The CWO and the Lessons of Regroupment for Revolutionaries
IR9, 2nd Quarter, April 1977
An important split has recently taken place in the ranks of the Communist Workers’ Organization (CWO), a revolutionary group in Britain that defends positions close to those of the ICC. Although the details of the split remain obscure, since the ‘seceders’ from the CWO have apparently failed to produce a single document explaining why they broke away, it seems that the entire Liverpool section – more or less the old Workers’ Voice group – has left the CWO complaining of its intolerant attitude both to other groups and to internal discussion. These charges have perhaps some solid justification. But the old Workers’ Voice group is hardly well-qualified to complain about intolerance towards other groups: it was the first of various groups to break off relations with the ICC, accusing it of being ‘counter-revolutionary’ on the flimsiest of political arguments (see WV 13, ‘Statement’). From what little evidence there is, it seems that the Liverpool group’s main motivation for leaving the CWO was a pronounced tendency towards localism and activism; a purely verbal commitment to ‘intervene in the working class’, seeing both intervention and the working class in the most narrow and fragmented way. Both these localist tendencies, and the Liverpool group’s failure to debate differences in a genuinely political manner, are in direct continuity with the practice of the old Workers’ Voce (see ‘Sectarianism Unlimited’ in World Revolution, 3). The reaction of the remaining members of the CWO seems to be in line with that group’s tradition of self-enclosed dogmatism to the extent that their publications have not shown a concern to go more deeply into the political implications of this split.
We don’t want to dwell on the specific details of this split. We simply want to say that it is the logical conclusion of what we referred to as an “incomplete regroupment” (WR 5) when Workers’ Voice and Revolutionary Perspectives fused to form the CWO in September 1975. It is the inevitable result of the policy of sectarian isolation the CWO chose for themselves when they broke off with the ICC. This isolation has been growing ever since the CWO was formed: most of the contacts they have had with revolutionary elements in other countries (among them Pour Une Intervention Communiste in France and the ex-Revolutionary Workers’ Group in the US) have led nowhere. Now the group has lost one of its strongest sections. More than ever, the CWO remains a local group, trapped by the narrowness of its horizons. Although the CWO itself may be unable to understand why all this has happened in a period which is basically favourable to the regroupment of revolutionary forces, it is important for us to look at the whole experience of the CWO as a problem of the re-emerging revolutionary movement, and to see what lessons this experience holds for the process of revolutionary regroupment that is going on today. We would also like to take this opportunity to express our criticisms of what we consider to be the main political errors of the CWO. This critique will serve as a response to the polemic with the ICC in the CWO’s article in Revolutionary Perspectives 4, ‘The Convulsions of the ICC’, which purports to show why the ICC is part of the bourgeoisie.
THE PROBLEMS OF THE RE-EMERGING REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT
In order to understand the bizarre situation in which there are two revolutionary groups in Britain, both defending class positions, but who have no relationship with each other because one considers the other to be ‘counter-revolutionary’, we have to go back several years to the time when the small but growing revolutionary movement of today began to emerge out of the long night of the counter-revolution, whose end was signalled by the resurgence of proletarian struggle after 1968.
Precisely because the counter-revolution that followed the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 was so long and so deep, the re-emergence of the revolutionary movement in the late 1960s was hindered by innumerable obstacles and confusions. These is no automatic connection between the level of class struggle at a given time and the clarity of the proletariat’s revolutionary minorities. Following the May ’68 events in France, the international proletariat, reacting to the first shocks of the just beginning global economic exists, launched itself into a series of battles on a scale the world hadn’t seen for fifty years. But although the re-appearance of the proletariat on the scene of history posed the general conditions for the rebirth of a communist fraction within the class, the first revolutionary groups engendered by the reviving class struggle found it extremely difficult to understand the meaning of their own existence, the tasks which they had been created to fulfil.
The most serious problem confronting these groups was the complete break in organic continuity that existed with the revolutionary movement of the past. In previous periods, the proletariat had seen its parties collapse or betray the class, but each time a new organization had emerged after a brief period, taking the best elements of the old parties and creating a higher synthesis out of them. Thus although the 2nd International was lost to the proletariat when it capitulated to the imperialist war in 1914, the ‘wreckage’ was not absolute. Within a few years a new International had arisen like a phoenix out of the ashes, based on those elements of the old International who had remained loyal to the programmatic principles of the working class. While breaking with the parties of Social Democracy, the new Communist International (Comintern) did not have to ‘start from scratch’. It could count on an organizational experience and a presence within the working class built up by revolutionaries for decades before the disaster of 1914.
