Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Bay Area Socialist Organizing Committee

Confronting Reality/Learning from the History of Our Movement

Reform and Revolution


One of the most complex, many-sided, and most decisive questions of communist theory is that of the relationship between reform struggles and revolutionary goals. Generally, the role of the communists in reform struggles has two aspects–to wholeheartedly participate in and give leadership to those struggles, and to explain the limits of possible reform within capitalism and the necessity for revolution. However, the correct formulation of this relationship varies considerably, depending on the objective conditions within which a movement is operating and on the strengths and weaknesses of the Marxist-Leninist forces and of the mass movements. It is in formulating this relationship that the most clear manifestations of both right and ultra-left errors often emerge because it is in the context of this relationship between reform and revolution that our theory most directly confronts the actual opportunities for political work at any given time.

The Role of Reforms in Revolutionary Situations

The most widely studied body of Marxist-Leninist theory (the writings of Lenin and Mao) was developed in situations of more heightened revolutionary activity than those we face in the United States today. Comparing conditions today with conditions in periods and places of greater revolutionary development shows us how the experience of revolutionary history can be an invaluable guide to action if it is combined with an understanding of the particular opportunities and responsibilities of our times. Otherwise, making an absolute model of other revolutions can hinder the real application of Marxist-Leninist theory and practice.

Mao once said that the underdeveloped world faced “continuously revolutionary” conditions. In those countries, and very similarly in pre-revolutionary Russia, the struggle to achieve even the most minimal economic and political rights has often been quickly transformed into revolutionary struggle because the options of those ruling groups are so severely limited that any reforms granted are clearly inadequate. The role of the state in this situation is so flagrantly exposed as the instrument of class oppression that demands for the improvement of the people’s lives generally become political in the sense of demanding significant changes in the policies and priorities of the state. The state, unable to meet these demands, resorts to violent repression and it becomes increasingly apparent that the only alternative to submission to unbearable oppression is an offensive armed struggle. Very often, defensive reform institutions are either outlawed entirely or stripped of any real effectiveness.

Reforms in Situations of Political Stability

By contrast, the options of the ruling circles of the advanced capitalist countries generally–and especially those of the United States, which is the dominant imperialist power–are not nearly so circumscribed. During periods of economic expansion there have been considerable concessions to raising the living standards of the people. This has not happened without struggle and sacrifice, and the desires, hopes, and needs of the people have not been satisfied. But the expectations of the people, including sizeable sections of the working class, have been pacified to a sufficient extent that the rule of bourgeois ideology has not been seriously threatened by revolutionary aspirations.

A key role in this process is played by the “labor lieutenants of capital,” the trade union misleaders, and by the liberal politicians. These leaders do not maintain their positions simply through rigged elections, money from the capitalists, and the like. Their power fundamentally rests on the willingness of the working class to be satisfied with a limited and “practical” achievement of their demands within the confines of the capitalist political and legal process. These leaders speak to the self-interest of sectors of the working class in its most short-sighted and narrowly conceived form. People do not challenge the system and therefore do not draw revolutionary conclusions until it has become abundantly clear that the old system will not function to satisfy their needs. It has never been clearer than today in conditions such as ours that reform struggles do not tend spontaneously toward taking a revolutionary nature. Revolutionary theory–scientific socialism–does not emerge from the reform struggles of the working class alone. It is the task of communists to intervene in the mass struggles of the working class with a winning theory, organization, and program.

However, because of the strong material and social factors maintaining bourgeois ideology and social relations, it is difficult for a revolutionary movement to develop and sustain a political and ideological orientation that single-mindedly and boldly upholds a revolutionary vision and style of work. It is also easier, far easier, to limit our agitation and propaganda to reform tasks and in fact to lose our inclination to propel the movement in a revolutionary direction. Complete immersion in existing reform struggles can lead to empiricism–a static analysis of the conditions and forces in play, based on a quantitative, undialectical view of change. Empiricism is the source of economism and revisionism, which together signify the abandonment of the revolutionary class struggle. Such an empiricist world view describes the failure of the U.S. left (the CPUSA in particular) to develop a viable revolutionary movement. The long-term danger of “rightism” to a movement that must operate under such relatively peaceful conditions and such a reformist terrain should not be underestimated.

Ultra-left Purity, The Other Easy Solution

It is also not surprising that in recent years we have experienced in the anti-revisionist movement the seemingly opposite error of ultra-leftism. Our own roots are tied in so many respects to the analysis and style of work that have developed in the anti-revisionist movement that particularly careful attention should be paid to this problem. Much of what we say about the question of approach to reform struggles will in fact be part of the effort to rectify the effects of years of ultra-left domination on these questions in our movement.

