Polemic: the weaknesses of the ICP on the question of populism (Part II)

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In this second part we're responding to the main criticisms that the International Communist Party (Le Proletaire) makes of us by opposing their approach with our method and our framework of analysis.

The role of revolutionaries is not limited to proclaiming proletarian principles; it consists above all of contributing to proletarian consciousness, analysing and explaining the balance of forces posed by the situation in order to draw out the real stakes of the struggle. In other words, it's a question, as Lenin put it, of "making a concrete political analysis from a concrete situation". Workers trying to understand the present situation, who look to go to the roots of problems, will not unfortunately find a satisfying explanation of the international and relatively massive phenomenon of populism in the publications of the ICP but affirmations which, from our point of view, only feed confusion. The development of the populist phenomenon corresponds to a historically new concrete situation which remains to be analysed and for that a rigorous and methodical debate must be undertaken through polemics. But in order to have this debate, which is absolutely vital and necessary within the proletarian camp, we must first avoid false debates.

A clear framework of analysis: a necessity for proletarian consciousness

The ICP ascribes to us the idea that "the victories of Trump and the partisans of Brexit constitute a 'setback' for democracy" [1] by referring to an article in Révolution Internationale no. 461. In no way should it be deduced from our analysis that populism calls into question bourgeois democracy and its state. For us, all factions of the bourgeoisie are reactionary; populism, as a political expression, belongs to the bourgeoisie and is fully implicated in the defence of capitalist interests. Populist parties are bourgeois factions, parts of the totalitarian state apparatus. What they spread is the ideology and behaviour of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie: nationalism, racism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, cultural conservatism.  They catalyse fears; express the will to fall back into individualism and a rejection of "elites". That said, populism is a product of decomposition which causes problems for the political game, resulting in a growing loss of control by the bourgeoisie's political apparatus on the electoral level. That doesn't prevent the bourgeoisie from exploiting this negative political phenomenon as much as possible for the defence of its interests, turning it back against the proletariat in trying to strengthen the democratic mystification in emphasising that "every vote counts", adding the accusation that electoral abstentionism "lays the ground for the extreme-right". In this framework, the traditional parties themselves tend to attenuate their unpopular image by, despite everything, presenting themselves as more "humanistic" and more "democratic" than the populists. This is a dangerous trap which consists of presenting to the workers a false alternative: populism or the defence of democracy.

Contrary to the ICC, the ICP reject the idea of the decadence of capitalism, although this is an essential concept for marxists, as the founders of the IIIrd International understood, inscribing it  into their 1919 platform after the period of World War I and October 1917: "A new epoch is born, the epoch of the disintegration of capitalism, of its inner collapse. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat". More than a century ago, the Bolsheviks and Rosa Luxemburg in particular affirmed that the historic period opened by the First World War was definitively marked by the alternative: war or revolution, socialism or barbarism. Le Proletaire on the contrary, on the basis of its "invariant" interpretation of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 continues to repeat that the crises of capitalism are "cyclical" and ignore its entry into decadence, particularly in regard to the question of war. Because it rejects the fundamental notion of the decadence of capitalism, the ICP lacks clarity on the nature of the crises and imperialist wars of the twentieth century and thus lacks clarity on the analysis of the present situation and its evolution into the final phase of the agony of capitalism, decomposition. [2]

The ICP is not armed politically to understand that decomposition has been determined by a new quality borne by the contradictions of decadent capitalism and initially "the incapacity (...) of the two fundamental and antagonistic classes, the bourgeoisie and proletariat, to put forward their own perspective (world war or revolution) engendering a situation of 'momentary blockage' and of society rotting on its feet". On the contrary it interprets this with irony without getting to grips with its real nature: "Proletarians who daily see their conditions of exploitation worsen and their living conditions degraded, will be happy to learn that their class is capable of blocking the bourgeoisie and preventing it from putting forward its 'perspectives'".

