemployment and democratize society, programmes for “thorough-going reforms”. In Quebec, Guy Bisaillon from the left-wing of the PQ has been working with people from the NDP, the CP of Quebec and some trade-unionists for several months now to set up a “left-wing grouping”, partly on the basis of a programme of democratically controlled nationalizations. There is the “Committee of 100” that has just been established as a movement and which also strongly defends democratizing powers and establishing socialism in a “radically democratic” way.

We have no illusions. There is no future for IN STRUGGLE! if it adopts a political project that does not distinguish it from the many other Organizations in favour of “democratic socialism” that already exist.

4. Nibble away at the State bit by bit or prepare to overthrow it?

However often there are repeated warnings about the need to distinguish oneself from the “purely reformist” path will not ultimately change matters. The conception presented in the text of the relationship between the struggle for reforms and revolution, the two of which “must go together”, boils down to waging the struggle for socialism through gradual reforms.

The two members of the PB base this conception on their conclusion that the nature of the State in advanced industrial societies has changed. For them, the State is no longer a class State, but rather the result of the class struggle. It has a dual nature: it is still the instrument of the capitalist class, but we are also supposed to recognize that it “enjoys a certain degree of political autonomy from Capital: it serves to mediate contradictory interests and work out compromises.”

We do not deny that the State may have changed form, become an increasingly complex instrument since the turn of the century in our societies. We have seen this in Quebec, where the State has changed since Duplessis’s time. The process was called the Quiet Revolution. But anyone who wants to convince us that the nature of the State changed when Jean Lesage’s Liberals and later Rene Levesque’s Pequistes took power, has few things they are going to have to explain. Our understanding was that the Quiet Revolution and the major reforms it brought in the financial institutions, the nationalization of hydro-electricity, and in health, education, etc., were designed primarily to meet the needs of modern capitalism in expansion at the time, and in particular the needs of a faction of the bourgeoisie in Quebec that had learned to get rich by using State power.

At the same time, some of these reforms partially satisfied demands put forward by the working class and were the result of its struggles. One example of this was the winning of the right to strike in the public sector. But in what way does this change the nature of the State? When an employer gives in and meets demands after workers have struck, does this mean that the relationship of exploitation in the factory has changed???

In the second Liaison Bulletin (p. 14 in French), a reader of the newspaper invites us to read the book Du pain et des services, on the reforms in health care services in Quebec in the early 1970s, to help us avoid playing into the hands of social democracy when we take part in the struggle against budget cutbacks.[3] “The facts are clear: the reform of health care and social services in Quebec was called for and carried out by technocrats who had a very clear understanding of the system they supported...” The book points out further on that the same arguments were used by the people’s health clinics in 1972. At that time, “ossified Marxism-Leninism” was not yet in fashion in Quebec...

Before we are reproached with being contemptuous about the demands of the masses, let us be quite clear about what we mean. We prefer to have health services managed in a capitalist way to having none at all; we prefer to have free, State-managed day care and schools to having only private institutions access to which is restricted to a minority. In certain conditions, it may also be useful to support the election of progressive candidates to head up certain institutions, for instance hospitals where the right to abortion is under attack or at stake.

But we would not try to imply that the accumulation of these reforms gave the working class more and mor power, that it brought the working class closer and closer to socialism. We do not think we will win State power by nibbling away at it gradually, bit by bit. We are still firmly convinced that the proletariat must work at preparing the overthrow of the State and the destruction of tis administrative and military apparatus, in order to “establish its own dictatorship over the exploiters, thus creating the conditions for the broadest possible democracy for all working people. (taken from article 6 of the Programme)

We’ve said it: dictatorship of the proletariat. We noticed that in their struggle against “ossified Marxism-Leninism”, the two PB members also quietly did away with this notion as well. They don’t even mention it. Their silence on this is consistent with their vision of the State today: when the State is not fascist or totalitarian, it is no longer basically the instrument of one class. Does this mean that the State under socialism would continue to have a dual nature?

The dictatorship of the proletariat does not enjoy a good reputation with the masses and the left in general. This is comprehensible when you consider the way the situation in Eastern countries has developed. But did the dictatorship of the proletariat ever really exist in the Eastern countries? The question is worth raising, and in raising it we confront head on the entire tradition of the international communist movement.

But it doing so, we refuse to draw conclusions at the present time that would ultimately cause us to treat Marxism very lightly – if the concept of Marxism still means something more than simply being on the side of the working class and the oppressed and against injustice and in favour of progress. Not that these are negligible qualities, but if Marxism implies nothing more than this, then all the left-wing humanists would be just as Marxist as we are. We think that the fundamental point of view underlying our Programme is still correct about the conditions that must govern the evolution of our societies towards world communism. Socialism, as a transitional phase, requires the establishment of a proletarian State that will lead the struggle to eliminate the blatant inequalities at all levels inherited from capitalism and in doing so to prevent a minority oppressor class from regaining the upper hand.

