Presentation of the 20th International Congress
Recently the ICC held its 20th International Congress. The congress of a communist organisation is one of the most important moments of its life and activity. It’s when the whole organisation (through delegations nominated by each of its sections) makes a balance-sheet of its activities, analyses in depth the international situation, draws out perspectives and elects a central organ, which has the task of ensuring that the decisions of the congress are applied.
Because we are convinced of the need of debate and cooperation between organisations who fight for the overthrow the capitalist system, we invited three groups - two from Korea, and OPOP from Brazil, who have already attended previous international congresses. Since the work of a communist organisation's congress is not an ‘internal’ question but is of interest to the working class as a whole we aim here to inform our readers about the essential questions discussed there.
The congress took place against the background of sharpening tensions in Asia, ongoing war in Syria, worsening economic crisis and a situation of class struggle marked by a low development of ‘classic’ workers’ struggles against the economic attacks of the bourgeoisie but also by the international upsurge of social movements, the most significant examples being the Occupy movement in the US and the ‘Indignados’ in Spain
The analysis of the world situation – a challenge that demands major theoretical effort
The resolution on the international situation adopted by the 20th Congress, which summarises the analyses which came out of the discussions, is published in this issue of the Review, and we need not return to it in detail here.
The resolution recalls the historical framework within which we understand the present situation of society – the decadence of the capitalist mode of production, whose beginning was marked by the outbreak of World War I; and the final phase of decadence, which the ICC, since the mid-80s, has defined as that of decomposition, of a society rotting on its feet. Social decomposition is illustrated very clearly by the form being taken by today’s imperialist conflicts, with the situation in Syria being a particularly tragic example, as we can see in the report on imperialist tensions adopted by the Congress and published in this issue, but also by the catastrophic degradation of the environment which the ruling class, despite all its alarmed declarations and campaigns, is quite incapable of preventing, or even slowing down.
The congress did not have a specific discussion on the imperialist conflicts since our preparatory discussions had already demonstrated a large measure of agreement on the question. However, the Congress heard a presentation by the Korean group Sanoshin on the imperialist tensions in the Far East, which we hope to publish as an annex on our website.
On the economic crisis
Incapable of overcoming the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, the bourgeoisie finds itself – as the resolution points out – caught in a deadlock: a striking confirmation of marxist analysis. All the ‘experts’, whether they support or reject ‘neo-liberalism’, regard the marxist analysis with the contempt of the ignorant; above all, they fight it, precisely because it foretells the historical failure of this mode of production and the necessity to replace it with a society where the market, profit and wage labour will have been relegated to the museum of history, a society where humanity will be free of the blind laws that today are dragging it towards barbarism, and will be able to live according to the principle “from each according to their capacities, to each according to their needs”.
As regards the present situation of the crisis of capitalism, the Congress stated clearly that the current ‘financial crisis’ is by no means the source of the contradictions plaguing the world economy, nor do its roots lie in the ‘financialisation of the economy’ and the obsession with short-term profit and speculation. “On the contrary, it is overproduction which is the source of ‘financialisation’ and it is the fact that it is more and more risky to invest in production, given that the world market is more and more saturated, which directs the flow of finance more and more towards speculation. This is why all the ‘left wing’ economic theories which call for ‘reining in international finance’ in order to get out of the crisis are empty dreams since they ‘forget’ the real causes of this hypertrophy of the financial sphere”. (Resolution on the international situation, point 10). Similarly, the Congress recognised that “The crisis of the ‘sub-primes’ in 2007, the huge financial panic of 2008 and the recession of 2009 marked a new and very important step in capitalism’s descent into irreversible crisis”. (ibid, point 11).
