An ex-member of the ICC, Devrim, who left some three years ago, has subsequently made a number of criticisms of our organisation.
Devrim’s ‘My experience in the ICC’ first appeared on the anarchist web forum Libcom in 20121. It was, by definition, a personal account , based on impressions and anecdotes of life in the ICC rather than a general critique of the ICC’s political principles as a whole. Since there can be no argument about personal taste we tended to let the criticisms lie, particularly as Devrim declared he did not want to engage in a debate about this account. He had in any case left the organisation without politically justifying his departure.
We now believe that these personal criticisms need a reply because the issues they raise have taken on a general interest today, when the fundamental conditions of revolutionary militancy are being put in question, including amongst those who consider themselves part of the ‘Communist Left.’
We have come to realise that his personal account of the ICC is supposed to be a self-standing political analysis itself: a personal interpretation is seen as sufficient to judge the ICC to be an organisation that has outlived itself.
The life and death of revolutionary organisations
Devrim’s critique has thus led him to repeat on several occasions the belief that the ICC will die. In an email to a member of the ICC in 2013 he wrote, in reply to the criticism that he should be taking up the political principles of the ICC:
‘I think that the point that you have to address the political positions of an organisation belongs to the thinking of a bygone age. The ICC will die, and it will, not because people engage with and refute its political positions, but precisely for the opposite reason; because people can’t be bothered to do even this. Of course this points to a more general problem of depoliticisation within society, but to an outside observer, it would seem that the ICC is actively trying to complete the circle of its isolation.’
The ICC will die, the argument goes, not because its political positions or principles are wrong or have become outmoded and need to be replaced by those that correspond to the evolution of the needs and objectives of the working class struggle. It will pass away instead from a general disinterest in political positions themselves. The failure of the ICC to adapt to this disinterest and the current boredom with politics in the population and even amongst would-be revolutionaries, and to insist by contrast on defending and elaborating its political principles, will lead to its complete isolation and demise. This is the essential thinking of Devrim.
In his account ‘My Experience…..’ Devrim, true to his vision, does not ‘address the political positions’ of the ICC, but gives a series of mostly negative impressions and opinions about life in the organisation, on its process of integration of new members, on its mode of centralisation and on its debates. We will come on to some of these questions in a later part of the article. But first we want to look at how important political positions and principles are in the marxist concept of revolutionary organisation.
In the past marxist revolutionary parties and organisations have often died, even at a relatively young age. The most obvious example is the sudden collapse of the 2nd International in 1914, after its main constituent parties betrayed their internationalist political principles, joined their imperialist bourgeoisies, and helped send millions of workers to the mutual slaughter of the trenches. The 3rd International also perished after the adoption of the slogan of ‘Socialism in one country’, as it became an instrument of the Russian state and prepared the working class for the imperialist carnage of the 2nd World War. 2
In these two major instances of the marxist revolutionary movement, organisations disappeared because of a progressive abandonment of political principle, in particular the most important one for the working class - international unity and action in the face of imperialist war or in face of their preparation. These marxist organisations therefore died (at least as far as working class interests were concerned) not as a result of a failure to adapt to the general mood of society, but because they did adapt to it and gave into the pressure of the imperialist bourgeoisie and abandoned proletarian political positions. So we think the reality runs diametrically counter to Devrim’s logic. In fact, if we use revolutionary history as a guide, the ICC would be more likely to disappear if it abandoned or lessened the importance of its political positions as a way of accommodating itself to the prevailing disinterest in politics and failed to stand firm and theoretically develop these and other fundamental principles out of a fear of isolation. So we draw the opposite conclusion to Devrim.
If the marxist revolutionary movement has known periods of betrayal and organisational death like those just mentioned, it can also offer magnificent examples from these periods where marxist minorities suffered the most brutal isolation in order to uphold political positions and create a life-line to new revolutionary organisations. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who went to prison (hard labour in the case of Liebknecht) and were later murdered because of their internationalist fight against the First World War, helped to inspire the October Revolution and the formation of the Communist International . Or the hardly known militants of the Communist Left, who risked (and often fell victim to) the terror of the Gestapo or the Partisans, in order to defend internationalist principles in the Second World War, keeping alive a tradition that we uphold today.
Today’s revolutionary organisations would hardly merit the appellation ‘Communist Left’ if they weren’t able to withstand the relatively soft conditions of isolation that they can experience today in the face of the general distaste for politics. Surely they can bear the ridicule and ostracism that can be directed to revolutionary militants today, when one measures the terrible conditions their antecedents have faced in the past?
