The Constitution of the IBRP: An Opportunist Bluff, Part 1
With the publication in English and French of the first issue of the Communist Review (April 1984), the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, recently formed by the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (Battaglia Comunista) of Italy and the Communist Workers’ Organisation of Britain, has at last found a voice. This event is all the more important since the collapse of the PCI (Programma Comunista) deprived the organisations springing from the ‘Bordigist’ tradition of the PCInt founded in 1943 of any expression at an international level. The regroupment of BC and the CWO is the result of a process announced by the CWO (in Revolutionary Perspectives no. 18) after the 3rd International Conference. The proletarian milieu had a right to expect, at the very least, an account of the discussions which made it possible to overcome their programmatic divergences to the point of founding a common organisation. Sadly, the foundation of the IBRP is in direct descent from the manoeuvres that sabotaged the International Conferences; it is made up of the kind of bluff and political opportunism that can only discredit revolutionary organisations, their importance, and the role they have to play in the class struggle.
THE VERITABLE SPLIT IN THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCES
Primitive peoples, unable to understand their origins scientifically and historically, invented mythical explanations of the creation of the world and of humanity. BC and the CWO, who hardly understand any better the origins and function of the revolutionary organisation, have invented a mythical history of the International Conferences in order to explain the creation of the IBRP. While it is not our aim here to defend our conception of the International Conferences, a historical rectification is nevertheless necessary:
“Faced with the need to close ranks and re-launch, in a systematic and organised way, revolutionary political work within the world proletariat, revolutionaries were confronted by a multiplicity of unconnected groups and organisations. These groups and organisations were divided by theoretical and political differences but at the same time they often ignored the existence and nature of these differences. Concentrating on either ‘localism’ or theoretical abstractions, they were therefore incapable of developing a role in the events which were then beginning, and are now taking place... this situation had to be sorted out, and therefore it was necessary to do everything that could be done to change this... The PCInt responded to this necessity by calling the First International Conference of groups which recognised the following criteria:
* acceptance of the October revolution as a proletarian one,
* recognition of the break with Social Democracy brought about by the first and second Congresses of the Communist International,
* rejection without reservation of state capitalism and self-management,
* recognition of the Socialist and Communist parties as bourgeois parties,
* rejection of all policies which subject the proletariat to the national bourgeoisie,
* an orientation towards the organisation of revolutionaries recognising Marxist doctrine and methodology as proletarian science.”
(Communist Review, no. 1, p. 1)
Bravo Battaglia! But why had it become necessary, in 1976, to “close ranks”? What had changed since 1968, when the little group that was to become Revolution Internationale called on you to convoke a conference, in order to confront the new situation created by the strikes of 1968? What had changed since November 1972, when our comrades of Internationalism (later to become our section in the US), launched a call for an “international correspondence network” with the perspective of an international conference? At the time, you replied:
“– that one cannot consider that there exists a real development in class consciousness,
– that even the flourishing of groups expresses nothing other than a malaise and a revolt of the petty bourgeoisie,
– that we must admit that the world is still under the heel of imperialism.”
Moreover, “after the experiences that our party has had in the past, we do not believe in the seriousness and continuity of international links established on a merely cognitive basis (correspondence, exchange of press, personal contacts and debates between groups on problems of theory and political praxis).” (Letter from BC to RI, 5.12.72, quoted in the letter of RI to BC, 9.6.80: see the Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference).
What had changed in 1976? The class struggle? The tensions between imperialist powers? In vain do we seek a reply in the texts of the IBRP.
By contrast, if we reread the text convoking the 1st Conference, we discover that Battaglia’s call was prompted neither by the development of the class struggle (since BC sees the waves of struggles from 1968 to 1974 as a merely student and petty bourgeois affair), nor by the development of inter-imperialist tensions, but... by the “social-democratisation of the Communist Parties”. Since then, this famous “Euro-communism” has proved to be purely conjunctural, linked to the period of the left in power to confront the class struggle. BC, on the other hand, still remains incapable of understanding the significance of the break with the counter-revolution constituted by the struggles of 1968-1974.
As for the criteria for adherence to the Conferences, not a trace of them is to be found in BC’s texts. On the contrary, it is the ICC that replies:
“For this initiative to be successful, for it to be a real step towards the rapprochement of revolutionaries, it is vital to clearly establish the fundamental political criteria which must serve as a basis and framework, so that discussion and confrontation of ideas are fruitful and constructive... The political criteria for participating in such a conference must be strictly limited by:
1) the rejection of any mystification about the existence of socialist countries or countries on the way to socialism,
2) the rejection of any idea that the CPs, SPs and others are workers’ organisations,
3) the rejection of any alliance and common action, even temporary, with these organisations, as well as with those who advocate the possibility of such alliances,
4) the denunciation of all wars of so-called national liberation and independence,
5) the affirmation that the communist revolution is a class revolution and that the working class is the only revolutionary class in this epoch,
6) the affirmation that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the task of the class itself’ and that this implies the necessity for an organisation or revolutionaries within the class” (2nd letter from the ICC to the PCInt, 15.7.76, in the Proceedings of the 1st International Conference).