Having said this, the Congress noted that our organisation is far from unanimous on the economic crisis and that it will be necessary to continue the discussion around a number of questions, for example: Was the aggravation of the crisis in 2007 a qualitative break, opening a new chapter in history, pushing the economy towards an immediate and rapid collapse? What was the significance of the events of 2007? More generally what kind of development of the crisis should we expect: a sudden collapse or a slow, politically ‘managed’ decline? Which countries will sink first and which last? Does the ruling class have choices, room for manoeuvre, and what kind of mistakes are they trying to avoid? Or more generally: when analysing the economic crisis and its perspectives, can and does the ruling class ignore the expected reactions of the working class? Which criteria does the ruling class take into consideration when adopting austerity programmes in different countries? Are we in a situation where everywhere the ruling class can attack the working class in the same way as it has been doing in Greece? Can we expect a repetition of the same scale of attacks (wage cuts of up to 40% etc) in the old industrial heartlands? What difference is there between the crisis of 1929 and today's? How far has pauperisation advanced in the big industrial countries?
The organisation recalled that soon after 1989 we were able to predict the fundamental changes on the imperialist level and the class struggle which had occurred with the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the so-called ‘socialist’ countries.1 However, we did not foresee the major economic changes which have occurred since. What, for example, has been the effect on the world economy of China’s and India’s abandonment of their previous mechanisms of relative economic autarchy?
Obviously, as we did for the debate we had a few years ago in our organisation on the mechanisms which allowed for the ‘boom’ that followed the Second World War2, we will bring to our readers the main elements of the current debate once the discussion has reached a sufficient level of clarity.
On class struggle
The report on the class struggle to the Congress drew a balance sheet of the past two years (from the Arab Spring, the Indignados, Occupy movements, the struggles in Asia etc.) and the difficulties of the class to respond to the ever increasing attacks by the capitalists in Europe and the USA. The discussions at the Congress dealt mainly with the following questions: how are we to explain the difficulties of the working class to respond ‘adequately’ to the increasing attacks? Why are we not yet moving towards a revolutionary situation in the old industrial heartlands? Which policies is the ruling class putting in place to avoid massive struggles in the old industrial centres? What are the conditions for the mass strike?
What role does the working class in East Asia, in particular China, play in the global balance of forces between the classes? What can we expect from the class? Has the centre of the world economy, of the world proletariat, moved to China? How are we to assess the changes in the composition of the working class worldwide? The debate recalled our position on the “weak link” which we developed in the 1980s, in opposition to Lenin’s idea that the chain of capitalist domination would break in its “weakest link”3, i.e. the less developed countries.
Even if the discussions didn’t reveal disagreements on the report presented (which is summarised in the section on class struggle in the resolution), we felt that the organisation has to give deeper thought to this question, in particular by discussing around the theme: “What method should we use to analyse the class struggle in the present historical period?”
On the life and activities of the organisation
Discussions on the life of the organisation, of the balance sheet and perspectives of its activities and functioning occupied a large part of the 20th Congress’ agenda, as has always been the case in previous congresses. This is an expression of the fact that questions of organisation are not merely ‘technical’ questions but are political questions in their own right and must be approached in as great a depth as possible. When we look back at the history of the three Internationals created by the working class, we can see that these questions were always resolutely taken up by their marxist wing, as illustrated, among many others, by the following examples:
the struggle of Marx and the Central Council of the International Workingmen’s Association against Bakunin’s Alliance, especially at the Hague Congress in 1872;
the struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the petty bourgeois and opportunist conceptions of the Mensheviks during the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 and subsequently;
the struggle of the left fraction of the Communist Party of Italy against the degeneration of the International and to prepare the political and programmatic conditions for a new proletarian party when the historical conditions were suitable.