The ability to preserve and develop revolutionary political thought in the face of often extreme isolation is an important measure of whether a revolutionary organisation deserves to exist.
The ICC therefore would deserve to die as an authentic current of the Communist Left … if it followed the criticism of Devrim and underestimated the importance of political positions as ‘the thinking of a bygone age’. The ICC thrives on the ability to hold onto and develop the political positions that are relevant to the working class in the current and coming period. We will come on to the present conditions of working class struggle below. First some general observations about the importance of political positions.3
The proletarian revolution is political
Marx, following Aristotle, the Ancient Greek philosopher, defined man as a political animal:
“Man is a political animal in the most literal sense: he is not only a social animal, but an animal that can be individualised only within society”.
(Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1857)
By extension the term ‘political’ has a general meaning (and therefore goes beyond the description of the corrupt machinations of the parties of the bourgeois state): man’s attempt to determine the direction of society as a whole and thus his own future.
In the long history of class-divided society the exploited masses have been completely excluded from its political direction. However in capitalism, the last form of class society, the working class has been able to force itself onto the political stage and form political parties. This capacity to express its interests in a political form is ultimately a result of the fact that unlike previous exploited classes the working class is a revolutionary class that bears within itself an entirely new mode of production to replace capitalism.
The working class struggle in capitalism, when fought to a successful conclusion, leads to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat. This supreme political act, the coming to political power of the working class, is the condition for the ultimate establishment of a classless society - communism. The development of the self-consciousness of the proletariat is the recognition of its historical/political interests as a class, expressed by, though not exclusively, the formation of political parties. The working class, having an innate need to take society into socialism has to unify around these political definitions of what it is, and what it must do, as a class. Political positions are the constituent elements of the platform of the revolutionary political organisation - what distinguishes the perspective of the working class from the objectives of the bourgeoisie, and other classes in society. The precise nature of this political party, when it can be formed, the role it plays in the proletarian seizure of power, etc., has evolved dramatically in the course of the last two centuries. But the marxist conception of the revolutionary organisation as a fundamentally political entity remains.
This is all the more crucial considering that the working class, unlike previous revolutionary classes, cannot build up an economic power base in existing society, so the theoretical elaboration and adoption of proletarian political positions becomes all the more vital.4 The formulation of political positions must for this same reason precede the actual seizure of political power.
The working class therefore is not simply an economic or sociological category within bourgeois society, an exploited class like the slaves or the serfs, but above all a historical class with a revolutionary purpose and therefore a political class in the deepest sense of the word.
The disdain for the central importance of politics in the working class struggle, and in the organisations which claim to defend its interests, cannot however avoid or escape political pressures, since the struggle between the classes over the direction of society is invariably a political fight that is imposed on the combatants whether they like it or not. Apoliticism, despite its illusions, inevitably becomes political… but not necessarily in a good way. Rather, because of its lack of clear and developed proletarian political positions and principles, the apolitical approach comes under the sway of the dominant political forces of the ruling class.
This is nowhere better exemplified than in the history of anarchism and its attempted revolutionary apoliticism. In the great political tests of history anarchists have in the main been unable to resist the pressures of the politics of the ruling class and capitulated to them, most famously by Peter Kropotkin in the First World War:
Kropotkin, Tcherkesoff and Jean Grave were the most eager defenders of France: "Don't let these heinous conquerors wipe out the Latin civilisation and the French people again... Don't let them impose on Europe a century of militarism" (Letter of Kropotkin to J.Grave, 2 September1914). It was in the name of the defence of democracy against Prussian militarism that they supported the Sacred Union: "German aggression was a threat - executed - not only against our hopes for emancipation but against all human evolution. That's why we, anarchists, we, anti-militarists, we enemies of war, we passionate partisans for peace and fraternity between peoples, we line up on the side of the resistance and we have not thought of separating our fate from that of the rest of the population" (Manifesto of Sixteen (the number of signatories) 28 February 1916).”5
The main representatives of anarchism lined up behind the politics of the ruling class, as did the opportunist leadership of the main Social Democratic parties. The latter abandoned the internationalist political positions of the working class; the former, largely dismissive of these positions, found that their own nice-sounding but empty phrases about democracy and emancipation, human evolution, against war, for peace and fraternity, could be recuperated by the imperialist politics of the bourgeoisie.6
The scorn for political positions amongst revolutionaries can also be harmful in other, less decisive periods, like today’s, tending to reflect, rather than counter, the present disorientation of working class.
