A reply to Link: The ICC as a Fraction

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The first part of our reply to Link’s ICC forum posts was on the ICC’s 40 year balance sheet of its existence[1]. This second part concentrates on the problem of the Fraction and the article in the International Review ‘The ICC as a Fraction’[2]. This is what Comrade Link wanted to ask in his second post:

“This is an important text giving an orientation for future activities of the ICC.  It appears as an organisation statement that significant changes to intervention even from resolutions of recent congresses.  It changes the way the organisation is to behave in the coming period.  Yet it has been ignored by sympathisers  and has not been elaborated by the organisation (as far as I am aware) and the promised second part of this document has not appeared.

I must say I am confused by this document as it focuses on long historical justifications without explaining and justifying the change clearly in terms of the period or of a change in the ICCs approach to intervention from relatively recently.  The ICC appears to be now adopting a role as a Fraction but I am struggling to understand the reasons and the possible consequences.  What does this role mean and what is the political justification for this change ie what is the analysis of current situation leading to this outcome.

I have previously made the statement on this forum that the ICC has given up on its role as ‘pole of regroupment’ and drew no criticism or rebuttal.  The ICC has simply avoided explaining or clarifying its direction.  It would appear however to tie in with this new role of the Fraction.  I’m afraid I do need this explaining further but it appears to be a role of analysing previous events to determine lessons for the future.  OK not a problem, that is always a role for militants but it is presented as a primary role in the context of a downturn of struggle and the inability of a revolutionary organisation to have an impact on the class.

So, is it being said that the class has been defeated in the past couple of decades or is this change just a response to a downturn in struggle and if so why has it taken so long to realise this?  I’m afraid it remains very unclear what analysis is being made of the current period and how that justifies this course of action.  Is this going to be an extended period of balance of the working class and the bourgeoisie where neither can impose its will?  Is the class a defeated class and is the Bourgeoisie able to move towards war? Is the perspective of the historic course altered in some way or even rejected. 

One contradiction I see is that this period of decomposition is still being called the final crisis of capitalism in the texts.  However if we now enter a new period where this new role for the organisation is based on recognition of a defeat of the class, then surely for this to be the final phase, the ICC is really denying that neither a period of world war nor a period of revolution can follow. Can this current period of downturn of struggle not be followed by a revolutionary period and what’s more cannot that be following either by a period of working class power or a period of restoration of capitalism (or barbarism)?

There clearly are changes in the world that need analysing but I’m afraid that the ideas presented in these texts do not clarify them for me.  No one in the 1970s was expected such an elongated period of low class struggle, so does this result void the theory of the historic course to war or revolution or is it just a new wrinkle to analyse.   

There is clearly a downturn in class struggle that, with hindsight, negates the idea of the 80s as ‘Years of Truth’.   I personally would stress the current low level of struggle is a product of enormous impact of nationalist ideologies.  The referendum, the hullabaloo around it and the responses to current migration levels demonstrate clearly how the Bourgeoisie has taken the initiative today and sets the agenda for events.  In this content there is clearly an impact on the abilities of militants to intervene in class struggle but the text leaves me with the uncertain impression that the the ICC is saying the working class has now been defeated?”

As in the first of Link’s posts about the balance sheet of  the ICC’s 21st Congress[3] the comrade is surprised by the dearth of responses from sympathisers or anyone else in the revolutionary milieu to this significant article about the ICC and the fraction. Our response to this important observation is the same as we made to a similar remark by Link about the lack of reaction by the milieu in his first post:

“Your surprise is understandable, since the fate of the ICC, a significant organisation of the communist left for the past 40 years, is surely of concern for those who espouse the politics of the communist left, even if they disagree with many of our political positions and analyses. More: one would think surely that many of those who disagree with the ICC on whatever question would want to express themselves publicly on the subject as you have done.