The historical experience of the workers’ movement has shown that specific political organisations that defend the revolutionary perspective within the working class are indispensable if the class is going to be able to overthrow capitalism and create a communist society. But proletarian political organisations cannot just be proclaimed: they must be built. While the goal is to overthrow the capitalist system, and while a communist society can only be built once the power of the bourgeoisie has been overturned and an end been put to capitalism, a revolutionary organisation must be built within capitalist society. Therefore the construction of the organisation must confront all kinds of pressures and obstacles that spring from the capitalist system and its ideology. This means that the process of construction does not take place in a vacuum. Revolutionary organisations are like a foreign body within capitalist society, which this system constantly aims to destroy. A revolutionary organisation is therefore constantly obliged to defend itself against a whole series of threats coming from capitalist society.Obviously, it must resist repression. The ruling class, whenever it has felt the necessity, has never hesitated to unleash its police and even its military forces to silence the voices of the revolutionaries. Most of the organisations in the past existed for a long-time under conditions of repression: they were “outlawed” and many militants were driven into exile. However, this repression rarely crushed them; on the contrary, it often strengthened their resolve and helped to defend themselves against democratist illusions. This was the case for example with the SPD in Germany during the anti-socialist laws which resisted the poison of ‘democracy’ and ‘parliamentarism’ much better than it did during the period when it was legal.
The revolutionary organisation also has to resist destruction from within – penetration through spies, informers, adventurers, etc., which can often cause more damage than open repression.
Finally, and above all, it has to resist the pressure of the dominant ideology, in particular democratism and ‘good old common sense’, which was roundly attacked by Marx. They have to fight against all ‘values’ and ‘principles’ of capitalist society. The history of the workers’ movement has taught us, through the opportunist gangrene that carried off the 2nd and 3rd Internationals, that the main threat to revolutionary organisations is precisely their inability to combat the penetration of the ‘values’ and habits of thought of bourgeois society.
Therefore, a revolutionary organisation cannot function in the same way as capitalist society; it must function in an associated manner.
Capitalist society works through competition, alienation, ‘comparing’ each other, establishing norms, streamlining. A communist organisation requires working together and overcoming the spirit of competition. It can only function if its members do not act like a flock of sheep, tail-ending and accepting blindly what the central organ or other comrades say. The search for truth and clarity must constantly stimulate all the activities of the organisation. Independent thinking, the capacity to reflect, to put things into question, are vital. This means we cannot hide behind a collective, but we must assume our individual responsibility by expressing our opinions and pushing forward clarification. Conformism is a big obstacle in our struggle for communism.
In capitalist society, if you do not fit into the norm, you are quickly “excluded”, made into a scapegoat, the one who is blamed for everything. A revolutionary organisation has to establish a mode of functioning where all kinds of different individuals and personalities can be integrated into one big body. It requires the art of drawing on the riches of all personalities. This means a fight against personal pride and other ideas linked to competition. It means valuing the contribution of each comrade. And at the same time this means an organisation must have a set of rules and principles which are based on ethical principles. These need to be elaborated, which is a political battle in itself. Whereas the ethics of capitalist society know no scruples, the goal of the proletarian struggle must be in harmony with the means of the struggle.
The construction and the functioning of an organisation thus entail a theoretical and moral dimension, both of which require a constant and conscious effort. Any sluggishness or wavering, any weakening of effort and vigilance on one level pave the way for a weakening on the other. These two dimensions are inseparable from each other and determine each other mutually. The less theoretical efforts an organisation undertakes, the easier and quicker a moral regression can occur; and at the same time the loss of our moral compass will inevitably weaken our theoretical capacities. Thus, at the turning point of the 19th and 20th centuries, Rosa Luxemburg showed that the opportunist trajectory of German social democracy went hand in hand with its moral and theoretical regression.
One of the most fundamental aspects of the life of a communist organisation is its internationalism, not only at the level of its principles, but also at the level of the conception it has of its own way of life, its mode of functioning.
The goal – a society without exploitation and producing for the needs of humanity – can only be achieved internationally, and it requires the unification of the proletariat across all borders. This is why internationalism has been the slogan of the proletariat since its appearance. Revolutionary organisations must be the vanguard in adopting an international point of view and fighting against a ‘localist’ perspective.
Although from the outset the proletariat has always attempted to organise internationally (the Communist League 1847-1852 was the first international organisation), the ICC is the first organisation which is internationally centralised, and where all sections defend the same positions. Our sections are integrated into international debates in our organisation, where all our members – across the continents – can draw on the experience of the entire organisation. This means we have to learn to bring together militants from all sorts of backgrounds, learn to hold debates in spite of all the different languages – all of which is a very inspiring process, where clarification and the deepening of our positions is enriched by the contributions of comrades from the whole planet.
