Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist)

The Example of Panama: Revolutionary Use of Reforms In International Struggle


First Published: The Communist, Vol. IV, No. 21, September 25, 1978.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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A major source of confusion in the application of the theory of three worlds concerns the role of reforms in international class struggle. For instance, the struggle for a new international economic order, for regional economic co-operation, an integrated commodity program, the 200 mile exclusive maritime jurisdiction, nuclear free zones, etc. are all examples of such reforms.

On the one hand there is an opportunist line which says that reforms in international struggle are everything and that with the development and accumulation of such reforms we can transform the structure international society itself. Peacefully at that. Disarmament, for example, is put forward as a means to eliminate war rather than as a means to make it more difficult for the superpowers to carry out their plans of arms expansion and war preparations. The reformist position obscures the fact that as long as imperialism and social imperialism exist war is inevitable and general and complete disarmament is an impossible goal.

Another view, equally incorrect, says that reforms in international struggle are nothing because they do not resolve the principal questions which face the international proletariat and oppressed peoples. In fact this view holds that they are harmful to the development of international struggle because they sap the revolutionary initiative of the working and oppressed people and divert their attention from the fundamental problem of world wide revolution. Therefore, according to this principle, there is no reason to support proposals for a new international economic order or regional economic cooperation, for example, since such measures can promote reformist illusions and are subject to superpower manipulation and interference anyway.

Marxist-Leninists reject both views. In international struggle as on the domestic front we oppose both the view which adopts a contempuous attitude toward reforms as well as the view which glorifies them and treats them as the be-all and end-all of our work, just as in domestic struggle, we can use reforms in the international arena as a spring-board for further advance. To do so, each particular struggle must be linked to the general interests of the working and oppressed masses worldwide in the overthrow of imperialism, social imperialism and all reaction.


The principles which guide communist policy toward domestic reforms can also be applied to the question of reforms in international affairs. Stalin said:

To a revolutionary . . . reforms are a byproduct of the revolution. That is why with revolutionary tactics under the conditions of bourgeois rule, reforms are naturally transformed into an instrument for disintegrating that rule, into an instrument for strengthening the revolution, into a strongpoint for the further development of the revolutionary movement. (Stalin, FOUNDATIONS OF LENINISM, Pek. Ed., p.100)

We can take from this three points.

First, legitimate reforms are the byproduct of the revolutionary activity of the masses. In international struggle they depend on and reflect the relative strength of oppressed and oppressor nations and classes. They are concessions – by imperialism and social-imperialism that improve the situation of the oppressed nations and peoples and their ability to wage further struggle against imperialism, social imperialism and all reaction.

Some laws are put forward as reforms by the bourgeoisie which in fact do not reflect the aspirations of the masses and are not an advance. Proposition 13 in California is a recent example of this kind of phony reform in domestic policy. (See THE COMMUNIST, v. IV, #14.)

Superpower disarmament proposals are an example of a sham reform in international affairs. (See Huang Hua’s speech to the Special UN General Assembly Session on Disarmament, May 29, 1978, reprinted in PEKING REVIEW, #22, 1978.)

Second, reforms are limited because of “bourgeois rule.” The bourgeoisie can manipulate reforms because it is still in power. This means that not only is every reform limited in character, but that no reform can be taken for granted, that is, consolidated to such a degree that it could never be taken back. The struggle for an eight hour day goes back 100 years, but is still not secure. In international relations, this means that while reforms are being won and regardless any partial gains in the struggle against hegemonism, the domination of the superpowers in world affairs will lead to continuing efforts to deepen the exploitation and oppression of the world’s people and to extend superpower spheres of influence and control.

Third, revolutionary tactics can make a reform an “instrument of disintegrating bourgeois rule, for strengthening the revolution, into a strong-point for further development of the revolutionary movement”. Every step must serve as a springboard in further struggle. In international struggle reforms must be a means of disintegrating superpower domination and strengthening the revolutionary movement of the people against imperialism, social imperialism and all reaction.


The Panama Canal Treaties are an example of reform in international class struggle.

In the first place they are a byproduct of the revolutionary struggle of the Panamanian people against US imperialism. The Panamanian people have been resisting US colonial rule of the Canal and the Canal Zone for seventy-five years, ever since the Hay-Buena-Varilla Treaty stole the territory from Panama in 1903. This resistance reached its peak in Panama in the 1964 riots which were directed against US imperialism. During one week of rioting, over 700 people were killed or injured and US property damage was estimated at over $2 million. Without a doubt it was the revolutionary activity of the Panamanian masses that forced the US to begin negotiations at that time for a new, more equitable treaty.

