Open letter to Loren Goldner

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The open letter published here is in response to the interview between Loren Goldner and the Korean group Sanosin, concerning the history and present condition of the communist left. In a very brief exchange of mails, Loren has not objected to the publication of the letter, considering that "Your letter is fair and I see no need to respond at this time".

ICC to Loren Goldner, 05/07/08

Dear Loren, 

We recently read with considerable interest your interview with the Sanosin group in Korea. We would like to emphasise first of all our agreement with you when you state that "It's important to understand that in the general reaction against vanguardism, Bolshevism, Trotskyism, there's also a relatively large milieu in England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain in which people call themselves anarchist, libertarian communist, anarcho-communist and other combinations that I think could be fairly seen as part of a broadly left communist mood.".

Actually we would go further than this, and we think that it is useful to distinguish more clearly the different traditions that partake of this "left communist mood". While there are certainly some from the anarchist or perhaps more specifically anarcho-syndicalist tradition (the KRAS in Russia for example, which is a part of the CNT-AIT) who are open to the ideas and positions of the left communists on the basis of a shared internationalism, there are others who consider that the left communist tradition, far from being anti-Bolshevik, in fact represents the continuation of revolutionary internationalist Bolshevism (ie the tradition of the Bolshevik party as it was when the workers took power in 1917 in Russia).

This aspect of the left communist spirit is by no means confined to the European countries you mention. It also extends to countries in Latin America (you may for example have seen the reports on our web site of our public meetings in Brazil held jointly with comrades of the Oposiçao Operaria group or on our own account); to the Philippines (see for example the report on our web site from the comrades of the Internasyonalismo group concerning the food crisis; you might be interested to see that thanks to these comrades we have also been able to open a site in Tagalog); and to Turkey (we have published several texts on our site by the left communist group Enternasyonalist Komünist Sol). We don't propose to go into the reasons for this in depth here - we would happy to discuss it another time should you wish.

This "left communist mood", and a fraternal spirit of cooperation, was also present at the conference in Korea in 2006. As you said at the time, in your mail to us after the conference, "everyone else appreciated the comradely atmosphere which prevailed throughout". In our view this is something that should be encouraged. You would describe yourself as a "left communist" in the interview with Sanosin - though as you know of course, left communism covers a number of different currents with some pretty substantial differences on questions ranging from political organisation to the national and union questions. Perhaps we could make one brief point about this. In your text, you put forward the idea that "What left communism is, in my opinion, in addition to what I said, just to re-emphasize it, was the one important current that rejected the universal application of the model of the Russian revolution". In our view, two things above all distinguish the left communists: they were the first and have remained the most consistent opponents of Stalinism; and they have remained internationalist including during the most difficult moments of the last world war. It is this question above all, the question of internationalism and a developing awareness around the world that the problems posed by a world wide economic crisis and looming ecological disaster simply cannot be resolved within the national framework, that accounts in large part for the "left communist mood" of which you speak.

Given this new situation, this new openness to the ideas and principles of the communist left, we think it is particularly important that the groups and militants who represent this current should maintain the spirit of fraternal cooperation and debate which presided, as you say, at the 2006 conference. With this in mind, we would like to take up some of your comments about the history of the communist left and about the ICC in particular, which we think are somewhat inaccurate.

On the question of the Italian Left and the Spanish Civil War, you say "for the Bordigists, really nothing important happens without the party. For example, during the Spanish revolution of 1936-1937, they said "There's no revolution, because there's no party." And they actually split at that time. Some of the Bordigists went and fought in Spain, others stayed in Europe and said "This is a battle between factions of the bourgeoisie." So there's a kind of excessive view of the importance of the party in my opinion". We presume that by "Bordigists" here, you mean the group which published Bilan in France during the 1930s. However, this group (to which the ICC traces its own origins incidentally) could certainly not be called "Bordigist", at least not in the sense that the word has today. Moreover, the position of the Bilan group was not such a caricature as you seem to think. As we say in our book on the Italian Left, for the Italian Left Fraction "If the party did not exist it was ‘because the situation had not permitted its formation'." (p94 of the English edition).[1] In other words, there is a dialectical relationship between the development of class consciousness among the mass of the workers, and the development of political organisations which are themselves an expression of this class consciousness.