Last but not least, it is vital for the organisation to have a clear understanding of the role it has to play in the proletarian struggle for emancipation. As the ICC has often emphasised, the function of the revolutionary organisation today is not to ‘organise the class’ or its struggles (as could be the case during the first steps of the workers’ movement in the 19th century). Its essential role, already set out in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, derives from the fact that communists “have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”. In this sense, the permanent and essential function of the organisation is the elaboration of political positions, and in order to do this it cannot afford to be totally absorbed by its tasks of intervention in the class. It has to be able to take a step back and arrive at a general view. It must be permanently preoccupied with deepening the questions posed by the class as a whole and with placing them within a historical perspective. This means that it cannot limit itself to an analysis of the world situation. It needs to explore broader, underlying theoretical questions, rejecting superficiality and the distortions of capitalist society and ideology. This is a permanent struggle, one with a long-term view that embraces a whole series of aspects that go well beyond the questions posed to the class at this or that moment in the struggle.
Since the proletarian revolution is not just a struggle around “bread and butter” issues, as Rosa Luxemburg underlined, but the first revolution in the history of humanity where all the chains of exploitation and oppression are overthrown, this struggle necessarily implies a great cultural transformation. A revolutionary organisation does not only deal with questions of political economy and the class struggle in a narrow sense. It must develop its own vision on the most important questions facing humanity, constantly expanding its views and being open and ready to face new questions. Theoretical elaboration, the search for truth, the wish for clarification, must be our daily passion.
And at the same time we can only fulfil our role if the old generation of militants transmits the experience and lessons they have acquired to the new militants. If the old generation has no “treasure” of experience and lessons to pass on to the new generation, it has failed in its task. The construction of the organisation thus requires the art of drawing the lessons of the past in order to prepare the future.
As we can see, the task of building a revolutionary organisation is extremely complex and demands a permanent struggle. In the past, our organisation has already waged important battles for the defence of its principles. But experience has shown that these battles have been insufficient and they have to be carried on in the face of the difficulties and weaknesses that result from the origins of our organisation and the historical conditions in which it maintains its activity: “There is not one single cause for each of the different weaknesses of the organisation. The latter are the result of various factors which, while they can be linked together, must be clearly identified:
The weight of our origins in the historic resurgence of the world proletariat at the end of the 1960s, and in particular, the effects of the break in organic continuity;
The weight of decomposition which began to have an impact in the mid-80s;
The pressure of the ‘invisible hand of the market’, of reification, whose imprint on society has only intensified with the prolonged survival of capitalist relations of production.
The different weaknesses which we have identified, even if they can mutually influence each other, derive in the final instance from these three factors or their combination:
The underestimation of theoretical elaboration, and particularly on organisational questions, has its source in our very origins: the impact of the student revolt with its component of petty bourgeois academicism, with an opposing tendency which mixes up anti-academicism and a disdain for theory, and this in an ambiance of contesting authority, including that of an ‘old geezer’ like comrade MC, which affected a lot of young militants and thus the organisation. Later on this underestimation of theory was fed by the general atmosphere of the destruction of thought characteristic of the period of decomposition, and the growing impregnation of good old common sense, a manifestation in our ranks of the insidious penetration of reification;
The loss of acquisitions is a direct consequence of the underestimation of theoretical elaboration: the acquisitions of the organisation, whether on questions of programme, analysis or organisation, can only be maintained, above all in the face of the constant pressure of bourgeois ideology, if they are permanently fed and watered by theoretical reflection: thought which doesn’t move forward, which is content with the repetition of stereotyped formulas, is not only threatened with stagnation, it can only regress. The superficiality in the assimilation of our positions, which has often been noted in the past, is the best guarantee of losing our acquisitions;
Immediatism is one of the youthful faults of an organisation which was formed by young militants who awoke to political life at a time of spectacular revival in the class struggle, and many of whom thought that the revolution was just around the corner. The most immediatist among us did not hold fast and were in the end demoralised, abandoning the combat, but this weakness also survived among those who remained: it continued to imbue the organisation and has expressed itself on numerous occasions. It is a weakness which can be fatal because, associated with a loss of acquisitions, it inexorably leads towards opportunism, an approach which has regularly undermined the foundations of our organisation;