While from this political point of view the silence about our self-critique is surprising and regrettable, from the vantage point of the past four decades, such indifference has not been that unusual. Ever since the re-emergence of the left communist milieu internationally since the end of the sixties, it has lacked a significant sense of common purpose which, if it had been pursued, despite the disagreements within it, would have strengthened this whole milieu and accelerated its internationalist impact on the working class much more than it actually has. In hindsight the three Conferences of Groups of the Communist Left in the late seventies which had the goal of confronting these often profound disagreements at the necessary theoretical and political level, and making common public statements on vital current questions facing the working class, were a high water mark. The collapse of these Conferences at the end of the decade has led to a long period of dispersal of the left communist milieu – even if polemics and other limited instances of mutual collaboration have sometimes occurred.  The emergence of the phenomenon of political parasitism in 1981 has tended to further exacerbate the atomisation of the left communist milieu and reduce the solidarity between its individuals and groups. The low morale of the left communist milieu in general may help to explain the background to the dearth of response to the 40 year self-critique of the ICC.

The reasons for this indifference are also related to the recognition of the responsibilities of the fraction.

It’s safe to say that the article ‘ICC as a  fraction’ has left Link confused. He asks whether it means that the ICC is completely changing course. If so what will be its new tasks? Will it mean an end to intervention and regroupment? Does it mean that the working class is now defeated as far as the ICC are concerned? Has the historic course therefore changed fundamentally?

Let’s try and clarify some of these questions.

Party or Fraction?

The article ‘Report on the role of the ICC as a fraction’[4] was part of the 40 year review set in motion by the last international congress of the ICC, re-examining our vision of the function of revolutionary organisation in a necessarily historical way. It wasn’t to proclaim a complete change of course: ‘we are now a fraction’, but to set out the historical parameters - and precedents - of the role of revolutionaries today, not with the aim of reversing our original conception of the role of the ICC, but of restating it from a particular vantage point so that we can better measure our self-critique of the past 4 decades.

In the wake of each of the crises the ICC has overcome in its history, there has been an attempt by the organisation to return to fundamental principles by which to judge the reasons for the crisis. In 1982 for example, after the famous Chenier crisis of 80-81, a text on the function of revolutionary organisation was published which went back to fundamentals[5], further elaborating the original vision of the ICC in order to respond to the new problems that had arisen. Is this not an essential historical part of the Marxist method: to judge new situations according to fundamental principles, measuring the new circumstances with the main lessons of the past and thus developing those principles?

This is why the article recapitulates the historical justifications for the existence of the ICC. And the question ‘fraction or party’ is an important part of this recapitulation. It would seem perhaps that Link is not that interested in ‘long historical justifications’ and would prefer to remain in the present. But from the point of view of the Marxist method the establishment of historical reference points are necessary, short or long, in order to understand the present and future.

The way we treat the question of the fraction in this article does not represent a departure from our previous conceptions. One of the defining principles of the ICC is its explicit dependence on the work of Bilan from 1928–38 and of the Gauche Communiste de France from 1945-52, both in terms of the political programme developed from the lessons of the defeat of the October Revolution and the fraction conception of function in the counter revolutionary period as opposed to that of a party function. Bilan’s vision was opposed to that of Trotsky when he formed the 4th International in 1938 on the eve of the 2nd World War. The GCF strongly criticised the foundation of the Internationalist Communist Party in 1943.

Closely linked to this distinction between the role of fraction and party that the ICC reprised from Bilan and the GCF is the insistence of the ICC at the time of its formation in 1975 that it wasn’t, and couldn’t be, a party in the prevailing conditions, but was a current which had to help prepare the future party, and therefore its tasks were in a sense ‘fraction like’:

“The end of the period of counter-revolution has modified the conditions of existence of revolutionary groups. A new period has opened up, favourable to the development of the regroupment of revolutionaries. However, this new period is still an in-between period where the necessary conditions for the emergence of the party have not been transformed - through a real qualitative leap - into sufficient conditions”[6].