Of course, the treaties signed by Carter and the Panamanian leader Torrijos are limited in their impact. They do not solve the fundamental contradiction between the people of Panama and US imperialism. They are not a means of expelling US imperialism from Panama or a means to end US exploitation of the Panamanian people. They do not break the ties which bind the reactionary bourgeoisie of Panama to US imperialism.

But on the other hand, the treaties are definitely a step forward for the Panamanian people in their struggle against US imperialism and cannot be called merely a sham reform.

The basic advance made is to restore Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone. Formerly US imperialism claimed “perpetual use, occupation and control” over the region. US law applied and a Panamanian could be arrested for breaking a foreign law, tried in a foreign court and punished by foreign authorities, all on his own land. Also, Panama had no control over the introduction or use of US troops into the zone or over the use made of them.

Under these circumstances a people has nothing which can be called sovereignty over its territory.

The new treaty signed between the US and Panama puts an end to this unrestricted colonial rule of US imperialism over the Canal Zone. Panamanian law will replace US law and Panama will exercise jurisdiction over immigration, customs, postal services and other matters. Revenue and full control over the Canal will also pass to the Panamanian government. US military forces will be immediately reduced and eventually withdrawn completely.

These provisions, while incomplete, definitely represent a real, not a phony, advance.


Because the treaty does not put an end to US imperialist domination of Panama, there can be no doubt that US imperialism will never cease in its efforts to take back any advance made in the struggle. The DeConcini reservation is a good example. While signing a treaty turning over sovereignty of the Canal Zone to Panama, by that reservation, the US purported to reserve for itself the unilateral right to intervene to ensure the operation of the Canal, even if the interference came from a strike or other internal disruptions in Panama. Such a provision is completely inconsistent with Panamanian sovereignty and was flatly rejected by Panama. In the end, although the reservation was not withdrawn, the US position was weakened by its adoption of another amendment which affirmed that in spite of the DeConcini reservation, the US would not intervene in Panama’s internal affairs or violate Panamanian sovereignty.

The struggle over the DeConcini reservation confirms the point that a reform can never be taken for granted. Whether US imperialism will use this provision to intervene in Panamanian affairs after the year 2000, which is the date it would come into operation, depends on the development of the struggle in the intervening period of the people of Panama and the US together with the people of Latin America and the world against US superpower hegemonism.


The best guarantee against the advances made in the treaties being subject to superpower “takeaway” efforts is the use made of them as a basis for further developments of the struggle. For working and oppressed people of Panama, as well as for US revolutionaries, every dispute stemming from the continued US presence and the control of the zone until the year 2000 must be used to agitate for the immediate transfer of all control over the zone to Panama. Every US military uniform on Panamanian soil must be used to explain the continuing domination of US imperialism over the whole of Panama and its neo-colonial exploitation and oppression of the Panamanian people. These and other examples must be used to demand the immediate and complete withdrawal of all US troops. In this perspective, the treaties become a basis for further advance, not an end in itself concluding the struggle.

The treaties are also an instrument for strengthening the revolution to the extent that they reflect unified struggle with the full support of the countries and peoples of Latin America and the third world against US imperialism. For example, in 1973, the foreign ministers and delegates of 23 Latin American countries declared the Panamanian struggle a common concern of all Latin American countries. Again, last August, the leaders of Columbia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico and Jamaica meeting in Bogota gave resolute support to the Panamanian people’s struggle and denounced US imperialism’s colonialist policies. Later, at the time of the DeConcini reservation last March, Torrijos sent a letter to all members of the UN protesting the reservation and asking support for the original treaty provisions. Among third world countries and some second world countries there was solid unity in support of the Panamanian position, and the US was quickly isolated on the question.


Because they have strengthened the position of the people and weakened the position of US imperialism, the new Panama Canal treaties have contributed to disintegrating the hegemonic strivings and war preparations of US imperialism. US military officials have said that US war plans require unrestricted US control over the canal. The US has established its Southern Command in Panama, with 10,000 occupying troops. The fourteen military bases the US maintains there are used to train US and foreign troops in counter insurgency warfare used in Indochina and Latin America. The Canal Zone is the only refueling center for US ships in the Americas that is south of California. It is a base for US naval and air operations vying with Soviet naval forces for hegemony in the Caribbean and surrounding area.

Of course the treaties do not put an end to US war preparations or US contention for world hegemony. They do not prevent the US from using the treaties in an effort to consolidate greater ideological influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. But without a doubt, they do upset to some degree the deployment of US imperialism militarily in Latin America and attack its colonialist control over an important portion of Panamanian territory. This is a concrete contribution to the effort of the people of the world to frustrate the superpowers’ interference and control of other countries.