Routinism, for its part, is one of the major expressions of the weight of the alienated, reified relations which dominate capitalist society and which tend to turn the organisation into a machine and the militants into robots. It is obviously reinforced by the poverty of theoretical reflection which leads us to lose sight of the reason for the organisation’s existence;
Sclerosis results to a large extent from routinism but it is also fed by the loss of acquisitions and theoretical impoverishment, and is for this reason the other side to the coin of opportunism. Even if it does not lead to treason like the latter illness (the two can exist side by side), the paralysis which it provokes vis-à-vis the responsibilities of the organisation results in the death of the capacity of the latter to be an active factor in the development of class consciousness;
The circle spirit, as the whole history of the ICC bears out, along with the whole history of the workers’ movement, is one of the most dangerous poisons for the organisation, bringing with it not only the tendency to transform an instrument of proletarian combat into a mere ‘bunch of pals’, not only the personalisation of political questions which saps the culture of debate, but the destruction of collective work and the unity of the organisation, above all in the form of clanism. It is also responsible for the hunt for scapegoats which undermines moral health, just as it is one of the worst enemies of the culture of theory in that it destroys profound and rational thought in favour of contortions and gossip. Again, it is a frequent vehicle for opportunism, the antechamber of betrayal” (Resolution on activities adopted by the Congress, point 4).
To fight against the weaknesses and dangers facing the organisation, there is no magical formula and we have to direct our efforts in several directions. One of the points which was given particular emphasis was the necessity to combat routinism and conformism, stressing the fact that the organisation is not an anonymous, uniform body but an association of different militants, all of whom have a specific contribution to make to the common work.
“In order to work for the construction of a real international association of communist militants where each one can bring his brick to the collective building, the organisation must reject the reactionary utopia of the ‘model militant’, the ‘standard militant’, or the invulnerable and infallible super-militant... Militants are neither robots nor supermen, but human beings with different personalities, histories and socio-cultural origins. It is only through a better understanding of our human ‘nature’ and of the diversity which is specific to our species that confidence and solidarity between militants can be built and consolidated... each comrade has the capacity to make a unique contribution to the organisation. It is also their individual responsibility to do so. In particular, it is the responsibility of each comrade to express his positions in debate, in particular disagreements and questioning, without which the organisation will not be able to develop its culture of debate and theoretical elaboration” (Resolution on activities, point 9).
And so the congress insisted in particular on the need to take up the tasks of theoretical elaboration with determination and perseverance.
The first challenge for the organisation is to become aware of the dangers we are facing. We cannot overcome these dangers by resorting to last minute “fire brigade” actions. We must examine all our problems with a theoretical-historical approach and oppose all pragmatist, superficial outlooks. This means we have to develop a long-term vision and not fall into a ‘day-to-day’ and empirical approach. Theoretical study and political combat must be brought back to the centre of the organisation’s life, not only in regard to immediate intervention, but most importantly by pursuing the deeper theoretical questions about marxism itself that have been posed in the past ten years through the orientations we have given ourselves but which remain undeveloped by the organisation. This means we must give ourselves the necessary time to deepen and fight any conformism in our ranks. The organisation has to encourage critical questioning, the expression of doubts and efforts to explore things deeper.
We must not forget that “theory is not a passion of the head but the head of passion”, and that “when theory grips the masses, it becomes a material force” (Marx). The struggle for communism contains not only an economic and political dimension, but also and above all a theoretical dimension (‘intellectual’ and moral). It is by developing a ‘culture of theory’, i.e. a capacity to permanently place all the activities of the organisation in a historical and/or theoretical framework, that we can develop and deepen the culture of debate in our ranks, and better assimilate the dialectical method of marxism. Without the development of this ‘culture of theory’, the ICC will not be able to maintain its compass over the long term so that it can orient itself, adapt to unprecedented situations, evolve and enrich marxism, which is not an invariant and immutable dogma but a living theory aimed towards the future.