In contrast to this, the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23, because it took place in a new period when the only perspective facing the proletariat was socialism or barbarism, and thus when the only proletarian political minorities were ones based on an explicitly communist programme, meant the virtual disappearance of the revolutionary movement from the scene of history. The Left Communist fractions that detached themselves from the degenerating Comintern continued to play a vital role in drawing the lessons from the defeat of the revolution, but in the end they were unable to resist the immense pressure of bourgeois ideology in a period of defeat and demoralization. The story of the Left Communist movement from the 1920s to the 1950s is one of growing isolation and fragmentation.
The tragic break in continuity with the past movement meant that the new groupings which emerged in the late 1960s were deprived of vital theoretical and organizational experience, lacked traditions of intervention in revolutionary struggle, were isolated from the class, and so on. In addition to this, the movement arose ‘in parallel’, as it were, with the so-called student revolt. Many of the new revolutionary elements had originally come out of the university milieu with all the confusions and prejudices that flourish in such an environment.
This petty bourgeois influence was most strongly felt in that area where the new revolutionary groups were the most confused: the question of organization. The betrayals of the Bolshevik Party, the transformation of the previous revolutionary parties into monstrous bureaucratic machines, had as early as the 1920s produced a reaction in the working class movement that tended to suspect any form of revolutionary organization as being an expression of a desire to substitute the organization for the working class. Certain tendencies coming from the Council Communists in the 1930s and 40s began to evolve towards the position that revolutionary organizations constitute a barrier to the development of an autonomous proletarian struggle.
It is hardly surprising that the young revolutionary movement of the 1960s should have adopted these ‘councilist’ errors at the beginning. Many individuals moved towards revolutionary positions in reaction to the bureaucratic and vanguardist pre-tensions of the various leftist organizations. And if one also bears in mind the fact that libertarian, situationist, and other ‘anti-authoritarian’ conceptions were intimately bound up with the petty-bourgeois milieu out of which many of the revolutionaries had come, we can see why the question of organization was such a stumbling block to the majority of the new revolutionary currents. The role of revolutionaries within the class struggle, the way to organize a revolutionary minority, the meaning of intervention in the class struggle – these questions were understood much less readily than more general class positions like the bourgeois nature of the trade unions or of the Stalinist regimes. There was an almost endemic fear of ‘Leninism’ and ‘Bolshevism’, a feeling that anyone who tended to stress the importance of the revolutionary organization must be ‘just the same’ as the Trotskyists or Stalinists, interested only in constituting themselves as fake ‘leaders’ of the working class. Similarly any attempt to organize revolutionary activity in a centralized manner was viewed with intense suspicion: the only centralism that could be imagined was the bureaucratic hierarchy of the leftist organizations. At the same time aspects of revolutionary work such as regular, methodical publication, a systematic approach to intervention and distribution of literature, etc – were often looked down upon as so much ‘organizational fetishism’. Needless to say, this suspicion, amounting at times to a virtual paralysis of any revolutionary work, was a direct product of the trauma of the counter-revolution: an understandable obsession, but one which had to be overcome as soon as possible if the revolutionary movement was ever to get of the ground.
Because of these problems, many of the groups that were produced by the first wave of proletarian struggle between 1968 and 1972 disappeared completely. And the majority of these were casualties of a deep confusion about organization. A typical example of this was the Swedish group Internationell Arbetarkamp (IAK). Beginning as a healthy reaction against Maoism, IAK came close to elaborating a clear communist platform but when it had to confront the problem of how to organize itself, it drew back in the most abject terror. Coming under the influence of ‘modernist’ ideas like those of Invariance in France, it quickly began to theorize its own inner decomposition, arguing that all groups are ‘rackets’ and bourgeois in nature and that the task of communists is to ‘live like communists’. Not surprisingly the group soon splintered into a number of demoralized individuals pursuing their own development via vegetarianism, writing ‘anti-capitalist’ novels, etc, etc.