We still believe in the leading role of the working class, because in our societies it is the only class that bears within it the seeds of a new mode of production. And we prefer the “abstract economic definition” of our Programme to the total lack of definition in the two PB members’ text. In fact, they assume that 80% of the population can be considered proletarians, workers or oppressed – indiscriminately – thus once again making short work of Marxism. Having said this, we will admit we haven’t solved everything. What forms will democracy or workers’ control take? What will be the form of parties-State-mass organizations relations? Our Programme already contains several indications (for example, in article 6: “working-class power will rely on the total control by workers over the organization of their own labour and over the distribution of the goods produced.”), and our research and debates should allow us to develop further our ideas on this and understand better what conditions are necessary to achieve it.

We still consider, however, that the basic point of view in the Programme is infinitely more materialist than the call for “full democracy” [MIA note: faded text] the two members of the PB. Up until now, there has never been “full” or “pure” democracy anywhere because in real life men and women are not all equal. They may have equal rights on paper,but as long as their living conditions are not the same in practice they will not be equals. Although some strata of society here may be able to dream of “full democracy”, it should not be forgotten that the main preoccupation of the majority of women and men in the world is still to feed, clothe and house themselves decently.

5. For a vanguard Party

A number of comrades think we should reject the idea of a single party. There is at least one sentence in our Programme that would seem to be an explicit reference to such a party (section a) in article 7). A number of the people who support this text would agree with rejecting the single party, but we nonetheless all believe that the basic elements of our Programme on the role of the Party are still correct, namely that an organized vanguard that works to offer leadership to the struggle of the proletariat and its allies is necessary for a successful revolutionary process. This is not elitism. It is taking account of the fact that we live in a society that engenders inequalities and of the nature of the struggle we have to wage, a struggle that requires us to be organized to successfully wage a violent struggle to overthrow State power. This rule has applied to all revolutionary processes so far.

For instance, the left often refers to the Nicaraguan example to prove the pertinence of political pluralism in a revolutionary regime. Despite this, however, all the mass organizations in Nicaragua agree on recognizing that the FSLN played a vital vanguard role in the struggle against Somoza.

Does the fact that workers in our societies are more informed and have more schooling make the situation all that different here? We do not think so, unless we assume that television and public schools as we know them today have some potential virtues that we are not aware of.

Does this mean that we treat everyone who does not agree with our ideas as empty pitchers to be filled and that we have nothing to learn from them? Not at all. It seems to us that IN STRUGGLE! has proven in the past that it is capable of waging debates openly and changing its political positions when it was convinced that it had in fact been wrong. But we do not think that opening up to progressive and revolutionary forces that we used to ignore means that we should abandon our capacity for critical thinking. Positions have to be compared and confronted in order for a debate to be productive.

The development of the masses’ consciousness does not depend solely on the work done by the Party. Concrete experience is a fundamental factor, and if we are materialist we will not think that there can be a widespread development of revolutionary consciousness unless and until the economic and social conditions of a revolutionary crisis exist. But this is not a reason for abandoning our political line today on the pretext of appealing to more people. For the task of revolutionaries is precisely to organize themselves to be ready to seize the opportunity when conditions are ripe.

6. The Congress

We spent close to five years working out the Programme of IN STRUGGLE! Before it was adopted, there were many public and internal discussions. In terms of democracy, this approach compares very favourably with that of many other left-wing Organizations that adhere to “democratic socialism”.

Nevertheless, many consider that the Programme is full of holes or shortcomings – and rightly so in some cases. But if this is so, it would be risky to want to develop a serious alternative to it in the space of a few months. However urgent it is to change things because changes are needed, this kind of attitude is liable to lead us very rapidly into “professions of faith” that prove to be very shortlived.

As for the idea of giving ourselves a “minimal” platform of unity: we do not believe in it, if only because it is impossible for a political organization to survive very long without any specific political project. IN STRUGGLE!’s members will not remain united very long merely because they have worked together for a few years.

We have indicated that the Programme has certain shortcomings in our opinion. We would also like to emphasize that we think the Programme has real weaknesses on the question of women, with which we have not dealt. In particular, the Programme nowhere deals with the question of the role of the family in maintaining and perpetuating women’s oppression. We think some of the important issues raised by the Women’s question cannot be clarified unless we examine this question.

At the same time, we still think the foundations of our Programme are useful and necessary in creatively applying Marxism to the study of history and the analysis of society today, so as to rid ourselves of a certain “ossified” Marxism-Leninism without getting rid of Marxism altogether.

We therefore think the Congress should reiterate its agreement with these foundations and decide to suspend the application of certain articles that the debates and our experience have convinced us are wrong. Above all, the Congress should identify the major political questions we want to have clarified and set priorities for examining them.

We should be guided by the same attitude in defining our tasks and our organization. We cannot say much about these points here, except to say that once again we should avoid rushing into new decisions and take the time to come to conclusions about what we have learned from our work, the changes we are convinced are necessary and relevant and the priorities we should set in examining the questions to be resolved.

Let’s take our time. The time necessary. This is vital if we want all the members to make fully informed decisions.

Endnotes

[1] Interview with Benjamin Corint “Y a-t-il un avenir pour la crise?” in Le temps four, no 18.

[2] Bertram Gross, Friendly fascism, the new face of power in America, Evans Editions, 1980. (Gross was chiefly responsible for the idea behind the Humphry-Hawkins act on full employment in the United States in 1978).

[3] Frederic Leseman, Du pain et des services, ou la reforme de la sante et des services sociaux au Quebec Editions cooperatives Albert St. Martin 1981. Available at L’Etincelle boostore.