Communists and the fight for reforms: a contribution to the debate with the Socialist Movement

The question of how to combine the struggle for reforms under capitalism with the need to go further and fight for socialism has occupied a very important part of the debates and tasks of the world communist movement since its birth.

[Originally published in Spanish at]

This article is part three of a series of contributions to a debate with the Socialist Movement in the Spanish State. Parts one and two are already available to read.

On this general point, there are no differences between the Socialist Movement and the International Marxist Tendency. We agree that the fight for reforms must serve to make the working class aware of its role and power in society, in order to raise its sights towards the need for socialism.

That said, we observe a very rigid division in MS’ positions on the fight for reforms. For instance, in an article by Horitzó Socialista that analyses the position of communists regarding public education, it is stated:

“It is not simply a question of determining whether or not the proletariat participates in an experience of struggle to offer it our support, but of whether it does so with the correct political perspective.” (emphasis in the original, Centers educatius i lluita de classes (I))

In our reading of the materials of the MS comrades, we observe that they only consider valid struggles that develop, or have the potential for, socialist content, unlike those that do not question the bases of the capitalist regime. In the latter case, they simply formulate general demands, without specifying or developing them, or they refer them directly to socialism.

For example, the comrades of the ‘Space for the Socialist Process’, stating their position on the housing problem, write:

“For many currently existing struggles, their concrete ends can only be achieved through socialist means. For example, we can talk at this point about the problem of access to housing, which today our class so clearly suffers from, which can only be resolved by making access to it effective, free and universal. This is impossible to achieve within the limits of capitalist logic and that requires the construction of socialism (that is, new social relations that subordinate productive forces to human needs and put all natural and social resources under conscious and collective control). Thus, socialism is an end and a means at the same time.” (‘About means and ends. Reflections for the political moment’).

These positions can also be seen in a recent document by the comrades of Gazte Koordinadora Sozialista (the youth organisation of MS), entitled ‘Political proposal for working youth’. It is an excellent document in many aspects. It exposes in very clear and energetic lines the situation of precariousness and exploitation of working youth: the problems of access to housing, degradation of education, police and social repression, and the cultural garbage that the bourgeoisie provides us with. They correctly denounce the hypersexualization and degradation to which women are subjected in the artistic and musical sphere as an element that stimulates abuse and sexist violence, among other aspects. However, it is striking that no immediate concrete demand is raised, which must be fought and conquered here and now, and it instead refers directly to fighting for socialism, or to fighting in general.

For example, in point two, titled: ‘End the precarious working conditions of youth’ (page 21), the comrades propose:

“As a result of the previous demand [for equal working conditions for all people], we must end the abuse and exploitation that occurs within the working class. When it comes to working youth, many employers take advantage of us to increase their profits. Thus, they send us to do harder and more dangerous jobs, they force us to work overtime (which does not always pay), they condemn us to temporary jobs, to off-the-record jobs, etc. We emphasise that ending all this means putting an end to the exploitation of one class over another.”

On page 19 of the document, a series of demands are formulated for which we must fight now, and which seem totally correct to us, such as: equal working conditions for all people; end the precarious working conditions of youth; guarantee the means of basic living; create conditions for free personal development and the enjoyment of free time; fight against the destruction of the environment; end criminalisation and repression against working youth; fight for political rights, among others. But they are formulated in a very general and abstract way, without specific points or objectives that can act as a lever for mobilisation.

In our opinion, for example, it is not enough to raise the slogan; “guarantee a basic living wage” and say that we must fight for this. As formulated, this slogan has little mobilising power if it is not assigned specific objectives, such as (for instance): a minimum wage of €1,200, unemployment benefits for all unemployed workers equal to the SMI (Minimum Interprofessional Wage), rent or mortgage not more than 10 percent of family income, etc.

We agree with our comrades that the fight for socialism cannot be left to a hypothetical “seizure of power”, undetermined in time, but rather begins here and now. But we differ on the tactics and strategy of how to get there.