One of the main problems during this period was that there was not yet a political current that was capable of acting as a solid pole of regroupment, of offering groups like IAK an alternative to political disintegration. This was inevitable because the fledgling revolutionary movement had no alternative but to grow and mature through its own experiences. Nevertheless, this process of maturation was slowly unfolding. An early sign of this was the disappearance of most of the currents who, dazzled by the post-war boom, had rejected the marxist conception of crisis, and now found their fantasies about a crisis-free capitalism shattered by the dramatic sharpening of the economic crisis after 1973 (situationism, Gauche Marxiste, ICO, etc). Throughout the period 1968-1973, there was a gradual and steady process of decantation going on in the revolutionary movement. In this context the persistence and perseverance of the international current (then represented by Revolution Internationale in France, Internationalism in the US, and Internacionalismo in Venezuela) in defending the need for a coherent political platform as the basis for a regroupment of revolutionaries were an expression of the objective needs of the revolutionary movement. For us to assert this today is not a question of retrospectively blowing our own trumpet, or arbitrarily declaring ourselves to be a pole of regroupment (unique and everlasting) as the CWO seem to claim in their ‘Convulsions of the ICC’. If the international current was the most consistent revolutionary regroupment of the post-1968 period it was because of its profound concern to re-appropriate and deepen the gains of the past revolutionary movement. The fact that some of the founding members of the international current had been directly involved in the Left Communist movement from the 1930s to the 1950s was an important element here though not the only decisive factor. As we have said any direct organic continuity with the Communist Left had been finally severed by the counter-revolution. But the international current was committed to building on a political continuity with the Left Communist movement of the past and thus elaborated a platform that aims at a synthesis of the fundamental contributions of the historical workers’ movement. This meant that the current tended to become a pole of regroupment and contributed to the clarification of the revolutionary movement of the early 1970s. But, because of its immaturity, it took a long time for the implications of this to be understood by the current itself, and many internal conflicts and confusions had to be resolved before the international current could fully assimilate the reality of its own existence. For example, it had to deal with ‘anti-organizational’ hesitations in its own midst, expressed by the departure of the activist elements of the PIC from RI in 1973 and of the modernist Tendence Communiste in 1974 and so. (In the ‘Convulsions of the ICC’, the CWO present these set-backs as the signs of a group in its death-throes; today they can clearly be seen as the growing pains of the ICC).
Thus, as with most of the revolutionary currents of the time, the international current that was growing into the ICC of today understood the organizational question last of all. The relative immaturity of the current at this time was inevitable, but it was to have important repercussions on some early attempts at regroupment. This was to become painfully clear in Britain.
SETBACKS TO REGROUPMENT IN BRITAIN
In May 1973 various groups and individuals attempting to clarify communist positions came together in Liverpool to discuss the perspective ahead of them. There were three groups from Britain: the Liverpool-based Workers’ Voice, which had broken away from Trotskyism and was trying to re-assimilate the gains made by the Left Communists in the early twenties; some comrades from Scotland who had split from Solidarity in order to defend a marxist conception of the capitalist crisis; and a London-based group, some of whose members had also split from Solidarity but who saw themselves as being close to the positions of Revolution Internationale and Internationalism (who also attended). On crucial questions like the trade unions, organization, and the decadence of capitalism, there was considerable confusion in the British groups. RI’s and Internationalism’s contributions were extremely important in trying to clarify some of these problems.
A number of meetings followed over the next few months and the groups in Britain made considerable progress. (The London group evolved into World Revolution, and the elements in Scotland into Revolutionary Perspectives.) Discussion between the groups was continuous, fraternal, and constructive; a number of joint interventions were made (such as the WR/WV leaflet on Chile in September 1973 when the Allende government fell). But a problem began to be posed by the fact that WR was moving much more quickly towards the platform and politics of the international current than RP or WV. Questions as crucial as the decadence of capitalism or the alternative of war or revolution, socialism or barbarism, evoked hesitations and incomprehension on the part of WV at first. RP, while denying the problem of the saturation of markets as a source for capitalist crisis, assimilated the general concept of decadence more quickly. RP however, expressed disagreements on the question of the Russian Revolution, and the Bolshevik Party in particular. It took RP a long time to fully grasp the proletarian character of the Bolshevik Party. This ‘uneven development’ of the three groups was to become a source of complications for one fundamental reason: the discussion and cooperation between the groups had at no stage been based on a clear conception of the regroupment of revolutionaries. From the beginning, regroupment was seen as a vague, distant prospect, perhaps only necessary when the revolution began. Discussion between the groups was conducted on the unspoken understanding that each group had its own ‘autonomy’, its own positions to develop and defend. The friendliness of the discussion was genuine enough, but it was unstable to the extent that it had not had to face the uncomfortable question of real unification, fusion into a single organization, centralized on an international scale.
