Debate with the Hungarian anarcho-communist group Barikád Kollektíva

Printer-friendly versionSend by email In October 2004 delegations of the Hungarian group Barikád Kollektíva and the International Communist Current met for a discussion around the following points:

- Russian Revolution, role and character of the Bolsheviks and the left fractions of the Komintern

- Decadence of capitalism

- Current situation: imperialism and the class struggle.

In spite of important political divergences on almost every question, the atmosphere of the discussion was friendly and open and it was possible to explain the respective points of view at length. This was certainly due largely to the fact that both groups want to achieve the same goal, i.e. the classless society, and both are also agreed that this can be realised only through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism on an international scale.

In addition to this there are a number of common programmatic points:

- the only class that is able to carry out such a revolution today is the proletariat;

- in the process towards revolution the proletariat cannot ally itself with the bourgeoisie or any part of it;

- revolutionaries defend an internationalist position on imperialist war;

- the so-called national liberation movements and anti-fascism are bourgeois and have nothing to do with the proletarian struggle;

- the working class is an international unity that transcends national boundaries; revolutionaries have to emphasise the common and general interests of the working class;

- an expression of the unity of the working class is its tendency to centralise its struggle.

For reasons of time and space it is not possible here to draw a balance sheet[1] of every point discussed at this meeting. Instead we will concentrate on two points which are particularly important today: firstly, the defence of the historic materialist method and hence the question of the objective and subjective conditions for the proletarian revolution; secondly, the responsibility of revolutionaries to mercilessly expose the lack of perspective and the barbarism of capitalism today.

On the Marxist method

One of the points on the discussion’s agenda was the question of the decadence of capitalism. The Hungarian comrades reject the ICC's view that every mode of production has gone through an ascendant and a decadent phase. The ICC defends the position that approximately 90 years ago capitalism ceased to be able to offer the conditions necessary for the further development of the productive forces and that the first world war, with its destructive fury , showed that the capitalist mode of production had entered its decadent period. This was also the view of most of the revolutionaries in that period and during the working class struggles that followed it (especially in Russia, Germany, Hungary etc), that is, in the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. The Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD), for example, stated in its programme of 1920: The world economic crisis, born from the world war, with its monstrous social and economic effects which produce the thunderstruck impression of a field of ruins of colossal dimensions, can only signify one thing: the Twilight of the Gods of the bourgeois-capitalist world order is nigh. Today, it is not a question of the periodic economic crises which were once a part of the capitalist mode of production; it is the crisis of capitalism itself; (…) It appears more and more clearly that the ever-growing antagonism between exploiters and exploited, that the contradiction between capital and labour, the consciousness of which is becoming more widespread even among those previously apathetic layers of the proletariat, cannot be resolved. Capitalism is experiencing its definitive failure, it has plunged itself into the abyss in a war of imperialist robbery; it has created a chaos whose unbearable prolongation places the proletariat in front of the historic alternative: relapse into barbarism or construction of a socialist world.

(…)

In conformity with its maximalist views the KAPD equally declares itself for the rejection of all reformist and opportunist methods of struggle, which is only a way of avoiding serious and decisive struggles with the bourgeois class. The party doesn’t seek to avoid these struggles, but on the contrary actively encourages them. In a State which carries all the symptoms of the period of the decadence of capitalism, the participation in parliamentarism is also part of these reformist and opportunist methods.

The comrades of the Barikád collective defend the position that dividing history into ascendant and decadent phases does not make any sense and is rather mechanistic. Their view is that ever since the emergence of private property, there have been those who are oppressed and who rebel against exploitation and the ruling class; the Spartacus insurrection of the slaves in ancient Rome or the peasant wars in Germany in the 16th century are proof of this. As there has always been class struggle, the revolutionary overthrow of the dominant class has been possible at any time. For Barikád, to say that the proletarian revolution was not yet possible in 1871, at the time of the Paris Commune, is to be diverted from this revolutionary task.