They propose, as we analysed in the previous article, that liberated “socialist spaces” must be created, here and now: in factories, educational centres, residential areas, etc., which we consider unsustainable and unviable, outside of a revolutionary situation and in the absence of a strong communist organisation. The reality is that without a long and prolonged struggle for reforms, offensive and defensive, based on the most concrete, immediate and urgent needs of working-class families, it is inconceivable to advance in the struggle for socialism. And for that objective it is a mistake to differentiate between those broader and general reforms with socialist content, and others that do not lead to an immediate questioning of capitalist relations.

Precisely, the virtue of raising slogans in favour of reforms that are felt to be more immediate (salary increases, neighbourhood struggles against the cutting of the electricity supply, an increase in school places in educational institutions, against job layoffs, etc.), is in mobilising the more inert and backward layers of the class that, in general, do not move in response to general slogans. The fact of setting them in motion, even with partial slogans, has the effect of making them aware of their collective strength, their role in society, the lies of the bourgeois press that attacks and discredit their demands, the repressive role of the police that detains and mistreats ordinary workers in the struggle, the greed of the employer and so on.

The need for a transitional program

As we said before, it is not enough to simply proclaim the need for socialism in a general way. That would condemn us to isolation. We must strive to focus each slogan by carefully following the current level of consciousness and the immediate concerns of the sectors of the working class that we address.

It was the Communist International at its Third Congress, in the Theses on Tactics, Section 5 (‘partial struggles and partial demands’), who broke with the thesis prevailing until then in international social democracy, of having two separate programs, the so-called “maximum program” of struggle for socialism, and the so-called “minimum program” of modest demands detached from a socialist perspective. Instead, it states:

“All the Communist parties’ agitation and propaganda, indeed all their work must be imbued with the consciousness that no enduring improvement in the conditions of the masses is possible in a capitalist framework. Steps to improve working-class conditions and to reconstruct an economy devastated by capitalism can be taken only by overthrowing the bourgeoisie and smashing the capitalist state. But this insight must not lead to any postponement of the struggle for the proletariat’s immediate and urgent necessities of life until the time when it is capable of erecting its dictatorship.”

And later:

“The Communist parties do not propose a minimum programme for these struggles, one designed to reinforce and improve the rickety structure of capitalism. Instead, destruction of this structure remains their guiding goal and their immediate task. But to achieve this task, the Communist parties have to advance demands whose achievement meets an immediate, urgent need of the working class, and fight for these demands regardless of whether they are compatible with the capitalist profit system.”

CI Image public domainIt is not enough to simply proclaim the need for socialism in a general way / Image: public domain

These theses of the CI were taken up by Leon Trotsky, when he formulated his Transitional Program in 1938, with specific demands adapted to the situation of his time.

As can be deduced from this, to link the immediate needs of the working class with the struggle for socialism, and thus help the development of the political class consciousness of the working class, what is needed is to propose transitional slogans to serve as a bridge uniting each immediate demand with the perspective of socialism. Some of these slogans could be achievable within capitalism, even if temporarily or partially, with determined workers' struggles. For example, historically, the working class has won the 8-hour day, the right to strike, the right to demonstrate, the right of association, the right to abortion. In the era of capitalist crisis, all these achievements are threatened.

There are other demands that will not be possible to achieve within the capitalist framework. The important thing is that they serve to mobilise the workers and, in the course of the struggle, the working class becomes aware of the incompatibility of preserving a decent and dignified existence with the maintenance of capitalism.

Trotsky, in his aforementioned work, proposes a series of demands that are very relevant to the current situation, such as: a sliding scale of wages, that is, that salaries rise automatically with inflation; distribution of working hours among all workers in each sector, without salary reduction, to combat unemployment; nationalisation of certain sectors of the economy and the banking system; workers' control and opening of company account books to workers, etc. Depending on the severity of the capitalist crisis and the intensity of the political situation, it proposes other demands such as the creation of self-defence pickets and workers' militias (against fascists), the creation of factory committees, councils or soviets, among other things.