Marxist political positions and the current period
Devrim says that there is a problem of depoliticisation in society. True, as far as it goes. But what are the particular characteristics of de-politicisation today which affect the working class and its tiny revolutionary minorities?
Since the resurgence of class struggle on a historical scale in 1968, ending the long counter revolutionary epoch, the working class has found it very difficult to develop its struggle onto its own political terrain. It has remained largely on the defensive, and under the sway of social democracy, Stalinism and trade unionism. The ruling class, for its part has been able to phase in its growing economic crisis, and manoeuvre politically and intelligently against the threat from below. The resulting stalemate between the two main class adversaries in capitalist society has opened up a period of the social decomposition of capitalism, which has led to a profound disorientation within the working class.7
The definite opening of the period of decomposition was marked by the collapse of the USSR, and this has been deliberately used by the ruling class to reinforce this disorientation. The enormous ideological campaigns by the international bourgeoisie since 1989 about the “death of communism”, of “marxism”, and “the end of the working class” as a political force in society are not accidental. Marxist minorities like the ICC, even if they were not tainted in any way by Stalinism, nevertheless have suffered the full force of this attempt by the ruling class to de-politicise the working class, and thus use the social decomposition of its system to inflict a profound blow on its class adversary.
Devrim in his personal testimony ‘My experience…’ expresses agreement with the ICC’s analysis of the social decomposition of capitalism which we have briefly outlined above:
"Personally I think that a lot of what it has to say is a good description of the new period that began with the fall of the Soviet Union, but it has to be understood also as a way to justify the mistakes present in the stuff about the years of truth" (a reference to the analysis the ICC had made to describe the stakes of the 1980s).
Devrim doesn’t elaborate on what parts of the Theses on Decomposition he agrees with or what parts that he doesn’t disagree with, or the nature of the mistakes we are supposed to have made in the analysis of the 80s, nor does he explain what is faulty in the analysis of the Theses on Decomposition which apparently proves they are a way of justifying this earlier analysis.8
Nevertheless we can infer that Devrim doesn’t follow the most important conclusions of the Theses that this new period would create new difficulties for the proletariat and therefore its revolutionary organisations:
“13) In fact, we must be especially clear on the danger of decomposition for the proletariat’s ability to raise itself to the level of its historic task. Just as the unleashing of the imperialist war at the heart of the ‘civilised’ world was ‘a bloodletting which [may have] mortally weakened the European workers’ movement’, which ‘threatened to bury the perspectives for socialism under the ruins piled up by imperialist barbarism’ by ‘cutting down on the battlefield (...) the best forces (...) of international socialism, the vanguard troops of the whole world proletariat’ (Rosa Luxemburg, The crisis in Social-Democracy), so the decomposition of society, which can only get worse, may in the years to come cut down the best forces of the proletariat and definitively compromise the perspective of communism. This is because, as capitalism rots, the resulting poison infects all the elements of society, including the proletariat" (Theses on Decomposition).
Devrim hasn’t drawn from this analysis the conclusion that the revolutionary organisation, as an emanation of the working class, must resist this process of de-politicisation and explore in the deepest theoretical way all the implications of the new period for the proletariat as a political class to prepare for its future reawakening, which is still possible in spite of the negative weight of decomposition.
He rather draws the opposite conclusion: if society and the working class have in this period been de-politicised, revolutionaries should adapt to this trend to reduce or obliterate the significance of the historic interests of the proletariat, and thus reduce their preoccupation with its related political positions and theory and adjust their language to suit. But wouldn’t this be a return to the worn-out fashions and muddled theory of anarchistic apoliticism?
We should remember that this trend to de-politicisation in the working class today is not permanent nor complete, nor has the putrefaction of capitalism reached its ultimate conclusion. The contradictions of world capitalism will continue to oblige the working class to think again in political terms no matter how difficult and lengthy such a process of reawakening may prove.
Which is why there continue to be a small minority of individuals who are attracted to marxist politics. So we don’t think Devrim speaks for all people or all ‘outside observers’ of the ICC who he suggests are all repelled or bored by political positions.
It would be tragic if the revolutionary organisation failed today to meet the challenge of this trend, albeit still minuscule, towards working class political positions, and failed to give the latter a historic context, a global consistency and coherence, and their deepest theoretical basis.