Here again the international current was the first to pose the question of regroupment in a clear way. But by the time the question had been made explicit, its implicit emergence had already resulted in a deterioration of relations between the groups in Britain. This was especially true after a conference in Paris in January 1974 when WR changed its position on the Russian Revolution (viz. that the October insurrection was a state capitalist counter-revolution led by a ‘bourgeois’ Bolshevik Party) and showed its clear will to be part of the international current of RI/Internationalism/Internacionalismo, Workers’ Voice interpreted this as a ‘capitulation’ by WR to the semi-Bolshevik designs of the international tendency (an interpretation still put forward by the CWO in ‘Convulsions’), and relations between WR and WV deteriorated rapidly after this. WV increasingly retreated into a sullen unwillingness to discuss its differences with WR (see ‘Sectarianism Unlimited’, WR3) and did not respond to the various letters WR wrote to it in order to try to keep the discussion going. (It seems that today the Liverpool group intends to continue the same policy of silence over its differences with the CWO.)
By the time the international current really began to make it clear that regroupment meant regroupment today into a single international organization, it appeared to the groups ‘outside’ the current that the international current (which was now being joined by groups in Italy and Spain) was expressing some kind of ‘imperialist’ desire to expand at all costs, and to incorporate all the other groups into itself in order to puff up its own pretensions. The current was not only talking about regroupment; it had begun to construct an organizational framework in which this regroupment could actually take place. This provoked a suspicious response from the other groups, and not only in Britain. The Chicago-based Revolutionary Workers’ Group, which had broken from Trotskyism and had been moving towards the current in a very positive way, also began to draw back when the practical question of its integration into the current began to be posed. Some elements of WV and the RWG also harboured certain illusions as to the possibility of independent work with the modernist Tendance Communiste before the latter’s complete political disintegration and disappearance.
In November 1974, WV’s silence was broken by a statement asserting that the current was a counter-revolutionary force because of its position on the state in the period of transition. The RP group still showed a willingness to discuss political questions, but it now began to raise more and more objections to the positions of the current, especially on the Russian Revolution and the period of transition. After discussing the possibility of entering the international current as a ‘minority’ federation and finding this proposal severely criticized by the current, it began to consider itself as the ‘clearest’ group and thus to act as if it, and no longer the current, was the pole of regroupment for revolutionaries. It demanded that the current (which in January 1975 constituted itself as the International Communist Current) change its positions, which were now seen to ‘cross class lines’ on the question of the state, and on the final demise of the Russian Revolution. At this stage its perspective was one of convincing the ICC of its “errors (which) are subjective and do not represent an alien class viewpoint” (‘Open Letter to the ICC’, RP, February 1975). Shortly after this RP abandoned hope of reforming the ICC and concentrated on regrouping with the other groups who seemed to be closer to its own positions and who by now formed a kind of ‘counter-tendency’ to the ICC: WV, RWG, and the PIC. Discussions with RWG and the PIC were to reveal substantial differences, but in September 1975 WV and RP fused to form the CWO. Initially it appears that the RP elements in the CWO continued to regard the ICC as a ‘confusionist’, not a bourgeois group, but later on the whole CWO adopted the position of the old WV, viz. that the ICC was a counter-revolutionary faction of capital with whom all discussion was useless. Despite this the CWO claim in the ‘Convulsions of the ICC’ article that it was the ICC that put an end to discussion between the groups. This is an incredible assertion when one bears in mind the endless statements issued by the ICC both before and after the formation of the CWO, affirming its willingness to maintain a dialogue with the CWO, a position it still adheres to today, without putting any conditions on the debate. It is all the more incredible when one considers that during the regroupment process in Belgium, the different groups involved (RRS of Antwerp, the VRS of Ghent and Journal Lutte de Classe of Brussels) invited the CWO to participate in their conference with the full accord of the ICC. The CWO did not come however, and their silence was regretted in the documents that came out of the Conference in 1975 (see The International Review, no. 4).
THE PRICE OF IMMATURITY
This brief trajectory of the process which led to the formation of the CWO will convey very little unless we analyse the underlying reasons for it taking place, and try to draw some lessons from it. We don’t want to rake over all the details of this sad affair. It is a story of mistakes, misunderstandings, and immaturity ‘on both sides’, and it would be quite futile to engage in petty recriminations about who did what to whom. That kind of approach only serves to obscure the wider political issues involved. Our task today is to understand why such a deterioration of relations took place. Only by considering the general characteristics of the affair will it become possible to see how at certain junctures, petty and/or secondary questions could have exacerbated the problem so much. In retrospect, it is possible to see a number of general reasons for the failure of this attempt at regroupment.