The ICP interpret what we are saying about the idea of the "blockage of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat" without seriously looking at the political content that we really defend: all society finds itself without a perspective affirmed by one of the two fundamental classes of society. It thus finds itself deprived of any future other than the immediate exploitation generated by capitalism. In this context, the bourgeoisie is no longer up to offering prospects or policies capable of mobilising or arousing support. Inversely, the working class cannot recognise itself as a class and does not really play any decisive and sufficiently conscious role. It is this which leads to a blockage in terms of perspective. The phase of the decomposition of capitalist society is not at all an "elaboration", a "vague idea", "invented" by the ICC. Marx himself, at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto envisaged this eventuality drawn from the historic experience of class societies when he wrote: "The history of all societies up to now, is the history of class struggle. Free man and slave, patriarch and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time  ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes". Among these "contending classes" today, we only have the bourgeoisie and proletariat.  Marxism has always posed the denouement of the historic alternative in a non-mechanistic manner. Today, with the present conditions, either the revolutionary class will end up by imposing itself, opening the way to a new mode of production, communism, or through incapacity or historic defeat, capitalist society will definitively sink into chaos and barbarism: this would be "the mutual ruin of the contending classes".

The basis of the phase of decomposition

What determines and explains the current phase of the collapse of decadent capitalism into the decomposition of society? [3]

The bourgeoisie is enveloped in an endless economic crisis that compels the proletariat to submit to still more misery, uncertainty, attacks against its living conditions and exploitation. At the same time, the ruling class has been incapable of imposing its "solution" to this crisis: a new world war. Between 1968 and 1989, with the international resurgence of the class struggle onto the scene of history, the ruling class couldn't dragoon the proletariat into preparations for another world conflict. After 1989, with the dissolution of the two imperialist blocs born from the collapse of the Russian bloc, the diplomatic and military conditions for a new world war disappeared: the bourgeoisie was no longer capable of reconstituting new imperialist blocs.

However, the disappearance of the blocs hasn't put an end to military conflicts.  Rather than imperialism disappearing, it has taken other forms where each state tries to pursue its own interests and appetites against the interests of others, at the expense of stable alliances; where a situation of the war of each against all predominates and which generates murderous chaos and barbaric warfare. Since 1989 we have seen the multiplication of conflicts in which the major and secondary powers confront each other through smaller states, rival armed bands or even opposed ethnicities.

Equally, the bourgeoisie can no longer mobilise the proletariat in a plan for society: the promise of a "new world order of peace and prosperity" promised by Bush senior following the collapse of the Russian bloc fizzled out almost immediately.

For its part, the working class which, from 1968 up to the end of the 1980's developed waves of resistance to the crisis and the attacks on its conditions, demonstrated in the central countries that it was not ready to sacrifice itself in a new world war. Nevertheless, it has not succeeded in politicising its combat and from that draw a conscious perspective of world revolution to overthrow capitalism, not least because of the enormous weight of the years of counter-revolution and the survival of very strong illusions in the working class nature of the parties of the left and the unions. Contrary to 1905 and 1917, it has been incapable, notably after August 1980 in Poland, of affirming itself on a political terrain as a force for the revolutionary transformation of society, of raising its defensive struggles to an international political combat that affirms a revolutionary perspective.

Moreover, the bankruptcy of the Stalinist regimes at the time of the brutal collapse of the Eastern Bloc allowed the bourgeoisie to strengthen the greatest lie of the twentieth century - the identification of Stalinism with communism - and to feed an enormous campaign of ideological overkill that proclaimed the "bankruptcy of marxism" and the "death of communism", leading to the idea that there's no longer any alternative to capitalism. This explains the present enormous difficulties that the working class is facing: the loss of its class identity, the loss of confidence in its own strength, its loss of its direction, its disorientation.

The growth of populism and anti-social phenomena

These difficulties, among other things, have allowed the development of populist ideas in society, including in the ranks of the most fragile layers of the proletariat, because this class is also affected by the noxious atmosphere emitted by the decomposition of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois politics.

In the context characterised by the absence of any political perspective, the defiance towards anything that calls itself "political" increases (so too the discrediting of the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie) to the advantage of the populist parties that preach a so-called rejection of "elites". This is all combined with a widespread feeling of “no future” and the growth of all sorts of individualist ideologies, a return to reactionary, archaic and nihilist models.