In this sense Devrim’s prediction of the demise of the ICC because of its preoccupation with proletarian political principles, expresses instead, in his own way, the present trend of decomposing capitalism, toward the destruction of class consciousness and consequently of the revolutionary minorities who are trying to preserve and enrich it.
Politics and the internal life of the marxist revolutionary organisation
Devrim’s personal account ‘My Experience in the ICC’ doesn’t address the political principles of the organisation, its platform, and touches only very briefly on certain key ICC analytical texts like the Theses on Parasitism and the Theses on Decomposition.
This belittling of the framework of the existence of the ICC is a logical consequence of his idea, expressed in the email to an ICC member which we quoted at the beginning of this article, that the addressing of political positions of the platform expresses the thinking of a bygone age. Instead Devrim’s memoir focuses on his experience of the internal life of the ICC. Here again he doesn’t address the political principles behind the internal functioning of the ICC, but bases his critiques on impressions and personal anecdotes and hearsay evidence (such as ‘a member of the central organs told me….’ or ‘I’ve heard of cases where integration took years’ etc)9.
Nevertheless a number of basic themes emerge from his critical account which would be of general interest to discuss. We will look at three of them and then reply:
1) The ICC’s conditions of membership are too tight, and the process of integrating new members is too long and exhaustive.
“The process of joining the ICC is a drawn out and tedious one. ….. Basically to join the ICC you have to agree with the platform and statutes. I have heard of incidences within the ICC when this process has taken years. With us it was quicker, but still a very long extended process….
…..it seems that the ICC actively tries to avoid recruiting10 new people by making it as difficult to join as possible. The feeling that I got was that the centre felt that we had been integrated too quickly, and that part of the problem was that we hadn't agreed with them on certain issues before joining, particularly the 'Theses on Parasitism', but also many others. This presents a dichotomy for the ICC because although officially membership relies upon adherence to the platform and statutes, the desired level of political agreement is actually much higher. When we were originally discussing the platform, there were numerous 'supplementary' texts that it was also suggested that we discuss. My feeling is that in the future the ICC will insist on even more of these texts, which will have the dual effect of not only making it more difficult to recruit people but also mean that there are less fresh ideas within the ICC itself.
2) The ICC is ‘too highly centralised’
“The ICC sees itself as a single internationally centralised organisation, and not as a collection of different national sections. This said the amount of intervention of the central organs into the everyday running of the various sections seemed to me to be not just excessive, but absolutely overbearing.
On the subject of the relationship between the members and the organisation, I feel that the one that exists within the ICC serves to diminish the initiative of the individual members, and also of the sections by encouraging an organisational culture, which, in my opinion, is too highly centralised.
Despite what I would consider an extremely high level of political agreement as a criteria for membership, it still seems to me that in the ICC the orders come from the top, and are transmitted downwards. This process, I feel, acts to discourage initiative coming from the membership of the organisation as a whole and despite the ICC's protests to the contrary tends to mirror the hierarchical relations prevalent in society as a whole”.
3) There is too much internal discussion in the ICC, demanding too much political commitment….
“There is so much 'debate' within the ICC that it tends to make any real discussion impossible.
This leads to a problem where just to keep up with the internal business of the ICC requires an amount of time which I would imagine that most people in political organisations put into their entire political activity.
Everything must be discussed endlessly internally before it can be presented to the outside
I think that it presents the impression that the ICC is composed of a bunch of robots who all parrot the same line. However, true or untrue this may be, it is certainly an impression held by many outside the ICC, which the ICC does very little to dispel. The second is that the ICC generates an immense volume of texts, many of which, as has already been discussed, don't even get read by all of their own members. Surely there must be some people out there who might be interested in some of them”.
…..while the theory of the ICC is ‘too coherent’.
“The theory of the ICC is an impressive body of work, more so because of its deep coherence. It all fits together perfectly with every block having its place in the entire structure. Certainly for those looking for theoretical coherence it can seem very attractive, especially for new groups, as we were at the time, the adopting of a theoretical whole in one go can seem deeply attractive rather than going through the painstaking theoretical work that is the alternative. The problem is though that it is a house of cards where each part is dependent on the others to stop the entire edifice from collapsing.
Taken as a whole, if you strip out the disparaging personal impressions and derogatory metaphors and quite a few fibs in his personal account, Devrim is criticising the ICC for being too much of a revolutionary political organisation: the required political agreement for being a member is too high, it is too centralised on an international scale, it has too much internal theoretical debate, it demarcates itself too much from other political tendencies; it demands too much political passion from its members; and finally it is too theoretically coherent.
