Australian Marxist Review

Theory and Practice of Class-Oriented Community Unionism

A BBQ organised by ACU members at a council housing block.

A BBQ organised by ACU members at a council housing block.

Katjoesja Buissink

Central Committee, New Communist Party of Aotearoa


One of the key questions that has driven the international Communist movement since its inception is the question of what it means to be a revolutionary and what does revolutionary work look like in non-revolutionary times. Two extremes exist, with one pole believing that revolution can be made entirely through subjective factors and mobilisation of the masses. The other end takes a defeatist approach and negates the necessity of socialist revolution. History does not look favourably upon either extremity. The task of Communists, therefore, is to navigate our course by creative application of Marxism-Leninism. As Lenin said when the Russian Communist movement was in a similar low ebb as we are now, “it is not a question of what path we must choose, but of what practical steps we must take” (Lenin 1977b, p17).

This question of path is not simply a question of Party life but, if Marxism-Leninism is adhered to, a question of the proletariat in toto. The role of the Party is to “organise the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle” (Lenin 1977a, p211). Stalin (1954, pp177-179) would later conceptualise the Communist Party’s role as the “General Staff” or “advanced detachment of the working class”, operating with and within the working class, but not equitable. This Leninist definition of the role of the Party can be clearly seen as a creative development of what Marx and Engels wrote in Manifesto of the Communist Party before the betrayal of the social chauvinists, namely that Communists “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole” and form “the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others” (Marx & Engels 1976, p497). This Marxist-Leninist conception of the Party stands opposed to both modern Blanquist  secrecy and Browderist liquidationism and emphasises the significance and development of the mass organisations of the proletarian movement alongside that of the Communist Party.

Recognition of this forms the basis of the strategy of the New Communist Party of Aotearoa. The report of the NCPA Central Committee to the First National Congress says:

The Central Committee developed the principle of “one class, two unions” as practical application of Marxism-Leninism in the 21st Century. Recognising the need for a mass, class-oriented movement of the proletariat, something currently lacking in entirety in New Zealand, the New Communist Party strives to build and strengthen two types of unions: labour unions and a new type of union – the revolutionary community union.

Selected Documents and Speeches of the First National Congress of the New Communist Party of Aotearoa 2019, p13

The form and function of class-oriented trade unions is as old as Marxism itself, and the literature on it is equally massive. In discussing our Party’s application of the above theoretical principles, therefore, I will focus on our conception of “community unionism”, conveniently also the topic AMR editors asked me to write on. To give an initial summary of community unionism as briefly as possible, it is useful to quote at length from pre-existing Party literature.

The New Communist Party also recognises that the proletariat exists outside the workplace and that in order to be fully effective, we need to be backing the working class outside the workplace. The Party has elevated the theory of the standard form of this organising, tenant unionism, into a unionism of a new type – revolutionary community unionism.

The Community Union, as a mass organisation of working communities, should have the capacity to focus on broader issues such as public works, amenities and community life as the working masses see fit, not just tenancy agreements …

The Community Union also plays an important role in uniting various class strata under the leadership of the working class. The focus on the community in a broader scope than just tenants allows for home-owning petty bourgeoisie a route to follow the working class in a revolutionary struggle through their shared interest in a strong community with public services and amenities. Unemployed people and beneficiaries who would normally not be able to engage with the workers’ movement can also be brought in through their own concerns about rent, housing condition etc.

Selected Documents and Speeches of the First National Congress of the New Communist Party of Aotearoa 2019, p28

The ACU [Aotearoa Community Union] is inspired by tenants’ unions that exist in the United States and the United Kingdom, such as ACORN UK, where a lot of the early organisational and practical guidance for the ACU came from. Tenants unionism has a significant difference here however, as to a large extent there are not the mega-landlords that exist in the USA or the UK, but a significant number of petty landlords. It is only through on-the-ground work that the big landlords have really been made apparent. The significant impact of this difference is that techniques such as rent strikes are not as easily available to a tenants’ union as in these other countries. The ACU will have to work to build ties with the masses and make itself a genuine mass organisation for these significant tactics against landlord capitalists to be worth the risk of any political action of this sort.