Given the emphasis you place on the history of the communist left, we also find it surprising that - while you urge the comrades of Sanosin to visit the site where Philippe Bourrinet has published his own versions of the Italian Left and the German Left (inaccessible by the way at time of writing), you fail to mention the fact that it is the ICC which has undertaken to publish in English and French the histories not only of the Dutch-German and Italian left communists (the latter also in German), but also of the left-communists in Russia (the Miasnikov group in particular - this last book should shortly be published in Russian and French by the way) and in Britain. Don't you think that this at least deserved a mention? It is true that the Russian and British traditions have left less of a trace, but they nonetheless have their importance, in particular in the case of Russia as a means of better understanding the struggle within the Bolshevik party itself against the Stalinist counter-revolution.

In fact, it seems to us that you have a bit of a "blind spot" when it comes to what the ICC has to say in general. "The ICC lives only in its own world"; "I read many of the texts and I considered the ICC in particular to be very weak in critique of political economy. They have a certain kind of Luxemburgist analysis which I don't think it is as good as Luxemburg herself. And I don't think they have really developed at all to take account of the evolution of capitalism in the last 50 years, possibly more. The ICC thinks basically that nothing new ever happens". But is this really justified? Let us offer just two counter-examples:

The first concerns Korea - which you mention having discussed in 1982 with one of our militants. But have you read the analysis of the boom in Korea and the other Asian "dragons" which we cited in our report on the 2006 conference? Certainly the analysis contained here may be different from your own: the process described in this article has nothing to do with an "evolution" of capitalism and everything to do with the spread of American imperialist power, however we think it hardly justifies the claim that "the ICC thinks that nothing ever changes".

The second concerns the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989. Perhaps it is worth quoting what we wrote in January 1990: "Everywhere (except in Romania at the time of writing), changes are happening daily, any one of which, only a few years ago, would have brought in the Russian tanks. This is not as it is generally presented, the result of a deliberate policy on Gorbachev's part, but the sign of a general crisis throughout the bloc, at the same time as Stalinism's historic bankruptcy. The rapidity of events, and the fact that they are now hitting East Germany, the central pillar of the Eastern bloc, is the surest sign that the world's second imperialist bloc has completely disintegrated.

This change is by now irreversible, and affects not just the bloc, but its leading power, the USSR itself. The clearest sign of Russia's collapse is the development of nationalism in the form of demands for "autonomy" and "independence" in the peripheral regions of central Asia, on the Baltic coast, and also in a region as vital for the Soviet national economy as the Ukraine.

Now when the leader of an imperialist bloc is no longer able to maintain the bloc's cohesion, or even to maintain order within its own fron­tiers, it loses its status as a world power. The USSR and its bloc are no longer at the centre of the inter-imperialist antagonisms between two capitalist camps, which is the ultimate level of polarisation that imperialism can reach on a world scale in the era of capitalist decadence.

The disintegration of the Eastern bloc, its disappearance as a major consideration in inter-imperialist conflict, implies a radical calling into question of the Yalta agreements, and the spread of instability to all the imperialist constellations formed on that basis, including the Western bloc which the USA has dominated for the last 40 years. This in its turn will find its foundations called into question." (International Review n°60).

As far as the perspectives for the class struggle were concerned, we wrote that: "We are entering a completely new period, which will profoundly modify both the present imperialist constellations (the Western bloc will also be affected, though to a lesser degree and at a less frenetic pace, by convulsions and instability; this is inevitable to the extent that its main reason for existing - the other bloc - has disappeared) and the conditions in which the class has fought up to now.

At first, this will be a difficult period for the proletariat. Apart from the increased weight of democratic mystifications, in the West as well as in the East, it will have to understand the new conditions within which it is fighting. This will inevitably take time (...)"