Altogether this is too complimentary to a political organisation! The history of the ICC shows it has had many difficulties. Nevertheless, despite all the mistakes and insufficiencies of the ICC, for a revolutionary organisation to be able to hold onto, for 40 years, a lineage from the marxist left (in the Communist League, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Internationals and the Communist Left itself); to provide an extensive analysis of the historic period (the decadence of capitalism) as well as capture the main features of its last phase of decomposition; to provide a platform which outlines the communist perspective in these conditions; to maintain independence from the bourgeoisie including from its extreme left wing; to furnish regular analyses of the evolving international situation in its dimensions of the economic crisis, the imperialist conflicts and the class struggle; to intervene with one voice across continents (despite its small numerical size); to generate the level of internal discussion needed to present its debates in a clear way to the outside; to survive and prosper from internal political crises…. all this at least shows that the preoccupation with political principles tends to sustain a revolutionary organisation rather than lead to its demise.
But this political tenacity is not our exclusive achievement. In the end the capacity the ICC has shown is a reflection of the latent potential in the working class as a revolutionary political class, its capacity to become highly conscious of its historic goals and to unify around these interests in the face of all the obstacles that have been and will be put in its way.
Nevertheless it’s these very political capacities which Devrim thinks are antiquated and will lead to the demise of the ICC, a fate which he implies should be accelerated. Principled politics supposedly destroy individual and local initiatives, discourage the development of fresh ideas from such initiatives, and isolates the organisation from outside sources of inspiration and thus prevents growth. In short the ICC restricts personal liberty, the individual freedom necessary for a vibrant and growing organisation as Devrim puts it. The integration process of new members, the role of the central organs, the framework of internal debate, and its theoretically coherent goals and its attitude to other parts of the political milieu, are, in a word, authoritarian.
Individual political freedom, bourgeois and proletarian
In order to answer this false idea that marxist revolutionary political organisation restricts the freedom of the individual, we need to try and clarify a few questions in order to give a certain coherence to the problem.
The desire for freedom, for the ability to shape one’s own destiny and be true to oneself is one of the oldest human needs, an intrinsic one for a species which has the capacity for self-consciousness and which must live communally. The interplay between the innermost desires of the individual and the needs of others has always been a fundamental aspect of human existence.
For a large part of pre-capitalist human history, dominated by classes and the exploitation of man by man, the individual’s spiritual need for personal freedom and control of his destiny was largely turned against him by the spectre of ‘God’ and by the latter’s self-appointed representatives on earth, who, not coincidentally, happened to belong to the class of slaveowners. The producing mass of the population was shackled on earth by the ruling class and in the imaginary heavens by a celestial tyrant.
The secularisation and therefore politicisation of personal freedom and destiny, in the bourgeois revolutions - particularly in the French Revolution 1789-1793 - was a fundamental step in the progress toward the real-world solution of human freedom. Not least because it opened the way for the working class to force itself into the political arena and define itself politically. However, in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, the bourgeoisie presented its own newly won freedom as a universal achievement that benefited everyone. This deception resulted partly from its own illusions and partly from the bourgeoisie’s need to enroll the whole population behind its banner. The concept of freedom remained within a mystified abstract form, hiding the fact that in capitalist society the producers, while legally free and equal to their masters, would now be enchained by a new form of exploitation, a new dictatorship. The victorious bourgeoisie had brought with it the generalisation of commodity production which had accentuated the division of labour, tearing the individual away from the community. The various forms of the social texture confronted the individual as external necessity, and turned his fellow man into a competitor. From this atomisation and isolation came, paradoxically, the mystique of individual freedom in capitalist society. In reality only capital was free:
“In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality, while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.
And the abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeois abolition of individuality and freedom. And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at”.
Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto
The living, historically concrete development of individual freedom therefore depends on the solidarity of the proletarian struggle for the abolition of classes and exploitation. Real freedom is only possible in a society of free labour, that is a communist mode of production, where the abolition of the division of labour permits the all-round development of the individual.
The promotion of proletarian political freedoms on which this revolutionary transformation of society depends, and which the communist political organisations must defend, necessarily involves the struggle against the ferocious demands for bourgeois political freedom that capitalist society continually generates.