It is beyond any doubt, and in this we believe that we are in full agreement with the MS, that in each partial struggle we communists must, in addition to showing ourselves as the most consistent fighters for reforms, help the working class to see that the origin of their problems is of a deeper nature. It is rooted in the very existence of capitalism and, therefore, that we must carry out, during the struggle itself, a bold campaign of propaganda explaining the need to overcome capitalism. As Marx and Engels explain in The Communist Manifesto:

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.” (Chapter 2, ‘Proletarians and Communists’)

We can give a recent example of a neighbourhood struggle in Seville, where the comrades of the IMT have actively participated, along with hundreds of members of the community, and activists from other political groups and social movements, against the power cut that affected some marginalised working-class neighbourhoods of this city last summer. In the course of the struggle, which lasted weeks, the initial and central slogan of demanding a restoration of power culminated in the socialist slogan of: “Expropriation of the electrical companies under the control of the workers and neighbourhoods.” And, by the way, the fight was won in a triple sense: a million-dollar investment was obtained from ENDESA, which was forced to install seven electric generators in said neighbourhoods. Furthermore, the neighbourhood struggle had the effect of increasing workers' confidence in their own strength, in its organisation and in the methods of struggle as a way to achieve demands. And, finally, there was progress in the level of political consciousness of hundreds of people who had previously been politically inactive, opening new horizons in their understanding of the functioning of capitalist society.

The united front

There is also the question of participating in the struggles promoted by the reformist and social democratic leaderships of the unions, left-wing parties and social movements. We must honestly acknowledge that the position of the MS on the matter is not clear to us, whether they are in favour of participating and intervening in them with their slogans and program, or abstaining.

In our opinion, we must participate in every struggle of the working class to advance its interests, regardless of its leadership and the demands it raises. Precisely, the only way to challenge the social democratic leaderships for their control of the movement is to fight side by side with the workers who follow them, and thus show in practice the superiority of our slogans, proposals, program and methods of struggle. Thus the workers will be able to see not only that we speak, but that we also act in favour of our common interests, and that we show them the limitations of the reformists, at the same time that we advance our communist program. How else can we bring broad layers of our class closer to the ideas of communism?

It is clear that participating in the struggles of the reformist leaderships, whose influence – whether we like it or not – reaches the majority of the working class at this stage, implies the establishment of united front policies with the mass organisations of the proletariat. It includes, first of all, unions, but also social and neighbourhood movements, and even, depending on the circumstances, mass reformist parties.

What should we communists understand by the united front tactic? Of course, it is not a mixing of programs or flags, but an agreement to fight jointly on a series of common points or demands, in order to give the partial struggles of the working class the greatest possible strength and unity. At the same time, communists must maintain our political and organisational independence from the other organisations and political tendencies that participate in said united front, which implies the defence of our own program and slogans, and our right to criticise, in the process of struggle itself, the other tendencies and organisations’ program, slogans and methods of struggle. The united front tactic is condensed in the slogan: “March separately, but strike together.”

In this, we do not propose any innovation. In addition to what was explained by Marx and Engels, all this is included in the resolutions and agreements on the matter taken by the congresses of the Communist International in its heroic and revolutionary era (1919-1923), before its degeneration.

We have not been able to find a clear position in the writings of the MS on this point. The insistence of the MS comrades on the political and organisational independence of the proletariat is totally correct, but it should not be interpreted as the rejection of any participation of the communists in the struggles and mobilisations led by the reformist leaderships. If this were so, it would seem to us to be a serious mistake, because it would separate us from the broad masses and reinforce the influence of the social democratic leaderships over the working class.

For example, recently we had a formidable demonstration of half a million people in Madrid against the dismantling of public health, with a strong charge against the right, overwhelmingly composed of working-class families. This demonstration was called by a multitude of organisations, but was politically dominated by reformist parties and unions that do not consider going beyond the limits of the system. What position should we communists take regarding it? In our opinion, we communists should intervene in this demonstration, without abandoning our political independence, that is, to explain our ideas. The IMT, with its modest forces, intervened by distributing a leaflet with its positions, denouncing the right wing, but also the half measures of the “progressive” government. We demanded urgent and concrete solutions to the situation, at the same time as pointing out the capitalist regime is the ultimate culprit, urging the working class to adopt a socialist policy against the system.