On the part of the groups ‘outside’ the current, the main obstacles to regroupment were problems which, as we have seen, were common to many of the groups who had emerged from the period of counter-revolution: a traumatic fear of ‘Bolshevism’ and the legacy of the counter-revolution, and a profound lack of clarity on the question of organization.
1. One of the main bones of contention between the ICC and the other groups was the Russian Revolution and the lessons to be drawn from it. This is no accident. The Russian Revolution was one of the most important events in the proletariat’s history, and anyone who fails to understand the lessons of this experience will not succeed in disengaging themselves from the counter-revolution. The reaction of some elements of the proletariat to the defeat of this revolution was to reject the whole experience as being no more than a bourgeois revolution or a moment in the evolution of capital into new forms. The Bolshevik Party in particular was often scrubbed out of the whole proletarian movement, and portrayed as a standard bearer of state capitalism interested only in the modernization of Russia. This kind of interpretation, which we might refer to loosely as ‘councilist’, had a considerable influence on all the groups in Britain when they started out. WR had originally called itself Council Communism and was violently opposed to Bolshevism; WV went through an explicitly councilist phase when it rejected any idea of a revolutionary party; and RP started out with positions close to those of Otto Ruhle, i.e. that all parties are bourgeois and that 1917 in Russia was a bourgeois revolution.
In contrast to this, RI from the very beginning insisted on the proletarian character of the October insurrection and of the Bolshevik Party. This ‘naturally’ produced suspicions that RI was still somehow tainted with Bolshevism and Leninism, that it was prepared to excuse or apologize for all the anti-working class actions of the Bolsheviks after 1917. Further suspicion was engendered by RI’s affirmation that during the transition period a state was inevitable, a necessary evil that the proletariat would have to make use of but could never identify itself with. And since RI had always defended the need for a ‘revolutionary party’, the current’s talk about regroupment was interpreted as yet another party-building adventure of the Trotskyist kind. Failing to understand the method the international current used to draw the lessons from the Bolshevik experience, the other groups tended to suspect the ‘counter-revolution’ behind every position that they could not immediately grasp.
After a great deal of discussion, both WV and RP moved away from the councilist interpretation of the Russian Revolution and accepted the proletarian character of the revolution and of the Bolshevik Party. They also began to talk about the need for a revolutionary party. But they would not even consider the idea that the transitional state was something distinct from the working class, and implied that the ICC’s position menat repeating the Bolshevik mistake of subordinating the workers’ councils to an alien force. (This was exactly the reverse of the ICC’s position, which stressed the need for the workers’ councils to exert their power over all other institutions in society!)
At the same time, while accepting the proletarian character of the Russian Revolution, WV, RP (and the RWG) began to insist that anyone who didn’t acknowledge that the Bolshevik Party was finished in 1921 (Kronstadt, the NEP, the United Front) had ‘crossed class lines’ and become an apologist of the counter-revolution. We will discuss the absurdity of this position later on, but even its absurdity was not without significance. Never before in the history of the workers’ movement has a question of dates, of retrospective historical interpretation, been made into a class frontier. The only possible explanation for the intransigence with which WV, RP, and RWG defended their position on ‘1921’ is that they saw this date as a kind of ‘cordon sanitaire’ protecting them from any possible connection with the degeneration of Bolshevism. It was as though they were trying to allay their lingering suspicions about accepting the Bolshevik Party as part of their own history by saying ‘thus far, but no further’. They had moved from a councilist position to a more coherent one, close to that of the ICC, but as have said, they had not assimilated a coherent method of analysing the mistakes and even crimes of the past workers’ movement, nor its approach to the problem of the degeneration and death of proletarian organizations.
2. The WV/RP confusions about regroupment and organization were again closely linked to their fears of ‘Leninism’ and ‘Bolshevism’. This was particularly marked with WV, who for a long time considered that any talk of regroupment today was ‘substitutionist’. Though they later changed this position (without ever explaining why), the issue of regroupment was never fully clarified in the CWO, as we shall see. Parallel to this hostility to regroupment there was the above-mentioned suspicion about the very idea of the party, and unease about the concept of centralization. WV’s ideas about organization were more or less federalist: each group was autonomous and had its own intervention to do in its own corner of the world. The prospect of being absorbed into a larger international body filled them with anxiety. RP accepted the idea of regroupment and centralization more easily, but their understanding of the implications of this was severely limited. This was demonstrated, for example, by their idea of entering the current as a bloc that had its own platform within the organization. And their subsequent shift from this semi-federalist conception to an extreme monolithism, in which regroupment was impossible until there was absolute agreement on every conceivable point, was further evidence that they had never really understood the concept of centralization. In general neither WV nor RP ever abandoned the idea that they had to make their own unique contribution to the workers’ movement, that they themselves had worked out and clarified the essentials of a revolutionary platform. True, they said, the international current had helped them quite a bit, but the main achievement was their own. They had pulled themselves out of leftism by their own bootstraps.