Just as a difference exists between revolutionary, class-oriented trade unions and reactionary scab unions, we can differentiate between reformist and revolutionary housing unionism. As this is not normally a key point of Marxist-Leninist practice, what revolutionary housing unionism looks like has largely been independently synthesised by New Communist Party cadre. The result has been the elevation of tenant unionism to community unionism …

Of course, at the current stage the Aotearoa Community Union plays a humble role and is largely limited to a few Wellington suburbs. At the moment work has largely been initial door knocking, introducing ourselves to working communities and gaining a membership base outside of the initial activist base of New Communist Party and unionist core. This has been done quite successfully, and now the Aotearoa Community Union is beginning its first campaigns. We provide a free mould removal service to Wellington residents and are organising Wellington City Council (WCC) Housing tenants to fight for better conditions against WCC neglect. As time goes on and the mass power which the Aotearoa Community Union directs increases, we expect that it will become an important and novel part of working-class power in New Zealand.

Selected Documents and Speeches of the First National Congress of the New Communist Party of Aotearoa 2019, pp15-16

Therefore, community unionism can be described as an effort to extend the organised subaltern, or the mass organisations of the workers’ movement, to society, i.e. the community, as a whole. It is not a replacement for the traditional mass organisations of both the trade unions and the women’s, youth, students, and peace organisations, but an organisational form that attempts to broaden and expand the class struggle and meet the masses in more places, thus allowing the working class to more broadly recognise their role as builders of the new society.

The conception of community unionism that the NCPA holds is different to the idea of community unionism employed by some IR scholars and reformist trade unions, while both stem from the same principle. These groups see the solution to the decline in fortune of the Western labour movement in “moving beyond the workplace and engaging with communities” (Cockfield et. al. 2009, p462). These alliances with community groups, particularly faith-based ones, have a dual side of essentially being good United Front work, but also often involve a certain resignation from building a proper union, engaging in industrial action, etc. The NCPA’s conception, and “one class, two unions” more broadly, retains class-oriented unionism’s rightful place and rather seeks to build distinct union structures in the community.

A lot of community union work is difficult to convey in writing, particularly for an overseas audience. The most important thing for all Communists interested in similar activism to remember are the two fundamental principles of seeking truth from facts and practice as the sole criterion of truth. As Deng Xiaoping (1995, p153) wrote, these “are the basis of the proletarian world outlook as well as the ideological basis for Marxism”. For comrades not well familiar with Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping’s works, where these terms were popularised, the two sayings summarise the materialist outlook and practice. We as Communists proceed from material conditions and address our work based on the results of our practice.  If comrades proceed from these principles and develop strategy based on sound Marxist-Leninist thought, their work should be of a high calibre regardless. The following summary of some aspects of community unionism simply developed through our work based on the above ideas, and is presented as an example of application of Marxism-Leninism in the conditions the NCPA finds itself.

The foundational organisation of the community union should be based in a suburb or similar, fairly small geographic area. Over-estimating the possible scope for one group of comrades to cover, such as the whole of a city, makes it hard to focus on concrete action and truly understand the needs of the masses. For us, this initially meant one organisation focusing on Wellington Central as that is what matched NCPA structures and capabilities a year ago. A community union initiative with a greater distribution of interested organisers would naturally be able to have larger initial coverage without sacrificing the necessary organiser density.

The first piece of community union work is to understand the needs of the masses. As Mao (1967c, p186) says, “to link oneself with the masses, one must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses”. This can be fairly thankless work, as it inherently requires the difficult task of making connections with people who are unpolitical and therefore unenthusiastic. Comrades should ensure they can explain clearly what the community union is and what it does with corresponding written material, and that they are prepared to note any important details such as property management company or common problems that can form the basis of initial actions.

Through this process people who genuinely want to help make a difference to their community should come to the surface. These people are very important as they already know a lot more about the on-the-ground problems in their area and are the nascent driving force of the community union in their own areas.

These initial actions are important for establishing and proving the community union as a genuine force for grassroots change. They show the “community aware” people who want to make a difference that the community union is a useful group for them to get involved in and show the broader masses that the community union is a group that serves their interest, a connection that strengthens links with the masses even if they do not yet actively participate in community union work.