This ‘culture of theory’ is not a problem of militants’ level of education. It contributes to the development of a rational, rigorous and coherent thought which is indispensable to the capacity to develop an argument, to advancing the consciousness of all the militants, and to the consolidation of the marxist method in our ranks.
This work of theoretical reflection cannot ignore the contribution of the sciences (and notably of the human sciences, such as psychology and anthropology), the history of the human species and the development of its civilisation. It is for this reason that the discussion on the theme “Marxism and science” has been of the highest importance and the advances which it has made possible must remain present and be reinforced in the thinking and life of the organisation.
The invitation to scientists
This concern for the sciences is not new for the ICC. In particular, in articles on our previous congresses we talked about the invitation of scientists who made a contribution to the reflection of the whole organisation by submitting their own thoughts from their areas of research. This time, we invited the British anthropologists Camilla Power and Chris Knight, who had already attended previous congresses, and whom we thank warmly for coming to this one. These two scientists shared a presentation on the theme of violence in prehistory, in societies which were not yet divided into classes. Communists obviously have a fundamental interest in this question. Marxism has devoted much research into the role of violence. Engels in particular dedicated an important part of Anti-Dühring to the role of violence in history. Today, as we get ready to mark the centenary of the First World War, a century distinguished by the worst violence humanity has ever known, and when violence is ever-present in social life, it’s important that those who fight for a society that has rid itself of the scars of capitalist society, of wars and oppression, should ask questions about the place of violence in different societies. In particular, faced with the standpoint of bourgeois ideology for whom the violence of today corresponds to ‘human nature’, whose rule is ‘everyman for himself’ and the domination of the strong over the weak, it is necessary to look into the role of societies which were not divided into classes, as in primitive communism.
We cannot give an account here of the very rich presentations by Camilla Power and Chris Knight (which we plan to publish as a podcast on our website). But it is worth pointing out that these two scientists argued against the theory of Steven Pinker4, who claims that thanks to ‘civilisation’ and the influence of the state, violence has been receding. Camilla Power and Chris Knight showed that amongst hunter and gatherer societies there was a much lower level of violence than in subsequent social formations.
The discussion that followed the presentation by Camilla Power and Chris Knight was, as at the previous congresses, very animated. In particular it illustrated once again how the contribution of the sciences can enrich revolutionary thought, an idea which Marx and Engels defended a century and half ago.
The 20th Congress of the ICC, by highlighting the obstacles facing the working class in its struggle for emancipation, as well as the obstacles encountered by the organisation of revolutionaries in carrying out its specific responsibilities within this struggle, showed the difficulty and length of the road ahead of us. But this should not be a source of discouragement. As the resolution adopted by the congress puts it:
“The task which lies ahead of us is long and difficult. It will demand patience, which Lenin saw as one of the main qualities of a Bolshevik. We have to resist discouragement in the face of our difficulties. These are inevitable and we should see them not as a curse but on the contrary as an encouragement to pursue and intensify the combat. Revolutionaries, and this is one of their essential characteristics, are not people who look for comfort or the easy way out. They are fighters whose aim is to make a decisive contribution to the most immense and difficult task the human species will ever have to accomplish, but also the most exciting because it means the liberation of humanity from exploitation and alienation, and the beginning of its ‘real history’” (Point 16).
1 See International Review 60, first quarter of 1990: Collapse of Stalinism: New difficulties for the proletariat and International Review 64 (first quarter 1991): Orientation text: Militarism and decomposition
2 ‘Internal debate: the causes of the post-1945 economic boom’ in International Review nos. 133,135,136, 138, 2008-2009.
3 See The proletariat of Western Europe at the centre of the generalization of the class struggle in International Review 31.