Far from being over-awed by the complexity and difficulty of doing revolutionary work, the ultra-leftists act as though they can avoid confronting and thereby analyzing any of these concrete conditions. What begins as simply the lack of a thorough-going analysis or an inability to approach the complexity of our tasks soon degenerates into a reliance on ineffective strategies that seem to have worked under other circumstances. We can become so invested in holding onto what seems “correct” that we dare not admit to a more accurate description of reality. Such an approach does not work, or does not work for long, and can only lead to the demoralization of revolutionary forces when it becomes apparent that such strategies are built on little more than wishful thinking, or, more correctly, “subjective idealism.”

“Left” errors are rooted in an idealist world view in which the dialectical relationship between material reality and ideas is replaced by an emphasis on the primacy of ideology in political struggle. As we have too often seen, the results are an overestimation of the revolutionary consciousness of the masses, misreading of the objective conditions and the capitalists’ ability to maneuver, and a view of revisionism and reformism as greater enemies than the capitalist class–all combined with a dogmatist method and attitude.

Consider, for example, the often-cited and significant example of one of the major ultra-left organizations, the Communist Party (M-L), which boycotted the Sadlowski movement in the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). This movement represented generally the most militant, progressive workers in the steel industry who, despite the vacillation of those in leadership, had built a rank-and-file-based movement to confront the right-wing, sell-out policies of the USWA bureaucracy. The outstanding feature of this situation for CPML, however, was that a credible reform campaign might undercut the work of revolutionaries by encouraging faith in reformist solutions. Their ultra-left line said, in effect, that it is all well and good to fight for better wages and so forth, but it should only be done in the context of fighting capitalism. Since most workers do not tend to agree with this view (or they would already be communists), reformist movements are left free to go their own reformist way, uninfluenced by communists; the communists go their own way–alone. This is not a matter of being “a little too revolutionary” but of being simple-minded and irresponsible.

Role of Communists in Reform Struggles

To begin, we must recognize that the masses of people are by and large not yet to the point of easily agreeing with us about the need for a revolutionary alternative. At the same time, they are dissatisfied and many are willing to struggle for more limited objectives. We know full well that while the attainment of these objectives may offer significant relief, the ruling class grants concessions precisely so that those involved in the struggle will limit their political objectives. The ruling class, however, has an increasingly limited ability to implement this strategy successfully. A significant impediment can in fact be effective communist participation and influence in the mass reform struggles.

Reform struggles under capitalism to improve the lives and conditions of the people are important in themselves. They should not be seen merely as a means to an end. The struggle for reforms limits the capitalists in their relentless drive to intensify exploitation of the working class. Material gains in our share of the social product and advances in democratic rights give workers a stronger base from which to fight.

At the same time, revolutionaries have objectives beyond immediate reforms. We know that capitalism is fundamentally incapable of satisfying even many of the most immediate requirements of the people, especially in times of periodic recession and high unemployment, and because of capitalism’s inherent drives for greater productivity and profitability. Revolutionaries at the same time can and must have patience to unite with the masses of people who as yet do not share our perspective but who are making justifiable and important demands that arise out of the logic of capitalist oppression.

Communists do join and even initiate these struggles because we know that the people advance politically when they are able to learn from their own experience that capitalism cannot provide the solutions to their problems. In order to seriously build a movement that will enlist the people in the battles they are prepared to make, we do not project a communist level of unity but a mass line that, at any given moment, reflects the issues that people can be involved in struggle around and shows them the way forward.

Communists in trade unions, for example, participate in the development of rank-and-file formations that can lead the workers in those unions in the struggle for their most pressing needs and for class solidarity, and against class collaboration, racism, and sexism. In community coalitions, they likewise build unity among significant sectors of the people around the just demands of the community. Sometimes it may be possible to build a caucus or movement around a fairly high level of political unity; sometimes the issues may be of limited political value in themselves.

We do not mean to give the impression that if we only drop our ultra-revolutionary pretentiousness all will be clear sailing. It certainly will not be: anti-communism does not die easily; people’s movements may be fatally flawed with racist or sexist attitudes and divisions, to name only two important problems. Before these obstacles can even be seriously tackled, however, communists must understand the importance of creating mass arenas of struggle. Judging by the mistakes of the anti-revisionist left in recent years, one can only conclude that our movement has not understood in any depth such i perspective at a time when it is most crucial, given our isolation, that these points be deeply and seriously understood.