The truth was somewhat different. Neither RP, nor WV, nor the CWO has ever made a systematic critique of their own past, but if they had done so, they would have come to some uncomfortable conclusions. While discussion between revolutionaries is never a monologue, and both sides gained mutually from the debates that took place in Britain, a cursory look at the facts will leave us in no doubt about who was the main source of clarification. The current already had a clear platform before these discussions took place: that of RI’s Declaration of Principles in 1968 and the platform in 1972. When RP and WV began discussing with the current, they were deeply confused on absolutely vital questions like the shop stewards, the Russian Revolution, decadence, organization, the Left Communist movement, etc, etc. The clear positions they moved towards were positions that the current already defended; what they considered later on to be evidence of their superior clarity (1921, the state, etc) were, in the main, confusions, which they never managed to surmount. The result was that the platforms of WV, RP, and the CWO, are essentially watered-down versions of the ICC platform, with the addition of their own hobbyhorses.
Without the intervention of the international current, it is somewhat doubtful as to whether WV and RP would have arrived at a relatively clear political perspective. Once again, we are not asserting this merely to add to the prestige of the ICC. We are simply reaffirming the fact that historical circumstances led to the international current being the first to elaborate a coherent political platform, and thus endowed it with a particular responsibility in the development of other groups. Neither RP nor WV could ever bear to admit this fact. Their desire to defend their autonomy and to develop their ‘own’ ideas prevented them from seeing the need for communists to unite their efforts and to regroup into a single organization.
But the failings of WV and RP cannot explain the whole story. We are not dealing with autonomous psychological problems here: the hesitations, confusions, and fears of WV/RP were very much a historical product of the immaturity of the revolutionary movement. And this immaturity also affected the international current, and hindered its own efforts at constituting a pole of regroupment.
As we have seen, the groups of the international current, while having a more coherent view of the organizational question in general terms, took some time to draw all the practical conclusions from this overall understanding. This applies both to their internal structure and to the question of regroupment, both of which are aspects of centralization. Only gradually did it become clear that it was necessary today to build an internationally centralized organization of revolutionaries, which in turn would be a moment in the reconstitution of the world communist party in a period of heightened class struggle. Although it imposed its general clarity on the discussions with the other groups, the international current failed to pose the vital questions of regroupment from the beginning. It did not insist soon enough that the purpose of the discussion and cooperation between groups in Britain was the fusion of the different elements into a single international organization.
When differences between the groups emerged, the current did not always respond in a politically adequate manner, and this was fundamentally the result of its inexperience in dealing with such problems. The development of new groups is an extremely delicate process which requires, alongside an intransigent defence of general political positions, a great deal of flexibility and patience on the part of the more developed group. This is not to say that the whole problem would have been avoided if the current had been more ‘tactful’ – after a point even the tact and friendliness of the current were interpreted as manifestations of unprincipled opportunism. But when the revolutionary movement is small and immature, secondary and even personal problems can have an effect out of all proportion to their real importance. This means that the way political discussion is conducted is a matter of considerable interest. It is especially necessary to separate secondary issues from the main ones, and to conduct discussion on a strictly political level, without getting lost in the minutia of inter-group psychology.
The international current’s lack of experience in conducting such discussions was compounded by the fact that it did not yet have the organizational means to steer the debate to a successful conclusion. Because the current did not yet exist as a single, unified organization, it had no way of elaborating a fully consistent and global orientation for relating to other groups. For the same reason it was difficult for other groups to see it as a pole of regroupment when it had no common platform and no unified organizational structure. Groups like the RWG actually chided it for not being centralized, failing to understand that centralization was a process which could not be proclaimed overnight. The whole perspective of the current was that it should move towards a single international organization. But the fact that it had not yet reached this stage was to weight heavily on its early attempts to regroup with other elements. Moreover, the ‘birth’ of the ICC was accompanied by inevitable birth-pangs which gave rise to a number of defections as mentioned above.