Transitional slogans and nationalisation 

We already explained at the beginning that we observe in the propaganda of the MS comrades the absence of any program of concrete partial demands, even of a transitional character. Of course, we communists must oppose social democracy maintaining a “minimum program” that does not question the continuity of capitalism in any aspect. But we must not bend the branch towards the opposite extreme, of simply brandishing the “maximum program” of the socialist revolution, without connecting it to the concerns or partial struggles of the working class.

In particular, we are struck by the absence of any nationalisation slogan, such as: nationalisation of electricity companies, banking, telecommunications, empty homes in the hands of banks and vulture funds, etc.

Of course, it could be objected that the possession by the bourgeois state of any economic sector would not change the capitalist social relations of production, and that individual employers would simply be replaced by a common employer (the state) that represents the entire capitalist class.

But this conclusion would be completely one-sided. As we said before, we must start from the real and current level of consciousness of workers, who in general do not directly or automatically reach ​​socialist conclusions.

A peculiar feature of the working class, as the most genuine product of capitalism, is that they lack property. The slogan of nationalisation implies the expropriation of individual capitalist property. As a “public good,” a nationalised property is perceived by workers as the collective property of society, even under capitalism. That is to say, the slogan of nationalisation brings to the workers the idea of ​​the effective socialisation of the entire capitalist economy (or, at least, as a first phase, of big capital, which controls 80 percent of the economy), which is the final result of the socialist revolution. Therefore, this slogan has very positive effects on the consciousness of the workers, because there is a logic leading to socialist consciousness, which is why it is the slogan that the bourgeoisie fears the most.

When proposing the nationalisation of a company or particular branch of the economy, we add two elements: firstly, that nationalisation must be carried out without compensation, except for small shareholders without resources. We propose this, on the one hand, to avoid the de-capitalisation of the company and, on the other, to gain the neutrality or sympathy of the petty bourgeois and well-off working class sectors, who usually make up the small shareholders, and thus prevent them from being manipulated by the big expropriated capitalists. Secondly, we propose that said company or sector must be under the control of its workers and not in the hands of officials and elements outside the working class. And we also propose that said company or sector must be linked to a general production plan aimed at satisfying the needs of the population.

The fight for public education

Since the MS is fundamentally a youth movement, with a majority student component, the educational issue acquires primary importance.

Here we also find the position of the comrades confusing. In an article that we already mentioned, ‘Centers educatius i lluita de classes (I)’, by comrade Laia Capdevila, it is stated:

“Social democracy, in its different forms, has become a legitimisation machine for public schools, hiding the relationship between it and bourgeois power.”

And he continues saying:

“Some defend the public as opposed to the private; others, because it was a conquest that the proletariat have wrested from the bourgeoisie; others, as a mechanism for social advancement and escape from economic marginalisation. In reality, the defence of public education is usually a mixture of these three components, which respond mainly to workerism, reformism and the aspirational character of the middle class... Today, to say that defending public schools is defending our class is defending the right to be indoctrinated, idiotised and subjected.”

Although we do not agree with the comrade's argument, of course, we do not ignore, as is also stated, that school is a disciplinary tool and means of ideological reproduction of bourgeois ideology. However, that does not exhaust the question.

School closed Image fair useA public education system instils in the future worker basic rudiments of culture, knowledge, reading, reflection and understanding / Image: fair use

What the comrades seem not to take into account is that every structural element of capitalist society, whether it is worker exploitation in companies, or a public educational system designed to train future workers, contains a dialectical unity of opposites that, in their development, contain the seeds of the eventual overcoming of capitalism. The first – the exploitation of workers – establishes a system of appropriation of other people's labour and production of surplus value. But at the same time it develops the productive forces, forges class consciousness and creates the economic bases essential for the establishment of socialism. A public education system – in addition to helping to create the commodity labour force to be exploited – instils in the future worker basic rudiments of culture, knowledge, reading, reflection and understanding that can open broader horizons. Or is it that the working class is better prepared for the socialist struggle being illiterate? Or is it that we don't need trained and qualified people to begin the construction of socialism?