Priorities for Mass Work

BASOC is primarily committed to work among the working class; this commitment entails a significant concentration on the struggles of workers in the workplace and in the trade unions. These are among the most accessible arenas of mass struggle and are the only places in U.S. society where workers come together as workers, rather than as members of multi-class groups. Here economic struggles are continuously generated by the contradictions of capitalism, thus providing an objective basis for uniting the broad masses of the working class around their own interests. Clearly, workplace concentrations are essential to the development of working class; organizational capability and class consciousness.

The highly stratified and divided nature of the U.S. working class is inevitably reflected in the development of its economic struggles. The sharpest divisions in the working class, however, are along lines of race and sex. The greater these divisions, in reality and in consciousness, the more workers can be played off against each other. The more the working class overcomes these divisions, the more powerful and united its struggles become. We are not prepared in this paper to develop a position on the struggles of black people or other national minorities, on the question of the oppression of women or of gay oppression–but these are among our most pressing tasks, and we attach great significance to the development of these mass struggles against oppression and for democratic rights. In particular, a correct formulation of the relationship between economic demands and demands for democratic rights is especially important in organizing among the poorest and most oppressed sectors of the working class, where women and minorities are concentrated. Resolving the dialectic between race and class and between sex and class in the United States today is an indispensable element in resolving the dialectic between reform and revolution.

Community struggles–that is, struggles that do not arise from the workplace but that directly affect workers’ daily lives–are another important area for concentration. These issues–education, social service cutbacks, access to health care, for example–usually have a cross-class character but affect workers, oppressed nationalities, and women most of all.

In all these struggles–whether in the workplace or the community–a narrow, often economist, approach can perpetuate divisions and weaken the working class in its struggle against the bourgeoisie. The role of communists in these struggles must be:

To seek always to broaden the limits of the struggle and to build class consciousness and class solidarity.

To politicize workers by explaining the relation of the particular struggle to other struggles and to the class struggle as a whole.

To strive to advance the interests of the specially oppressed groups and to fight racism and sexism in the movement.

In cross-class struggles, to develop working class leadership, and to unite the working class with its allies, particularly in the oppressed minorities.

Propaganda and Agitation

Propaganda (that is, explanation of the need for socialism) is often set off against the task of giving leadership to and strengthening the mass movements. This is short-sighted because the very purpose of such work, if it is done in a revolutionary fashion at all, is to create the conditions in which communists can effectively raise their political ideas–not abstractly but in the context of actual struggle and to a mass audience. Communists should be as open as possible about our politics from a very early stage. At the same time, we must maintain the distinction between describing and defending our politics, on the one hand, and demanding that the people we work with subscribe to this level of unity, on the other. But it is only when communists can effectively unite with and offer militant, class-conscious leadership to the people’s movements that the people will give us a hearing. The “independent role of communists” is to demand– patiently–that the people consider our perspective and see if their experience over time does not teach them that revolutionary socialism is the viable and necessary solution to the contradictions that are unresolvable while the capitalists have state power. Their own experience must bear out the truth of these words, together with our ability, although always limited, to shape and interpret that experience.

Unity with the Advanced

Advanced workers are the future cadre of the communist party. They are the practical leaders of the reform struggles, who may not be the most politically sophisticated or well-read, but are conscious of the class nature of their battle, are consistent in their commitment, and open to communist ideas. The struggle to win the advanced workers to communism forges the material link between reform and revolution and is decisive in building Marxist-Leninist leadership in mass struggles for reform. In winning the advanced, it is essential that communists not substitute themselves for the advanced as leaders of reform struggles, nor remove advanced workers from their mass base by isolating them in the tasks of theoretical development and party building.

Too often “unity with the advanced” has effectively meant focusing the efforts of revolutionaries on doing “propaganda” in hopes of winning over a few to revolutionary ideas. This understanding is a rationale for a left sectarian approach that has been difficult to combat because it is a facsimile (perhaps crude and one-sided if one understands Russian history) of the advice Lenin gave the Russian movement around 1902. At that time a significant section of workers considered themselves revolutionaries, and winning over that sector to the Bolshevik Party was the key to the Party’s gaining a base in the working class. Essentially this could be done by propaganda.