“This period of deepening understanding in the Current undoubtedly disturbed all our international contacts. To see the organization to some extent split apart by violent polemic (particularly with the modernist Tendance Communiste within RI) did not inspire confidence in those who were in any case permeated with a fear of organization connected to ‘anti-Leninism’. It is difficult to integrate other elements into an organization during its particularly painful birth” (from the ICC text, ‘Lessons of Regroupment’).
If one compares the failure of regroupment with RP and WV in Britain with the successful regroupment that took place a year later in Belgium, it immediately becomes clear how important the existence of the Current as a unified body was. The three groups that began discussing revolutionary positions in Belgium started off with many of the problems the groups in Britain had faced: different backgrounds, an uneven development towards the politics of the ICC, etc. But this time the ICC not only existed as such; it had also learned from its negative experiences in Britain, and was able to situate the discussions in a coherent framework from the beginning. It was able to minimize secondary questions and patiently assist all the groups to arrive at the same level of understanding. It was made clear all along that the purpose of discussion was the unification of the different elements into a single international organization; and the ICC was able to present itself as such an organization. In fact it soon became clear to the Belgian comrades that the ICC was the only organization capable of providing a framework for international regroupment. The intervention of the PIC and the CWO in this process simply revealed their preoccupation with attacking the ICC and obstructing any unification in the revolutionary movement. The constitution of Internationalisme as the Belgian section of the ICC, together with other successful regroupments in Canada, Italy, and Spain, were evidence that the ICC had surmounted many of its earlier difficulties and was beginning to show a real capacity to act as a pole of clarification and regroupment.
It is unfortunate that many of the bitter lessons that the ICC learned about regroupment, such as the need to situate discussion in a global framework, the need for a unified international organization, etc, were learned through a negative experience in Britain. But then defeat has always been the school of the proletarian movement. The conditions that led to the formation of the CWO were above all a product of a particular phase in the reconstitution of the revolutionary movement, and will probably not repeat themselves. In this sense, the CWO is an anomaly left over from a period that is now behind us. This is underlined by the subsequent positive growth of the ICC, and the increasing isolation and fragmentation of the CWO.
THE ISOLATION OF THE CWO
Since its formation, the CWO has more and more retreated into a shell of misanthropic sectarianism. The main role it has played has been that of confusing elements moving towards communist positions, bewildering them with its obsessive emphasis on the ‘differences’ it has with the ICC. After all, what could be more confusing for people who are only just learning what real class positions are, what the real difference between a communist group and a leftist group is, to find a whole new set of ‘additional’ class lines presented to them? It is rather difficult at this state to assess the amount of damage the CWO had done to the emerging revolutionary movement. We have mentioned their negative role in the regroupment process in Belgium. In Britain, they have succeeded in derailing a few individuals into their isolationist fox-hole. Not to mention the fact that the militants of the CWO have removed themselves from the mainstream of the revolutionary movement, and thus have robbed themselves of making the contribution to the movement promised by their earlier development.
But it would be quite wrong to over-estimate the (negative) influence of the CWO. In many instances they have failed to convince newly emerging revolutionaries that their stance ‘against the ICC’ is based on serious political criteria (the groups in Belgium, for example, and with certain comrades in Britain). And since their sectarian attitude is no longer directed at the ICC alone, they have found it difficult to maintain contact with a number of other groups, let alone regroup with them. The attitude they took up towards the PIC is typical. The CWO demanded that the PIC simply abandon its position on the crisis, based on Luxemburg’s analysis, as a minimum precondition for regroup (see WR 5, ‘An Incomplete Regroupment’). A similar sectarian approach was adopted towards a group in Gothenburg, Sweden, which was attempting to move away from anarchism: the CWO’s response to the group’s platform was not to make a criticism of its confusions, but to write a ringing attack on the historical anarchist movement (see ‘Anarchism’ in RP 3), and insist that the Gothenburg group reply to this attack before any further dialogue could take place! Not surprisingly neither the PIC nor the Swedish group were prepared to accept the CWO’s ‘purist’ ultimatum.
Other international contacts have similarly led nowhere. The CWO had a brief flirtation with the French group, Union Ouvriere, a split-off from the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvriere. Although the CWO correctly encouraged UO’s early efforts to move towards revolutionary positions, they underestimated the difficulties of making a complete break with a counter-revolutionary organizational past on an overall political level. The CWO’s desperate search for other revolutionary contacts once they had arbitrarily cut themselves off from the ICC and anything and anywhere in contact with it, led them to harbour illusions about the actual clarity of UO and to throw themselves into a heady proclamation that UO was on the road to victory before, unfortunately, all the battles were won.