The article of Le Proletaire says: "the populist orientation is typical of the nature of the petty-bourgeoisie: the petty-bourgeoisie placed between the two fundamental classes of society, dreads the struggle between the two classes in which it risks being pulverised: that's why it loathes everything which evokes the class struggle and only swears by "the people", "popular unity", etc." For the ICP, populism since its origins is the expression of the nature and ideology of the petty-bourgeoisie and that's all there is to it. It doesn't analyse populism as an expression of a capitalist world without a future, caught up in the dynamic of the period of decomposition. If the present growth of populism is fed by different factors (2008 economic crisis, impact of war, terrorism and refugee crisis), it appears above all as a concentrated expression of the present incapacity of one or the other major classes to offer a perspective for the future of humanity.

This is the global reality which confronts the proletariat and the whole of society. It's important to see how the present growth of anti-social behaviours and the present weakness of the proletariat in developing its revolutionary perspective are essential aspects of the situation. It shows a basic problem which is not identical to that of the period preceding the 1990's, still less to the simple petty-bourgeois nature of the populism of the nineteenth century.

The ICP does not share such an analysis, but it must then furnish a general framework of alternative understanding adapted to the current situation. An ironic response on its own is insufficient.

The real stakes for the proletariat faced with populism

In time, if the proletariat turns out incapable of again taking up the road to revolutionary struggle, society will be engulfed in all sorts of disasters: bankruptcies, ecological catastrophes, the extension of local wars, rising barbarity, social chaos, famines... None of this has anything to do with a prophecy: it can't be anything other for the good and simple reason that the destructive logic of capitalism and profit that we see at work every day of the week is totally irreversible. By its very nature capitalism cannot become "reasonable", and can only get further bogged down in its own contradictions.

1. The struggle of the proletariat is not, as the PCI thinks, the mechanical "instrument" of an absolutely determined "historic destiny". In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels strongly criticised such a vision: "History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all preceding generations, and thus, on the one hand, continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances and, on the other, modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity. This can be speculatively distorted so that later history is made the goal of earlier history, e.g. the goal ascribed to the discovery of America is to further the eruption of the French Revolution".

2. It shouldn't be assumed that because a part of the working class votes for populist parties it has become xenophobic or fundamentally nationalistic. As we underlined in our Resolution on the international class struggle adopted at the twenty-second ICC Congress: “Many workers who today vote for populist candidates can from one day to the next find themselves struggling alongside their class brothers and sisters, and the same goes for workers caught up in anti-populist demonstrations”.

However, there's nothing inevitable about the class struggle, contrary to the erroneous vision that Bordiga drew from it: "a revolutionary (according to us) is someone for whom the revolution is as certain as if it had already happened". [4] The proletarian revolution is not written in advance. It can only come about through the conscious action of the proletariat, through a real historic combat faced with all the obstacles and against a bourgeoisie that will defend itself and use all its venom and bestiality like a cornered, wounded animal.

Faced with the difficulties confronting the proletariat, more than ever revolutionaries need to understand, analyse the stakes and denounce the ideological use that the bourgeoisie makes of the tendencies towards disintegration inherent in this society.  

To understand populism we need to understand decomposition, that's to say the danger which weighs on the working class and all of humanity, the difficulties and the obstacles that we must confront, in order to fight them more effectively. Despite the weight of populism and its dangers, the proletariat still offers the only alternative perspective, and it retains the potential to undertake and develop its  combat to the level demanded by the historic situation.

CB, March 26, 2018.



[1]  Populism, Populism you say?’, Le Proletaire no. 523, (Feb., March, April, 2017). http://www.pcint.org/03_LP/523/523_populisme.htm

[2]  We refer readers to the polemic that we've already had with the ICP on the central question of decadence: ‘The rejection of the idea of decadence leads to the demobilisation of the proletariat faced with war’, International Review no. 77 and no. 78, second and third quarters, 1994. http://en.internationalism.org/ir/077_rejection01.html; http://en.internationalism.org/ir/078_rejection02.html

[3] We refer readers to our theses on ‘ Decomposition, the final phase of capitalist decadence’ written in May 1990 and republished in International Review no. 107, fourth quarter 2001, as well as the article ‘Understanding the decomposition of capitalism’, International Review no. 117, second quarter 2004. http://en.internationalism.org/ir/107_decomposition; http://en.internationalism.org/ir/117_decompo.html

[4] The Infantile Disorder, condemnation of future traitors (on the pamphlet of Lenin "The infantile disorder of communism"), Il Programma Comunista no. 19 (1960).