1) ’Too tight conditions of membership’
To paraphrase the Communist Manifesto: The stringent conditions of marxist militancy are reproached by the bourgeoisie for restricting the freedom of the individual and his initiatives. And rightly so. The prohibition of bourgeois individual freedoms and bourgeois initiatives is undoubtedly aimed at.
The political principle of opposition to parliamentary participation, which the ICC holds in common with the rest of the tradition of the Communist Left, in large measure prevents the sort of careerism and hierarchical decision-making which infected the parties of the Second International and which is typical of bourgeois political life. The principled independence from the bourgeois state apparatus precludes the sort of personal ambition and adventurism fuelled by the expectation of easy money which animates the participants of bourgeois politics.
The struggle for proletarian political freedom against bourgeois freedoms doesn’t end here. There are those who are disgusted by the rotten world of bourgeois politics, left and right, and who want to fight it inside a marxist revolutionary organisation. But they haven’t given up, at root, the abstract and empty slogan of ‘individual freedom’ which serves as the ultimate ideological cover and justification for the capitalist world.
Unchecked, these residues of bourgeois thought lead, inside the organisation, to an attitude of surreptitious combat against
the alleged rigidity of proletarian political principles, the supposed hierarchy of centralisation, the ‘dogmatism’ of proletarian debate, which are felt to be so many restrictions on personal rights, even if superficially these very principles -centralisation and the culture of debate - are agreed with. This attitude has no precise alternative, no distinct positive outlines, but is mainly characterised by being against, of rejecting what is. It demands the right to not abide by collective, centralised decisions, the right to take local initiatives counter to those of the rest of the organisation without explanation, the right not to be coherent and above all not to be held responsible for any inconsistency.11
This anarchistic attitude retains the bourgeois belief in ‘individual freedom’. It rejects the authority of capitalist politics and exploitation but also ends up rejecting the authority of the Marxist alternative to it as well.
The marxist revolutionary organisation therefore must struggle against and protect itself from this more diffuse and empty defence of bourgeois political freedom as well as its open obvious expressions that are found in parliamentary and leftist parties. .
It’s not accidental that in the history of the marxist movement the question of who is, and who is not, a member of the organisation has assumed vital importance. At the Hague Congress of the 1st International the first days were spent verifying the eligibility of the delegates, particularly because there was a secret cabal within the organisation: Bakunin’s Brotherhood.
At the fateful 2nd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 one of the principle divisions between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was over the definition of a member in the proposed statutes of the party.
The tight conditions of membership are a vital means of excluding both the classic expressions of bourgeois political freedom like adventurism and careerism, and the more diffuse concessions to them that take the form of opportunism on matters of general political principle and the formation of personal cliques that resist the consistent application of principles on questions of organisation.
A lack of rigour in the process of integration of militants is a good means of establishing a hierarchy within the organisation between ‘those who know and those who don’t know’ the positions and analyses of the latter. Obviously it is never possible to completely eliminate the inequalities and differences of capacities between militants, but the ‘recruitment’ on insufficient bases are the best means to reinforce rather than attenuating them.
2) Centralisation and the non-hierarchical conception of delegation.
All organisms need a given amount of unity in order to maintain their existence. This is true in the political sphere as it is in the natural world. Centralisation is the essential means of ensuring any complex unity. This expresses a fundamental, universal premise: the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Unity is not the simple result of the collection or aggregation of the different constituent elements of the whole. Unity requires another quality: the capacity to centralise and coordinate these otherwise disparate elements. An orchestra requires a conductor to bring all the musicians together, who in return recognise and respect his indispensable role in creating a unified work of art that is qualitatively more than the sound of each instrument taken separately.
A revolutionary political organisation is likewise more than a collection of individuals who happen to agree - it also requires, in order to sustain itself, a will to unity and therefore a will to centralisation by every militant.
The high degree of centralisation needed for proletarian political organisations reflects the fact that the proletariat has no separate economic or political interests within itself, unlike other classes. It also expresses an important need of an exploited class: to combat the process of division and atomisation which wage labour and generalised commodity production imposes on the proletariat and to compensate for the absence of any economic power to solidify its combat.
Centralisation is necessarily restrictive on certain individual initiatives - those that resist the process of centralisation and instead pursue their own independent direction that leads to a loss of cohesion and ultimately the dissolution of the whole. But by contrast, it is entirely dependent on the individual initiatives and diversity of the whole political organism. The protracted nature of centralisation is precisely a result of the need to collectively resolve these differences, synthesise the disagreements - the only way to bring the whole together and enrich it into a higher unity.