The text ‘ICC as a fraction’ is in continuity with previous ICC texts on the subject. Here are some of them: ‘The Italian Left 1922-37’, International Review 59; ‘The Italian Left 1937-52 IR 61; ‘The Fraction-Party Marx to Lenin 1848-1917’ IR 64; ‘The Bolsheviks and the fraction’ IR 65; ‘Fraction or new party?’ IR 85; ‘The Italian Fraction and the French Communist Left’ IR 90[7].

The first four articles in this (non-exhaustive) list are in the form of a polemic with the International Communist Tendency (formerly known as the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party) whose main components are the PCInt - Internationalist Communist Party in Italy (Battaglia Comunista)  - and the Communist Workers Organisation of Britain. The Italian wing of this trend (The CWO joined it in 1984) parted ways with the Bordigist wing of the party in 1952, with both claiming to be the continuators of 1943.

This series of polemics in the International Review brings out - for the ICC at least - the importance of the role of the fractions of the past for the consistent and coherent formation of the revolutionary programme today, and the necessary function and the type of functioning that the revolutionary organisation must adopt in the present historical epoch, the ‘in-between’ period before a party is possible.

We haven’t room to elaborate here on all the political consequences of this distinction between fraction and party. We will only briefly mention two by way of illustrating that the historical justifications of the role of the revolutionary organisation are fundamental. To try and create and fulfil the role of a party in a period of counter-revolution, that is to try and be the recognised vanguard of a defeated working class, is fraught with the danger of opportunism. The Italian party softened its opposition to anti-fascism when it allowed Vercesi, and the minority of Bilan, which had gone off to fight in the anti-fascist militias in Spain, into its ranks and adopted an ambiguous position toward the anti-fascist partisans in occupied Italy during the Second World War[8].

Secondly in May 1980 at the Third Conference of groups of the Communist Left, the PCInt and the CWO announced that their further participation in the Conferences was dependent on the closing of the debate on the revolutionary party. The ICC could not accept this new criterion for participation. It was as though for the PCInt the differences between the surviving and dispersed strands of the Communist Left could be decided in advance – the Party after all was already supposedly in existence since 1943 - and there was no longer any need for a forum of debate with other communist left trends, (nor, by the way, was there supposedly any need for a common statement proposed by the ICC on an internationalist denunciation of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan that began at the end of the previous year). For the ICC however the failure of the conferences was a major setback on the road to the formation of the future party which will depend in large part on the greater clarification of outstanding differences through debate and polemic between the disparate elements of the communist left.[9]

Link doesn’t express himself on these questions that have a direct bearing on the article ICC as a fraction; yet, as we have tried to show, they are extremely relevant for the role of revolutionaries today. It would be interesting to know his opinion.

The defeat of the working class?

Link seems to think that talk about the fraction necessarily implies that the working class is now defeated. It’s true that Bilan emerged from the degeneration of the Communist International and the failure of the revolutionary wave that began in 1917. Bilan intended to draw the lessons of this defeat and the resulting counter-revolution, and to develop a new ‘system of principles’ for the party of the future. It had a direct and organic link with the left within the Italian Communist Party from which it was excluded. 

The reemergence of revolutionary organisations after 1968 did so however in very different conditions. The immense wave of international class struggle that began with the May-June 1968 general strike in France marked a decisive break with the counter revolution; emerging revolutionary groups had no organic link with the parties of the past; and the work of the formation of new class principles was in large part completed.

However there were circumstances of the post-68 era that gave ‘fraction-like’ tasks to the revolutionary organisation despite the undefeated nature of the proletariat. The upsurge in class struggle came from the re-emergence of the world economic crisis which would be necessarily long and drawn out. The working class struggles were mainly of an economic, defensive kind – the proletarian revolution was still a distant perspective. The revolutionary political milieu was minuscule and immature, and unrecognised by the working class, despite the continuing claims of the Bordigist currents to already be the Party. In other words the conditions for both the possibility and necessity for the formation of the party had not yet revealed themselves.  The revolutionary organisations no longer had an organic link with the parties of the past as Bilan did. However they still had to provide a bridge to the future party. And in that sense their work had to be fraction–like, a work of preparation for the future party and not the party itself. 