In the United States today there is no such sector that can be won over through the struggle of ideas alone. The advanced elements of the working class and oppressed nationality movements must be won, not just to a party, but to a willingness to consider the alternative of socialism. This can only happen in the course of uniting most closely with these workers and other advanced elements to provide assistance and direction to the struggles that they are prepared to undertake.

Because the political level of even the “advanced” is not high, our ability to unite with them will in turn depend greatly on our ability to develop strategies to unify the advanced with the great number of potentially organizable “middle forces” around issues that the advanced workers do see as the needs of their class.

Our analysis implies that socialism has not won recognition and that this problem must be addressed. Partly, we must do so by developing classes and discussion groups that explain Marxism in terms understandable and relevant to working class experience. We must also develop ways to inject as much as possible into the popular consciousness a Marxist analysis of phenomena in our society–cultural and personal, as well as political. The material for propaganda of this type is virtually limitless. For example, a well developed and popularly written critique of how capitalism and capitalist values cause insanity, neurosis, alcoholism, drug addiction, and so forth, if it provided concrete explanations and made sense, would have great appeal. Propaganda on this level will not build a movement but would be a great adjunct to the work of people who are building a movement and help to lay its ideological groundwork. In short, propaganda should be directed primarily toward winning advanced workers to communism, but also must be understandable and appealing to the broad “middle forces” as well.

Working with Reformist Elements

Another implication of the approach we have outlined is that it requires a consistent and responsible approach to the question of working with reformist leaders. In attempting to do so we will find a real test of our political maturity and flexibility–and also perhaps of the strength of our understanding of and commitment to our political principles.

The alliance of Left and Center originally meant, and if understood in a revolutionary manner should mean, that the Left unites with and fights for leadership of the rank-and-file workers–the Center–whose interests are served by class struggle politics instead of reactionary anti-communist politics. With this orientation there will be periods of struggle and periods of unity with reformist leaders or semi-progressive union leaders who are willing to unite on this basis.

Predictably, revisionists have been at their most spineless in confronting reformist leaders who have some following or influence among the people. An unfortunate example of this kind was the history of the “Left-Center Alliance” in the Communist Party’s work. While the concept was correct theoretically (and is essentially what we are reestablishing here), in practice it meant increasingly subordinating the CP’s politics to the CP’s desire to maintain a cooperative relationship with CIO leaders. The all-unity-and-no-struggle approach of the CP leadership did not reflect merely a misunderstanding of the strategy, however, but was part and parcel of the revisionist yearning for respectability and integration into the bourgeois system as a reformist party. This mistake ended in the ideological bankruptcy of Browderism and the political bankruptcy of support for Roosevelt.

Many in the anti-revisionist movement observed the CP’s mistakes and imagined that the correct policy is to avoid contamination with reformist alliances at all. Naturally, they would like to appeal to the following of the reformists–but from a goodly distance and this is, most often, simply not possible. The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) had a long history of refusing in principle to participate in reformist-led formations until it to some degree realized the futility of such an approach and made a tactical about-face by supporting the Sadlowski campaign. The CPML adopted a similar position of not participating in anything in which the Communist Party played a role; to bolster its position it dug up some never-very-well-conceived quotes from Stalin to the effect that the “main blow” should be aimed at reformist elements.

In general, our approach to working with reformist leaders should be to unite with their positive aspects, whether substantial or merely superficial public rhetoric. In the latter case, our support reflects what people believe the leaders stand for and part of our strategy must be to push the contradiction between assertion and action. We should not approach reformist leaders with the perspective of cementing lasting unity or “winning them over.” (Any more than conditional unity is usually not possible –or if it were possible could rarely be maintained without sacrificing a real commitment to the interests of the masses.) We unite to make it clear to the people that we also support these leaders’ positive goals; but we also intend to expose their negative side–their racism, conservative tactics, limited objectives, anti-communism–in short, their misleading subservience to the capitalist system and capitalist ideology.

This “negative side,” if we are not afraid of it, is nearly as useful as the positive side because it provides us with the opportunity to demonstrate what is distinctly necessary and correct about a revolutionary orientation.

Reform and Revolution

We cannot make revolution without taking seriously the significance of reform struggles. This means fighting for leadership and influence in reform movements, while at the same time continually analyzing our ability to put forward a class conscious program and revolutionary perspective. To fail in either way–to ignore or sabotage reform struggles, or to subordinate ourselves completely to them–would be to abandon the real long-term interests of the people. Protracted and complex as our tasks in the reform movements may be, we have no other alternative because our goal is not merely reform but the revolutionary transformation of society.

(August 1979)