The marxist concept of centralisation is therefore not monolithic. It allows for, in fact demands, the expression of minority positions - with the objective of winning over the majority so the whole organisation can take the right path. The de-centralised or federalist conception that the minority should not be open to criticism, and not subject to the unity of the organisation while the debate continues, is in fact authoritarian since it means the arbitrary imposition of a part over the whole.12
Centralisation always appears to be hierarchical to the adepts of ‘personal freedom’ because it involves the principle of delegation. The Congresses for example which formulate the general goals of the organisation cannot possibly sit permanently and deal with the huge amount of daily functions of the organisation and in particular its intervention within the working class. It has to delegate responsibility to central organs to translate its orientations into the daily life of the organisation. The mandating of central organs and their return of mandate to the next congress to be verified is a hallmark of revolutionary marxist political organisation.
The principle of delegation and of the maintenance of unity during the debates over differences is not too much centralisation, it is centralisation: the lifeblood of the revolutionary organisation. The hostility to these principles means in the end the assertion of the will of the individual or a minority over the interests of the whole. It is this, not centralisation, that is authoritarian.
3) Debate, diversity and the search for coherence.
An interesting aspect of Devrim’s personal account is that he criticises the ICC for having too much internal debate, therefore too much diversity and individual initiative on the one hand, while on the other he criticises the organisation for being too theoretically coherent, where nothing is out of place so that no room for individual initiative remains.
Devrim is not concerned with reconciling this apparent contradiction in his account: that an organisation can be both intensely self critical and intensely cohesive at the same time. 13 In fact there is no contradiction between these two opposites - we think they are complementary and interdependent.
The tradition of the marxist left, which the ICC belongs to, has always been characterised by a critical spirit that is not just directed to the bourgeoisie and capitalist society but also to itself, to its own parties, and their concessions to the bourgeoisie, to theoretical errors, and theoretical insufficiency in front of the changes of events and historical periods. The political principles that the ICC defends are the fruit of long efforts to question principles, or conceptions of these principles, that have been found wanting in the light of the constant unfolding of social reality and the creation of new situations, which require new answers and analyses. The ICC’s vision of the role of the party or the state in the period of transition for example is the product of a long and tortuous theoretical development within the Communist Left, requiring decades of debate and confrontation after the defeat of the October Revolution.
And in the history of the ICC itself internal debate has led to the rejection of once axiomatic analyses of the marxist tradition such as Lenin’s theory of the weak link - the concept that the revolutionary socialist transformation would emanate from the peripheral countries of capitalism. The ICC countered that it was in Western Europe with the most experienced sectors of the working class and with the most intelligent bourgeoisies, where the central impetus for proletarian revolution lay. 14
A constant critical stance towards the acquisitions of the marxist tradition in the light of the new problems thrown up in the evolution of events is therefore a necessary aspect of marxist theory.
It implies that every militant takes this critical approach to heart, recognizes the need to think for him or herself and refuse to accept things at face value.
At the same time marxist criticism can only be severe enough if it involves the search for new coherence. Only the quest for new syntheses that either enrich or even overturn the old can go to the roots.
The marxist objective is always to create or recreate a theoretically and politically unified vision that traces the ‘general line of march’ of the working class struggle as the latter evolves over time and through changing conditions. The need for the unified theoretical conception of the interests of the proletariat is a vital counterpart to organisational unity. Theoretical unity or coherence, like centralised organization, is not the same as conformity or uniformity. Every coherence contains potential contradictions. And these latent oppositions point toward new debates and, necessarily, new conclusions.
Diversity is not therefore a goal in itself, the celebration of difference for its own sake, as the anarchists believe, but the means to the greater self-consciousness of the proletariat as a unified revolutionary class.
Likewise the goal of the debates within the organisation is not to reinforce the authority of any ‘leaders’ but to allow the greatest clarity, the most homogeneity within the organisation, that is, to fight against the conditions which engender the need for ‘leaders’.
The power of the ideas of the revolutionary organisation in the working class, which must be measured in the long term, is not through the dilution of its principles and analyses or the abandonment of coherence, as Devrim thinks, but through the greater concentration and depth of its theory.
All this places particular theoretical demands on the revolutionary militant. One of the most important is that they have to see beyond their own personal impressions and feelings.