As the Barikád collective refers a great deal to Marx and Engels in its texts, the ICC delegation tried to establish to what extent (if at all) there is agreement on this question with the founders of dialectic materialism. Marx and Engels considered parliamentarism in the 19th century as a necessary weapon in the arsenal of the working class; they also supported various national struggles in this period as necessary for the development of the conditions for the proletarian revolution. In the decadent phase of capitalism these means and struggles are not only useless, but are also counter-revolutionary. The reply made by the Hungarian comrades to this is that Marx’ and Engels’ support for certain national struggles was a “sin”; Barikád Kollektíva does not consider the method of Marx and Engels valid.

For the ICC too the name or the person in itself is not decisive. We do not think that each sentence of Marx or of other revolutionaries should be accepted automatically as the truth. Even from a superficial point of view this is not possible because sometimes they contradict each other or they defend different ideas in different periods. There are revolutionaries who were able to contribute more to the advancement of revolutionary theory than others, but this does not mean that the errors made by the latter necessarily make them counter-revolutionary. However for us the historical and materialist method of Marx and Engels is indispensable for analysing the past and present relationship between the classes and the conditions for reversing the domination of the bourgeoisie. After the insurrection of 1848 Marx recognised, quite correctly, that he and the other comrades of the Communist League had overestimated the possibility of revolution: "With this general prosperity, in which the productive forces of bourgeois society develop as luxuriantly as is at all possible within bourgeois relationships, there can be no talk of a real revolution. Such a revolution is only possible in the periods when both these factors, the modern productive forces and the bourgeois productive forms come in collision with each other." (Marx, The Class Struggles in France, 1848-50, Part IV, The Abolition of Universal Suffrage in 1850)

For a successful revolution to take place, certain objective and subjective conditions must be fulfilled. The old order that is to be overthrown, must be unable to offer a real perspective any longer. It must have lost its vitality and be seen to be so empty that even the dominant class is unable to defend it convincingly any longer. At the same time there must be a class which embodies the new perspective, the future society, and which is both able and willing to make the revolution. To go from the general to the specific conditions at least four historical conditions for the success of a revolutionary movement can be identified:

A) The old social order must have become too narrow for the development of the productive forces.

B) The dominant class must have lost its legitimacy to continue its rule. It cannot continue to govern.

C) The revolutionary class must refuse to be suppressed any longer. It does not want to go on being governed.

D) Geographically the balance of forces between the dominant and the revolutionary class must shift so strongly in favour of the latter that it can be victorious on the military level as well (as the proletarian revolution is a world revolution, the balance of forces must change in favour of the proletariat at an international level).

In reality these factors cannot be completely separated from each other, they are related, but they can be distinguished from each other and they show that a revolution must fail if even one of these four conditions is not fulfilled. Marx and Engels realised that after both 1848 and 1871, the situation was such that capitalism’s mission had not yet been completed and so it was because the first of these conditions had not been met that the June 1848 insurrection and the Commune ended in defeat.

The revolutions in Germany and Hungary 1919/20 cannot be seen in isolation; they were part of the international revolutionary wave. The third factor is crucial in order to understand why they failed; the will and ability of the revolutionary class and its vanguard to lead the revolutionary process to a successful conclusion, were not sufficiently developed and so the ruling class succeeded in firmly establishing a new government (second factor).

It is the fourth factor that was decisive in the failure of the Russian revolution: the proletarian revolution cannot be realised in one country alone. It was necessary for the balance of forces to tilt internationally in favour of the proletariat. In Russia alone the capitalist mode of production could never be abolished; the affirmation that this was in fact possible was fraudulent and opened the door to the (Stalinist) counter-revolution.

The fact that Marxists examine the conditions for the revolution using this historical materialist method cannot by any means be mistaken for a mechanistic approach. The examples given above are enough to show that we consider the subjective as well as objective factors. In the long run everything depends on the proletariat, its consciousness, its will and its unity. If we speak of capitalist decadence as a necessary precondition for the proletarian revolution, it has nothing to do with fatalism; we know that the capitalist social (dis-)order will not vanish without the conscious action of the working class. "The collapse of capitalism in Marx depends on the act of will of the working class; but this will is not a free choice, but is itself determined by economic development." (Anton Pannekoek, The Theory of the Collapse of Capitalism)

Illusions about the present situation

Barikád Kollektíva and the ICC felt that it was important to discuss the analysis of the present situation as well. Because we had little time we concentrated on the question of imperialism.