Another piece of early work for community unionists is to simply strengthen intra-community relationships, i.e. to strengthen the sense of community. For us, these have included things like community picnics in nearby parks, Christmas barbeques for public housing tenants, and “meet your neighbour” (dry) parties for residents of blocks of flats. These are just social events, but they should not be dismissed by politically minded individuals. These events and the associated opportunity for discussion not only allow for shared problems to come to the surface but for increased collective ties between residents and even organic collective solutions to the shared problems.

At this stage of development, the community union is relatively mature in that specific area and the organisational effort should be focused on turning this goal-oriented social group into a genuine “shop committee” of the community union. Develop these in accordance with local conditions and housing system, for example if there is a block of flats with the same landlord, this is the ideal shop committee scope. In other situations, shop committees should be formed based on shared landlord or property management company as well as geography.

These grassroots committees allow a community union to properly function in a way which strengthens the consciousness and organised activity of the working class. A failure to form and foster these committees creates an instrumental culture where key cadre (probably Party members) exhaust themselves providing services to the masses and they are not awakened. This service-driven culture is seen often in reformist trade unionists which function as “the fourth emergency service”. Not only does this not awaken the masses, but it creates an environment where “you hope you don’t need the union” (Tapia 2013, p679). Work to mobilise and collectivise both problems and solutions through the community union are a priority.

A particularly harmful deviation into service-driven culture that I have noticed Communists tend to make is a misinterpretation of the Chinese Marxist-Leninist slogan of “serve the people” where Communists literally serve the people soup with tea and coffee or similar acts. This petty-philanthropic deviation is often accompanied with the slogan “solidarity not charity” as if they are almost aware of its problems but not quite sure how to rectify them beyond labelling it something different. We serve the people not by giving handouts but strengthening class consciousness and organisation which allow working people to collectively fight for and better their interests. Soup kitchens, food banks etc are excellent initiatives in some circumstances, for example when organised by mass organisations during particularly gruelling strikes, as these are organised by the workers’ mass organisations themselves and act as a commissariat that strengthens the fighting power of the working class. This is not always the case. As Chinese revolutionary Chen Yun (2001, p165) reminds us “when we have formulated a policy for improving the people’s welfare, we must also rely on the masses themselves to enforce it”.

A service-driven culture also stunts the long-term growth of community unionism within the workers’ movement. Academic industrial relations research suggests that genuine solidarity is intrinsically connected to proletarian collective action, as union commitment (a measure of solidarity and collective morality) strongly correlates to participation in both militant and non-militant union actions amongst both white- and blue-collar workers (Monnot, Wagner, and Beehr 2011). A genuine explanation of this requires a Marxist analysis.

Lenin affirms that workers are indeed theorists, even at the stage of pre-class conscious disorganisation, but they are only “to the extent that they are able, more or less, to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge” (Lenin 1976, p384). To return to Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology:

… definite individuals who are productively active in a definite way enter into these definite social and political relations. Empirical observation must in each separate instance bring out empirically, and without any mystification and speculation, the connection of the social and political superstructure within production. 

Marx & Engels 1975, p36

Therefore, it is easy for a worker to empirically observe the imbalance and class divide that exists in the workplace or that their landlord extracts wealth from them through rent, but it is not so easy for cognition to observe the essence of that class divide. Using Lenin’s example of a glass tumbler, it is the equivalent of recognising its use as “a drinking vessel” or “a receptacle for a captive butterfly” but without dialectical logic and examination of “all its facets” allowing understanding of the essence, higher class consciousness, political consciousness, cannot be reached (Lenin 1973, pp93-94).

Lenin’s emphasis on the merging of the workers’ movement with the revolutionary youth and their scientific socialism in What is to be Done? is recognition of this Gestalt shift necessary for the working class to develop higher thinking away from trade-union consciousness. After all, Engels (1990, 398) wrote in the last sentence of Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy that the proletariat was the “heir” to classical philosophy, a word choice which encapsulates the process of inheritance and handing down within the gaining of political and philosophical consciousness.