How many people in the communist left were able to say, barely weeks after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that this meant not only the disintegration of the USSR's imperialist bloc but of the USSR itself, increasing rivalries and clashes of interest between the USA and its "allies", and a long and difficult period for the class struggle and its revolutionary minorities (which did indeed last throughout the 1990s)? Is this the reaction of an organisation that "lives in its own world"?[2]

The same "blind spot", and an unfortunate lack of interest in historical accuracy, seems to hold true when you describe our analyses of the class struggle. You say, for example, that "I don't remember the exact dates but they [ie the ICC] thought that the mid 1980s was a period of very intense class struggle, at least in Western Europe and United States. When in fact it was a period of tremendous working class defeat". We would point out in reply that "intense class struggle" and "tremendous defeat" are by no means contradictory. Indeed, if the wave of "intense class struggle" that followed 1917 in Russia had not ended in a "tremendous defeat" then we would certainly not be discussing these issues today because we would be too busy building a communist society! And it seems to us hard to deny that the 1980s were indeed a period of "intense class struggle": let us mention only the British miners' strike in 1985 (followed by the massive strike at British Telecom not to mention the complete shutdown of the London subway system by a strike in 1989), the French rail workers' strike in 1986, the massive strikes in Belgium in 1983 and in 1986, the strikes in Holland which were the biggest since 1903, the strike in Denmark in 1985 which was the biggest the country had ever seen... Was the ICC wrong to engage its militants to the utmost of our energies to defending a left communist perspective in these struggles?

In this respect, we think it worth setting the record straight on the only concrete example you give: "Former members of the ICC have told me about being sent to some city in France or Belgium with huge bundles of newspapers and arriving at a scene and absolutely nobody was there". This sounds very much like our intervention at the end of the massive French steel workers' strike in the Lorraine region in 1979, where as far as we were able our militants had been present throughout, speaking at the steelworkers' mass meetings on more than one occasion. Following the mass demonstration in Paris which in reality marked the end of the movement, we considered it necessary to try to hold a street meeting in the town of Longwy, which had been at the heart of the movement, in order to try to encourage the workers to draw the lessons of the strike and in particular the role of sabotage played by the unions and the PCF (French "Communist" Party, ie the Stalinists). This was something of a risky business, since in those days the Stalinist-dominated CGT union would generally greet our presence at factory gates with physical violence, hence the decision to send a large cohort of militants to the town. In the event, the steelworkers were too demoralised and exhausted by the defeat to have the heart for such an effort - our meeting was held in the town square but it hardly drew a crowd. But was it not the duty of a communist organisation at least to make the effort?

To conclude on this point, it is worth quoting Luxemburg's words (Order reigns in Berlin) written on the eve of her assassination in 1919: "This contradiction between the demands of the task and the inadequacy of the pre-conditions for its fulfilment in a nascent phase of the revolutionary development results in the individual struggles of the revolution ending formally in defeat. But the [proletarian] revolution is the sole form of ‘war' - and this is also its most vital law - in which the final victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats'! (...) The revolutions have until now brought nothing but defeats, but these inevitable defeats virtually pile guarantee upon guarantee of the future success of the final goal". 

A lack of concern for historical accuracy is all the more regrettable when it gives rise to statements which in our view are simply misleading. Towards the end of the interview, you say: "I really recommend this website which is a website of... It's called -libertarian communist. They have really interesting coverage of struggles all over the world. There is one place you can see a lot of these. They even allow the ICC to participate in their debates but everybody just kind of laughs at the ICC". We will answer this simply by repeating what we have already written to the Sanosin comrades: "we would certainly agree that it is worth looking at the site (and even participating in the debates). However, LG presumably does not follow the debates very closely since otherwise he would be aware that people do not generally "laugh" at the ICC - though they certainly do not always agree with us. But don't just take our word for it. You can find ICC militants and sympathisers interventions in the discussions on libcom under the following "handles" amongst others: alf, beltov, baboon, alibadani, demogorgon303, LongJohnSilver. During the CPE struggle in France the articles from our French section were posted on libcom, and a libcom member has recently translated our Venezuelan section's article about the steel strike against the Chavez government.".