The conditions since 1989, a period of the decomposition of world capitalism, has created still more difficulties for the advance of the class struggle beyond a defensive posture, indeed the last few decades have witnessed a decline in the extent of its combativity and consciousness, reversing an upward trend that reached its limits in the 1980s (the Polish mass strike, the British miners’ strike, etc). The ascendancy of right wing populism in the major capitalist countries at the present conjuncture will probably reinforce this decline. However these circumstances do not allow us to conclude that the working class is defeated in the way it was in the 1930s, when its revolutionary attempts in Russia, Germany and elsewhere had been crushed physically and when the bourgeoisie had its hands free to terrorise the entire population and mobilise it for world war.

The onset of the period of decomposition in the late 80s, in our view, was the product, on the one hand, of the changed historic course after 1968, in which the bourgeoisie was unable to mobilise the main battalions of the working class for war; at the same time the working class, despite intense struggles in the period 68-89, had been unable to offer a revolutionary alternative to the crisis of the system. Social decomposition is the result of this impasse in society. In time, it could lead to the overwhelming of the working class and an irreversible slide into barbarism, but we do not think we have reached this point of no return. In that sense, the potential for major class confrontations we announced in the 1970s still remains, despite all the difficulties facing the proletariat; by the same token, the task of preparing the ground for the future party has not been abandoned.

It is not entirely clear what Link’s view of the historic course is, whether he agrees or not with the concept itself or with the ICC’s assessment of it at the present time. It’s worth noting that for the ICC the analysis of the balance of class forces on a historical scale is indispensable to be able to judge from a materialist rather than a voluntarist standpoint whether the formation of the party is possible or not.

The more difficult context of today compared with the 70s and 80s particularly obliges us to recall the long term, historical vision of the role of revolutionaries, and to fight the tendency to see the latter only in the short or immediate term, and neglect important aspects of its ‘fraction-like’ role. Indeed the article on the balance sheet of the ICC’s 21st Congress underlines the danger of immediatism as a major risk factor in the forgetting of principles (opportunism) which the revolutionary organisation must preserve and transmit to the future party.

Revolutionary activity today

Examining the role of the fraction in assessing the role of revolutionaries does not mean, as Link fears, abandoning the tasks of intervention - the press, public meetings, leaflets, manifestos etc - nor the regroupment of revolutionaries and the strengthening of organisation, nor turning theoretical research into an academic, contemplative pursuit. The fractions of the past were by no means shy and retiring but intervened to the limit of their capacities even in the darkest days of the counter-revolution, i.e., in periods of dangerous illegality.

Marxism is in essence a militant theory devoted to changing the world and not merely interpreting it as the philosophers have done - but without the activist, immediatist and anti-theoretical spin that is often given to this famous slogan from the Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.

Without revolutionary theory, no revolutionary organisation.

Revolutionary intervention thus has a historical framework, each element of revolutionary activity measured within a long term time frame.

The ICC has certainly, like other revolutionary groups, had to reduce the regularity of its printed press and other forms of intervention as a result of a number of factors – the reduction in number of outlets for selling the printed press, the escalating cost of printing and postage, dwindling resources, etc. At the same time we have recognised the growing importance of the internet and of our website as our principal, and most widely read publication. So all this is part of a necessary realism, related to current conditions, and doesn’t amount to abandoning the task of intervention. And despite the general unpopularity of marxism today, there remain individuals who want to join the revolutionary organisation: the regroupment and formation of such militants remains an axis of ‘fraction-like’ activity as does the greater discussion and confrontation of differences within the revolutionary milieu.

We look forward to hearing Link’s response both to this reply and the previous one.

WR 16.2.17

 

 


[7]. All these texts can be found online by clicking on ‘ICC press’ at the top of our webpages and then scrolling down to ‘International Review’, which is divided into decades.