In any case the CWO’s ‘political dialogue’ with UO seems to have ended in embarrassed silence since the latter has now fragmented into a number of modernist sects. The collapse of the CWO’s relationship with the American RWG, described in the early days of the CWO as the group that was closest to it (WV 15), was also passed over in silence. Being ‘close’ to the CWO wasn’t enough to prevent the RWG from getting thoroughly demoralized and dissolving itself (see WR 5, ‘An Incomplete Regroupment’). After briefly resurrecting itself as the ‘Proletarian Communist Group’, the vestiges of the RWG finally fused with a strange Chicago club called the ‘Committee for a Workers’ Council’ to form a ridiculous semi-modernist sect called ‘Forward’. Forward thinks that the whole historical workers’ movement from Marx to the Bolsheviks and the Communist Left was just the “left wing of Capital”, and that the defensive struggles of the class (which Forward contemptuously and erroneously identifies with “collective bargaining”) should not happen. Their paper is mainly devoted to windy attacks on both the ICC and… the CWO!
The breakdown of these international contacts emphasized the isolation of the CWO: its inability to offer any real perspective for the regroupment of revolutionaries. Although it has so far failed to draw up any balance sheet of these attempts at regroupment, this series of failures must have produced tensions within the organization. As we have seen, the seceding Liverpool section gave as one of its reasons for secession the CWO’s intolerant attitude to other groups. When a group is turned in on itself like the CWO, immense internal pressure inevitably builds up, leading to sudden and unexplained defections and splits.
The pressure inside the CWO has been further increased by the group’s monolithic character: its insistence on total agreement on all possible points of the platform, its refusal to a allow minority positions. As we predicted in WR 6, this monolithic conception of organization “will lead not just to two organizations, but an unending series of splits, expulsions, denunciations, and breaking off of relations, which can be expected to clarify the communist programme no more than the CWO’s present break with the ICC has done” (‘The CWO and the Organization Question’).
This monolithism never allowed differences within the CWO to emerge and be debated publicly, or according to the ‘seceders’, within the organization itself. This can only serve to drive real differences underground and creates a stifling atmosphere inside a group; but at the same time the CWO was unable to dispense with a monolithic structure. Originating in an over-reaction to the initial federalism of RP and WV, the CWO’s monolithism became a vital protecting device ensuring the uniqueness of the CWO’s platform and sealing the CWO off from other groups.
But it is also quite clear that this monolithic structure never really eliminated the fragility of the original regroupment between WV and RP. This is admitted by the CWO itself, in its recent letter to the ICC: “In the future we will have to be more careful in our dealings with elements who give out that they agree with our politics, but who seek to use us either as a life-raft to keep them afloat, or as a shield against another political organization.”
Underneath the apparent unity and “programmatic centralism” of the CWO, there were still two groups and the Liverpool group’s acceptance of the CWO’s professed political perspectives seems to have been fairly superficial, judging from its easy regression back to the localist, activist politics of the old WV. The joint organization was an artificial creation from the beginning, constructed on an entirely inadequate political basis, as a kind of negative mirror image of the ICC. The split was therefore written into the group from the beginning, and unless the CWO radically changes its present orientation, its points to further disintegratory tendencies in the future.
Another consequence of the CWO’s isolation is an accumulation of confusions and political misconceptions, which (in the absence of discussion with anybody else) don’t get clarified, but serve as further justifications of the ‘uniqueness’ of the CWO. For now one example will suffice: in RP 5 we find the incredible assertion that neither the July 19, 1936 uprising in Barcelona, nor the Barcelona May Days of 1937, were expressions of proletarian struggle. This view is totally at odds with the position defended by Bilan (see the appeal of the Communist Left published in the International Review, no. 6) and actually obscures the whole significance of what happened in Spain, particularly the role of the ‘extreme left’ which had such an important role to play in Spain precisely because the proletarian danger had been acutely felt by the Spanish bourgeoisie. We don’t wish to go into this question in detail here. We cite it as an example of the way the CWO’s isolation both from today’s revolutionary movement and from the tradition of the Communist Left is leading it to adopt more and more bizarre and unsubstantiated positions. The CWO continues to defend class positions, and remains within the proletarian camp; its political degeneration is taking place quite slowly. But the proliferation of confusions within its ranks will inevitably accelerate this tendency towards theoretical degeneration, which is becoming increasingly apparent.