The Leninist theory of knowledge develops the pathway “from living perception to abstract thought, and from this to practice … the dialectical path of the cognition of truth” (Lenin 1961, p170). Conscious organising of the proletariat allows for deeper perception and, more importantly, deeper and more accurate abstraction of empirical perception through promotion of Marxism-Leninism. Lenin, of course, wants advanced workers to join the Bolshevik Party, and for the influence of the Bolsheviks to grow amongst the Russian working class. But on a practical level of revolutionary organising, this is a means, not an end. Lenin’s true goal is for the workers’ movement to develop to the point of a simultaneous (yedinovremenno) uprising led by the Bolsheviks (Lenin 1972, p178). This simultaneity, which implies organisation and action, is the ultimate development away from spontaneity and bourgeois hegemony over the proletariat. If the working class is organised in service-driven unions, community or trade, they cannot take the cognitive leap of practice and develop their class-consciousness. There is no hope for community unions to develop into popular democratic organs, nor for the workers’ movement to reach the stage of broad political struggle without beginning the “perception → cognition → practice” cycle of the working class’ development. Therefore, it is important to ensure the community union fosters an environment where workers can collectively solve problems within their community, no matter how small.

Readers familiar with Antonio Gramsci, late leader of the Italian Communist Party, may see the links here to his concept of the modern Prince. Reflecting on the modernisation of Machiavelli’s Prince, he determined that “the modern Prince … cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism … the political party”. The role of this party is to develop a “popular collective will, of which the modern Prince is the active and operative expression” (Gramsci 2011, p247; p249). This collective will drives collective, i.e. simultaneous, action. Gramsci’s conception of the working class rising simultaneously is the proletariat as “collective man” – “great mass, party and leading group” moving together (Gramsci 1971, p429).

Therefore, a strengthening of the organisational form of the proletarian class, is a development of revolutionary aims, of proletarian class power. Growth of the organisational form is an attack, however small, on the bourgeoisie. As Richard Hyman (1975, p27) writes, “when individuals band together in order to increase their collective power (‘power for’), this is normally directed towards a conflict relationship with a third party (‘power over’)”. Again, we can remember back to the model of the tug of war. A social version of Newton’s third law of motion applies: for every gain the proletariat makes, the bourgeoisie suffers.

Lastly, it is important to note one incorrect view that some cadre mistakenly held when our Party was first developing community unionism was viewing it not as an extension or separate front of the same capitalist class struggle, but a different class struggle against landlords. This came from mechanical cross-application of Mao Zedong’s thought and the semi-feudal nature of the Chinese new democratic revolution. The landlords in New Zealand, and in all developed capitalist countries such as Australia, are not old China’s “big landlord” class (see Mao 1967a, p13) nor Prussian junkers, but a by-product of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois classes’ desire for a diversified investment portfolio. Mao described the oppression of the peasants by these big landlords as follows: “The landlord had the right to beat, abuse or even kill them at will, and they had no political rights whatsoever.” (Mao 1967b, p308). We may immensely dislike our landlords, but all comrades should be able to see the difference between this and the relationship with their own landlord fairly clearly.

Engels’ The Housing Question is more useful study for comrades than the class structure of old China. He identified the capitalist landlord-tenant relationship as:

… a simple commodity sale; it is not a transaction between proletarian and bourgeois, between worker and capitalist. The tenant – even if he is a worker – appears as a man with money; he must already have sold his commodity, a commodity peculiarly his own, his labour power, to be able to appear with the proceeds as the buyer of the use of a dwelling or he must be in a position to give a guarantee of the impending sale of this labour power … it is still only a transfer of already existing, previously produced value, and the total sum of values possessed by the landlord and the tenant together remains the same after as it was before.

Engels 1988, p320

The exploitation of tenants with soaring rent prices, neglect of repairs, etc is a symptom of the capitalist system rather than a mode of production, capitalist or otherwise, in its own right. This is not to deny, however, the class imbalance within tenancy relationships. The petty-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie have greater finances than the working class and can enter into landlordry with relative ease while proletarians may stay renters for life. This position then allows for further wealth transfer (not production!) as even a child who has had the misfortune of landing on Mayfair is well aware of.