The great advances in the expansion of the education system, the incorporation of more and more young people from the working class into secondary and tertiary studies, making part of them free, the expansion of study scholarships, etc., have been the product of workers' struggles and social struggles of fathers, mothers and students. That is to say, they have been conquered and taken from the bourgeois state and the capitalist class, because the working class does not simply accept being a tool to fill the pockets of the rich, but that we aspire to be worthy and free men and women, and access the highest possible levels of culture and knowledge, even with all the limitations and obstacles of the educational system. 

We affirm without reservation that a state system of public education is a step forward for the working class, whose children are the main component in primary and secondary education, and not the so-called “middle class.” And it is also very positive for our class to have a public health system that, although it is designed in part to “repair” workers who “break down” during the production process, is an incontestable advance for working families and a conquest that is the product of countless struggles. Struggle for its defence is capable of mobilising millions against the system, as we saw in the White Tide a few years ago, or with the battles a few weeks ago in Madrid.

We would like to finally address the programmatic proposal put forward by the comrades of Horitzó Socialista, in said article, on the educational issue:

“Our proposal in the educational field translates into socialist control of the educational process.

“It contains the main objectives:

“Emancipate the proletariat intellectually, ethically, technically and methodologically. Enable us to construct knowledge based on our political, economic and ideological needs, with a scientific foundation that breaks with knowledge based on bourgeois interests.

“Instruct ourselves in our real needs, which we will discover in the process of struggle itself.

“Build new subjectivities that understand the communist project and the principles and values ​​that govern it.

“Have effective control of the spaces in which this educational process is developed, generating its own operating and improvement bodies.

“In advancing these goals, the popular schools and socialist centres that have recently sprung up throughout the territory will have a fundamental role.” 

We see here, again, the programmatic weakness that runs through the positions of the MS, a program that can only be fully applied in a socialist society and that is not mediated by transitional  slogans, by partial demands, that act as a lever to mobilise the working class, and to the students, children of workers, towards the achievement of that final objective.

We must assume that “the popular schools and socialist centres that have recently germinated throughout the territory,” whatever they may be, already constitute “socialist spaces” described by comrades in other writings and that we addressed in the previous article, to “progressively and gradually” wrest control of the educational system from the bourgeois state. In reality, the public educational system, like the health system, are the furthest from being able to be dissected, piece by piece, within the capitalist structure. They cannot be progressively taken away from the bourgeois state, but only at once, through the seizure of power by workers, as we have already explained.

In any case, the position of the comrades is inconsistent, since just a few lines below, in this same article, the opposite of what has been stated categorically before is said:

“On the other hand, as we have said previously, we do not propose to abandon the battlefield of public education, nor do we defend a kind of class separatism where we build autonomous spaces with respect to the capitalist world to try to ignore reality and its contradictions. That is why these tasks can begin to serve as a compass to try to propose a grounded praxis linked to our project.”

And this is not coincidental. By drawing up a unilateral evaluation of the character of public education, and simply exhibiting a “maximum program” that would condemn us to inaction and isolation, these contradictions are inevitable.

In short, we accept the correct premise from which the comrades start, that education essentially serves to train future workers in the productive and administrative system of capital and transmit its class ideology. Thus, our task as communists must be to fight to achieve the highest possible level of control possible under capitalism in the educational field, in each autonomous community and at the state level. To do this, we must develop a program with concrete proposals that include, among other things: the greatest possible democratisation of the educational system (participation in all areas of decision-making and curricular design by students, parents, teaching workers and other staff); the best possible conditions for teaching in terms of facilities, advanced pedagogical programmes, etc.; expulsion of private companies and banks from the university; abolition of private education, etc.

We must extend the same position to other public and social services, such as health, transportation, waste collection, occupational workshops, cultural entities, etc. that would prepare the class to exercise control and participation in all areas of social life.

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