But Devrim’s whole account of his negative experience in the ICC stays at the first stage of personal impressions which are never raised to the level of a debate over the political and organisational principles which are the essence of marxist revolutionary organisation.
There is no detailed alternative conception of revolutionary organisation in Devrim’s critique. But by implication his criticism of the ICC means the alternative should be less stringent in its integration of new members, less centralized, leaving the different parts of the organisation more autonomy. It should spend less time on internal theoretical debate, less time demarcating itself from other political tendencies. There should be less importance given to the collective development of coherent political positions and more weight to personal impressions and feelings. In brief, the revolutionary organisation should be less a political expression of the working class and more a reflection of the personal inclinations of its individual members.
Since Devrim gives no historical models or reference points for what such an organisation should look like, or how it would avoid previous failures based on the same lack of parameters, his alternative seems extremely hazy, its contours indeterminate.
In the end Devrim’s critique expresses a completely different vision of revolutionary militancy to the marxist one. Whereas the latter sees the free development of the militant as a process of interaction with his comrades, that is, as a question of organisational solidarity, Devrim sees the revolutionary as someone who must retain his personal autonomy at all costs even if it means the desertion of the organisation and thus his comrades.
In a period when the working class needs to regain its identity as a political class, the suggestion that an existing revolutionary political organisation, one that can provide a valid communist political perspective, is obsolete, and should be replaced by a vaguely conceived alternative which is indifferent to political positions - well, this is derisory. Not only derisory but harmful.
Today there are groups and individuals who deliberately set out to destroy revolutionary organisations and the ICC in particular. While Devrim does not agree with our definition of these elements as ‘parasitic’, he nevertheless once rejected their behaviour and objectives as anti-working class - one of the reasons that originally drew him to the ICC. But his present attitude, expressed in his personal critique, which now implies the ICC is not worth defending in the face of such attacks, can, irrespective of his own intentions, only whet the destructive appetites of the parasites.
The preoccupation with ‘personal liberty against authority’ finds itself caught in a no-man’s-land between two alternatives: the political determination of marxism on the one hand and the hostile political power of the bourgeoisie, and those who have put themselves at the latter’s service, on the other. In reality there is no neutral middle ground between these two political poles.
It’s clear which of these two camps genuine revolutionaries must choose.
2 We mean that they died as organisations of the proletariat, not necessarily disappeared entirely. The Social Democratic Party of Germany for example, which joined the imperialist war effort in 1914, continues to exist today as one of the main parties of the German state. We are not here making complete comparisons between the ICC with its small influence and the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. But the centrality of political positioning for the life or death of revolutionary organisations remains at root entirely apposite in these historical references. We don’t have room here to go into other, lesser known examples.
3 None of this is to imply that Devrim has abandoned an internationalist political position or any other of the fundamental positions of the Communist Left. But he hasn’t seen fit to reaffirm them in his memoir - probably just because he sees such a statement as relatively unimportant. Our purpose is rather to criticise this idea that the preoccupation with such political positions is the product of a bygone age.
4 Because theory "becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses": Marx in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right speaking about the masses of the working class.
6 Other anarchists of course rejected and fought the imperialist war largely on the basis of these same phrases. This only shows that the latter are not sufficient to elaborate a definite class position on imperialist war: in order to elaborate one marxism and marxist revolutionary organisation was and is necessary.
7 See the ICC’s Theses On Decomposition, International Review 62, 1990. http://en.internationalism.org/ir/107_decomposition
8 We are not implying that Devrim is personally incapable of developing such an explanation but that, from his political point of view, he doesn’t consider it a worthwhile effort since it would mean an antiquated concern with political positions.
9 It would be too tedious to counter them here. And in any case it would lead us to reveal even more everyday and personal details of the internal life of the ICC which would only interest gossips… or the police.
10 In fact, we do not “recruit”: this is a military or a leftist vision. Becoming a militant is one of the most personal, voluntary decisions in one’s life!
11 This negative conception of individual freedom is not unconnected to the view of the ultilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill who defined liberty as essentially due to an absence of constraints. Marx countered in The Holy Family that man is not free "through the negative power to avoid this or that, but through the positive power to assert his true individuality" that depends on the social scope for doing so ('Critical battle against French materalism'.
12 See 'Report on the structure and functioning of the revolutionary organisation' point 3en.internationalism.org/specialtexts/IR033_functioning.htm
13Devrim’s account is candid enough to belie the old slander that the ‘ICC suppresses internal debate’.