A reformist line on the question of the Canal treaties views them as the basis for an essential resolution of the conflict between US imperialism and the Panamanian people. Making the treaties an end in themselves, such a view ignores the effort of US imperialism to use the treaties as a mask for more indirect domination through foreign aid, international banking, military assistance, CIA subterfuge, etc. Promoting harmony between an oppressor and oppressed nation, this view hides the potential for US neo-colonialism to deepen its exploitation of the Panamanian masses in new forms and hides the fact that US imperialism can be completely expelled from Panama only with the overthrow of US imperialism.

On the other hand, for the line which views reforms as nothing, the treaties are a worthless victory meaningless for the people of Panama. Since they do not solve the fundamental question of US imperialist domination over Panama completely, this view sees in them no gains whatsoever. But in spite of revolutionary posturing, this view also belittles the fundamental conflict between US imperialism and the Panamanian people. Ignoring the fact that strength is accumulated through struggle, this view acts as if recognizing a concession forced from US imperialism would blind the people of Panama to the exploitation and oppression of US imperialism which persists in new forms and which is bound to give rise to new resistance.


These differences are also reflected in the evaluation made of Torrijos’ role in the conclusion of the treaties.

A reformist position exaggerates his role and ignores the pressure of the masses of Panamanian people as well as of the countries and peoples of Latin America and the third world which forced the new treaties from US imperialism.

A competing view negates the role a head of state like Torrijos can play in the anti-hegemonist struggle of the world’s people and condemns the treaties because he is a representative of the bourgeoisie working together with US imperialism. The attitude here reflects the point of view of the Party of Labor of Albania in commenting on the struggle in Nicaragua – a bourgeoisie’s a bourgeoisie and that’s that:

Like the reactionary bourgeoisie of Ecuador or Iran, Bolivia or Poland, Indonesia or Britain, the reactionary bourgeoisie of Nicaragua is no exception to the characterization which Marx made of the bourgeoisie in general. (ALBANIA TODAY, no. 2, 1978, p. 59.)

But Marx frequently drew distinctions between the bourgeoisie of different European countries. And in our own time, Chairman Mao Tsetung has made a differentiation between the bourgeoisie of the two superpowers, of the lesser imperialist countries and of the developing countries for the purpose of strategy in international struggle.

How do Marxist-Leninists view Torrijos’ role? In his article, “Current Problems of Tactics in the Anti-Japanese United Front,” Mao emphasized the necessity for a revolutionary dual policy toward such leaders. In the case of a national leader such as Torrijos we should oppose those policies which suppress the revolutionary activity of the masses or which undermine the struggle of the third world and capitulate to imperialism or social imperialism. On the other hand, we should support his policies to the degree that objectively they oppose imperialism and social imperialism, favor the struggle of the masses and strengthen the worldwide united front against superpower hegemonism.

For example, we support Torrijos’ stand in opposition to Soviet social imperialism when he stated that Panama would not bring down one foreign flag to raise another. But at the same time, we oppose Torrijos’ suppression of anti-US demonstrators during Carter’s post treaty visit to Panama.


As Marxist-Leninists we must take the lead in fighting for a correct line on the question of the revolutionary use of reforms in international struggle.

Guarding against the deviation that would make reforms everything as well as the deviation that is contemptuous of reforms and the struggle for reforms, we must use every action, every advance, however small, in order to connect it with our fundamental task. While gradually forcing concessions from the superpowers, as well as other imperialist powers, we should put before the oppressed masses of the world a clear idea of the source of the superpowers’ policies of aggression, expansion, contention for hegemony and war. We must show that by strengthening the anti-hegemonist struggle, the people of the world can get better prepared and put off the outbreak of a new imperialist war, but that only the complete overthrow of imperialism, social imperialism and all reaction can solve the essential problems of world affairs.

This is not an easy task. As our Chinese comrades emphasize in their defense of Chairman Mao’s theory of the differentiation of three worlds, which is the basis for revolutionary strategy in international class struggle today,

The struggle against the two hegemonist powers, which is an essential component of the world proletarian socialist movement, is extremely arduous and complex. The proletariat of all countries must make an effort to study and disseminate Marxism-Leninism, play the exemplary role of vanguard in this struggle, fulfil their internationalist obligations and give all-out support and assistance to the people of all countries in their fight against imperialism and hegemonism so that this struggle can advance along the correct path and win final victory. (PEKING REVIEW, #45, 1977, p. 27.)

Such all-out support must extend to the struggle against hegemonism in all spheres – to the legal or reform struggle as well as to the revolutionary armed struggle – on the condition that each step is an advance along the correct path. It is an elementary law of strategy that final victory is prepared not only by the decisive assault, but also by innumerable preliminary operations which weaken the enemy and develop the strength of the attack. Whatever the form of struggle, the main test at this time is whether it serves or frustrates the interest of either superpower in seeking hegemony and preparing for war. Whatever serves the interests of either superpower must be opposed. Whatever frustrates their ambitions or deployment for war must be supported.