This trivialisation of debate seems to us all the more regrettable in that your interview raises many questions which are important both for the comrades in Korea and more generally, questions that we ourselves are currently debating with comrades around the world and which we would be glad to take up with you should you wish to engage with us. Certainly one of the most important of these is the union question: what do the unions represent in the present period, and what if any are the possibilities of working within them? We don't propose to take up the argument here, but we would like to point out one very basic error on the question (unless of course we have misunderstood your meaning, in which case we hope you will correct us). Towards the end of the interview you refer to the situation in Britain around World War I as follows:

"The English working class did have a series of radical explosions both before and after World War I . From 1908 to 1914 was a whole series of syndicalist strikes in England and in Scotland and in Ireland and many English capitalists thought the game was over, that the revolution was there.

And then right in the last year or two of World War I and up into 1919, a further mass strike wave occurred throughout Great Britain.

To the point that as you may know Lloyd George, who was the prime minister in 1919, met with the head of the Trade Union Council and said "If you people want power, it's yours." They were ready to give up!

The bourgeoisie understood the power of the working class better than the working class did in that particular moment".

What exactly is meant by this? Surely you cannot seriously believe that Lloyd George (one of the most devious politicians ever produced by the British ruling class) intended for one moment to hand power over to the TUC? Or that the leaders of the TUC - who had supported the war throughout and had acted as the recruiting sergeants of British imperialism for the biggest slaughter the working class had ever suffered - would have wanted to take power even if Lloyd George had handed it to them on a plate? As for the idea that the British ruling class, at the head of the biggest empire that the world had ever seen and confronted with no physical threat to its rule should be "ready to give up" power... to be blunt this is simply nonsense, both historically and generally. Historically, the British ruling class in 1919 was not faced with imminent revolution; more generally, ruling classes (and especially the bourgeoisie) never simply "gives up" power without a fight.

If any kind of useful debate is to take place about the nature of the trades unions and the question of how to organise the struggle in the decadent period of capitalism, then in our view a much more rigorous foundation is necessary as a starting point. 

Lastly, since your interview with Sanosin is posted on your web site, we ask you to consider this as an open letter: we have written with the intention that this letter should be published, and we would like to ask you to publish it on "Break their haughty power". We will also send the letter to Sanosin, since the questions raised here originate in your interview with them.

We would prefer, however, that you should have the opportunity to reply and if necessary correct any points you may think to be mistaken before publication.

We look forward to hearing from you 

Fraternal greetings, JD for ICC

[1] Here is what we wrote to the comrades of Sanosin in this respect: " our view it is incorrect to call [the Bilan group] ‘Bordigists': although Bordiga had played an important role in the left of the Italian Communist Party, and the Bilan group considered themselves to be in that tradition, there was no such thing as Bordigism at the time (Bordiga himself was in internal exile under the Mussolini regime in Italy), and above all the Bilan group certainly did not hold to some of the almost mystical ideas that Bordiga developed in the 1950s about the ‘unchanging' nature of the communist programme (on the contrary, a major part of the group's purpose was to learn the lessons of the Russian revolution and develop the communist programme on this basis), or about the role of the party. LG is also wrong to say that the Italian and Dutch Left Communists "hated" each other. Bordiga and Pannekoek corresponded before World War II (though they did not agree), and Italian left communists (as well as French left communists some of whom had belonged to the Bilan group originally) took part in a conference organised by Dutch left communists after 1947 (see the article in n°132 of the International Review). The situation changed during the 1950s as some of the Italian left communists came more and more under Bordiga's influence, whereas the Dutch left communists moved more towards what is known today as "councilism". It seems to us that LG is adopting here a rather superficial and inaccurate view of the history of the left communist groups."

[2] Incidentally, since you think that we "can't intelligently discuss the nature of the post WWII boom", we'ld be interested in your opinion on the article which discusses precisely that subject, published in n°133 of the International Review.


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