On this question too there were differences. Both groups defend an internationalist viewpoint in relation to imperialist war and so draw the conclusion that there can be no support for any side in any imperialist conflict: neither Israel or Palestine, no faction in the Iraq war, in Chechnya or elsewhere - the proletariat has nothing to gain from any of these wars. We also agreed that pacifism does not help stop wars, rather capitalism itself must be overthrown in order to put an end to them.

However, there was no agreement on how to explain the causes behind the imperialist conflicts. Whereas the ICC insists on the fact that there are material contradictions between the opponents in the various wars, particularly between the main powers, and that they want to weaken the others and strengthen their own position, the Barikád collective defends the view that these contradictions are only apparent and that wars are really directed against the working class. The comrades say that capitalism suffers from overproduction, in particular it produces a surplus of workers and it is the aim of the bourgeoisie to eliminate proletarians by means of its constant wars. It is also the workers who are the victim of the massacres in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. The second world war was the international bourgeoisie's answer to the struggles of the working class in Spain, France and China during the 1930ies. On the question of the massacre of the Jews in the concentration camps, they say that the allied forces as well as the Nazis were responsible. In addition to this, the crushing of the rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto reveals the complicity between the different imperialists, specifically Hitler and Stalin.

The ICC replied to this argument with a criticism along two lines: firstly that the Barikád collective underestimates the gravity of the condition in which capitalism finds itself; secondly that it overestimates the ability of the bourgeoisie to control its descent into chaos and/or to postpone it ad infinitum. It is certainly true that the bourgeoisie is able to unite against the working class and it always does so when there is a proletarian threat to the dominant social order. The division of labour between the Nazis and the Russian Army in relation to the rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto is an example; the complicity of the bourgeoisie of all countries against the proletarian struggle in November 1918 is another one; the war was ended immediately in order to leave the dominant class in Germany, Austria and Hungary with its hands free to fight against the developing power of the workers' councils. And for the ICC there is no doubt about the joint responsibility of the Allies and the Nazis in the Holocaust; even in 1945 our political predecessors of the Communist Left of France attacked the whole of the international bourgeoisie and its macabre demagoguery around the concentration camps.[2]

But the fact that the bourgeoisie is able to band together against the proletariat should not blind us to the reality that the dominant class today is tied to the nation state and that the contradictions between the different nation states cannot be overcome under capitalist rule. Only the working class is a really international class which has the same interests which reach across all borders. The bourgeoisie on the other hand always acts according to the laws of competition: every man for himself. In particular, from the beginning of the 20th Century, when the world market had been divided up and there were essentially no more extra-capitalist markets to be conquered, this competition sharpened into a murderous battle in which each nation state had continuously to defend its sphere of influence against its rivals and try to increase its area of influence. It is precisely for this reason that, since then, there have been more numerous and destructive wars than ever before in the history of mankind. The barbarism of capitalist exploitation in its decadence is reflected not only in the hell of the factory and mass misery, but also through the uncontrollable conflicts between nation states and between the various bourgeois factions. It is a dangerous illusion to think that there is somehow an economic rationality behind this slaughter of the proletariat in the wars that have been waged after 1914.

The situation is extremely serious and only the conscious act of a united proletariat can put a stop to the destruction of mankind (and perhaps to all life on the planet).[3] It would not only be stupid to delude ourselves, it would also be irresponsible because time is not on our side; if the barbarity of massacres, military destruction, the predatory exploitation of nature goes on, then we will reach a point of no return and the perspective of a classless society will be definitively lost simply because the soil on which such a society should grow, is destroyed - literally as well as metaphorically.

As Pannekoek said in the contribution quoted above: the removal of the old illusions is the first task of the working class!

31/01/05



[1] The two delegations agreed that each would write a balance sheet and would submit it to the other previous to its publication in order to avoid misunderstanding when quoting the position of the other group. The balance sheet of Barikád Kollektíva can be found on the internet here: http://anarcom.lapja.hu

[3] If the proletariat is undefeated the bourgeoisie is not able to unleash a world war. That’s why the analysis of Barikád, that sees WW2 as a response to the struggles of the working class in Spain, France and China during the 1930ies, is wrong. The opposite is true: because of the defeat of the working class after the revolutionary wave the bourgeoisie in the different states could march towards generalised war (see our book The Italian Communist Left 1926-1945).