The petty-bourgeoisie and even the bourgeoisie are also tenants, however, as Engels (1988, p319) notes and can have similar dilemmas as proletarian tenants, particularly in times of crisis. A great example of this currently is how both McDonalds and Harvey Norman stores across New Zealand, two of the biggest brands in the country, are struggling to pay rent during the forced shutdown due to COVID-19 – just as workers are! There is also the potential for intra-bourgeois conflict between commercial landlords and business owners, particularly when their cash flow is restricted. The Australian Securities and Investments Commissions’ current threats of significant fines or imprisonment for landlords who ask tenants to use superannuation to pay rent (against good-faith financial advice provisions of the Corporations Act) is an example at of this conflict at the state apparatus level.  Class-oriented organising around housing issues is more complicated than one may first assume.

The basis of Marxist-Leninist organising, as opposed to other New Left and similar political strains, is the working class. As the thesis of the First Congress of the Communist International, drafted by Lenin (1974, p466), proclaimed, “The experience of all revolutions and all movements of the oppressed classes, the experience of the world socialist movement teaches us that only the proletariat is in a position to unite and lead the scattered and backward sections of the working and exploited population.” Fitting the conditions of the time, the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Soviets was to be the industrial proletariat (and the poor peasants). Antonio Gramsci viewed the establishment of Soviet power as something connected with the industrial proletariat. “The factory council,” wrote Gramsci (1977, p100), “is the model of the proletarian state”. This was very much in accordance with other Marxist-Leninists of the era, who viewed the establishment of socialism often through the lens of either the factory or an army.

The community union is our attempt at an answer to how to develop these institutions and the revolutionary movement, and nurture what Gramsci described as the solidarity and “bonds of mutual affection and solidarity” of the factory council. The community union recognises the basis of this phenomenon existing organically within working-class communities, and in conjunction with the Party, revolutionises the class and strengthens solidarity and self-organisation.

Vivian Gornick’s book The Romance of American Communism uses a phrase I quite enjoy: “The wholeness of the Communist Party world”. As Dina Shapiro, a long-time member of the CPUSA, said during an interview for the book:

Your life as a Communist was everywhere: in the shop, at home, at meetings, in the neighbourhood. You were always being a Communist. There was never a time when you weren’t a Communist. You were a Communist when you went to the store to buy a bottle of milk, when you went to a movie, attended a party or a meeting, voted in the shop, sewed up the last two dresses of the day for the woman at the next machine whose kid was sick, returned a dollar to a clerk who had shortchanged himself, sent an ignorant neighbour to a tenants’ council when the landlord wanted to evict her … as well as when you went to Party meetings, carried out Party assignments, and obeyed or handed down Party directives. It was all one. The life was of a piece. There was nowhere in my life that I turned that I didn’t know who and what I was … Ah yes! That was a life.

Gornick 1977, p113

I think this is a sign of an effective Communist Party and more broadly, an effective working-class movement that reaches into all aspects of life. It is the broadest possible definition of “serving the people” and of class organisation that challenges bourgeois hegemony over the masses. Fulfilling this is the aim of the NCPA’s “one class, two unions” strategy and of community unionism specifically. The community union should be there as a vehicle and encompassing space for the working class “in the shop, at home, at meetings, in the neighbourhood”.

Because of this, it is near impossible to give a precise recipe of how Communists should engage in community unionism: how to canvas, how many cadres to allocate to mould removal, what community engagement events to hold, etc. Conditions differ from neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood, let alone on either side of the Tasman. Therefore, what I would like to emphasise as the most important thing for our Australian comrades is not our specific practice of community unionism as it is applied in Wellington, Auckland, or any other part of Aotearoa, but the Marxist-Leninist principles and theory that drove us to develop community unionism. Do not simply treat being a Communist or a unionist as something limited to your workplace, union meetings, pickets and rallies. Be a Communist everywhere in the community and foster proletarian organisation and consciousness everywhere in the community. In my opinion, that is the true work of a revolutionary.


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