These are the criteria that we proposed and defended even before the Conferences. But BC can at least boast one originality: the proposition of a supplementary criterion, the recognition of the Conference as part of...
“the process leading to the International Party of the proletariat, the indispensable political organ for the political direction of the revolutionary class movement and of proletarian power itself” (Communist Review, no. 1, p. 2).
This criterion was introduced with the thoroughly “serious” aim of excluding the ICC from the Conferences, and so opening the way “to the constitution of the international party”: “The conclusion of the 3rd Conference is the necessary acknowledgement of a situation in a phase of degeneration; it is the end of a phase of the Conferences’ work; it is the realisation of the first serious selection of forces... We have assumed the responsibility that one has a right to expect of a serious leading force.” (BC’s reply to our ‘Address to the Proletarian Milieu’).
We do not judge an individual by his own opinion of himself, but by his acts; in the same way, an abstract and platonic political position is worthless: what is important, is its application and practice. It is therefore not without interest to examine the Proceedings of the 4th ‘International Conference’, whose opening speech announces right away:
“the basis now exists for beginning the process of clarification about the real tasks of the party... Although today we have a smaller number of participants than at the 2nd and 3rd Conferences, we are starting from a clearer and more serious basis” (Proceedings of the 4th International Conference, pp. 1-2).
We can already judge the great “seriousness” of this Conference from the fact:
-- that the ‘Technical Committee’ (BC/CWO) is incapable of publishing the slightest preparatory bulletin for the Conference, which is all the more of a nuisance in that the Conference is held in English, while BC’s texts for reference are all published... in Italian;
-- that the group organising the ‘Conference’ is incapable of translating half the interventions;
-- that the ‘Conference’ is held in 1982, and we have to wait... two years (!) for the Proceedings. At this rate, we will have to wait for the period of transition before the IBRP decides to take power!
But it would be petty of us to linger over such unimportant ‘practical’ details. Let us therefore pass in review the “forces” that BC and the CWO have “seriously selected” to “begin the process of clarifying the tasks of the party”:
-- there is ‘Marxist Worker’ from the US;
-- there is ‘Wildcat’, also from the US: we do not know what Wildcat – an organisation in the councilist tradition – is doing here, but anyway this does not matter, since by the time the ‘Conference’ meets, this group no longer exists, and nor for that matter does Marxist Worker; it is thus hardly likely to be called upon to contribute “seriously” to the construction of the party;
-- then there is ‘L’Eveil Internationaliste’ from France “which agreed to attend, but unfortunately was unable to do so.” (Opening of the 4th Conference); frankly, we have no idea why L’Eveil was invited, since at the 3rd Conference they had refused to take a position on BC’s criterion, saying that “BC and the ICC have always wanted to see these Conferences as a step towards the Party. This is not the case... One cannot hide divergences behind manoeuvrist resolutions, or discriminatory criteria... We reaffirm that we cannot today arrive at a clarification which would be a step towards the constitution of the Party.” (Proceedings of the 3rd Conference, pp. 48-52);
-- the Gruppe Kommunistische Politik (Kompol) from Austria was invited, but did not come, for reasons that are not clear; by contrast, the correspondence between Kompol and BC is very instructive. Kompol asks that the invitation be enlarged to include the Italian groups ‘Lega Leninista’ and ‘il Circolo Lenin’. BC replies:
“The latest document we have received between yourselves and these organisations doesn’t add anything on Poland to what has been said by other formations which go back, in a more or less correct way, to the Communist Left of Italy... Taken as a whole, we think we are the only ones, at least in Italy, who have carried out a deep, precise, and up-to-date examination of recent tendencies and to have drawn out conclusions and guidelines of a revolutionary nature which are still awaiting a reply from the many ‘revolutionaries’ who litter the Italian scene” (Letter from the EC of the PCInt to Kompol, Proceedings of the 4th International Conference, pp. 40-41).
Here is BC introducing, under the table, a supplementary criterion for participation in the Conferences: if you are Italian, you must agree with BC’s analysis on Poland! The lesson is clear: in Italy at least, BC intends to remain ‘master in its own house’;
-- in the end, the only “serious” force in the 4th Conference is the SUCM from Iran, whom we will come back to in a later article. For the moment, it is enough to say that if the SUCM is indeed “for” the Party, this is for the simple reason that it is part of the Maoist current, which places it irremediably outside the proletarian camp.
It is with this “serious selection” that BC and the CWO intend to advance towards “the constitution of the International Party”.
All the old myths of creation bring on stage three elements: Good, Evil, and the mere mortals. In the mythology of BC-CWO, at the conferences, there was Good (BC-CWO), Evil (the ICC) and the mere mortals, made up of
“Various groups (who) showed themselves to be not only disarmed on the theoretical and political level, but also by their very nature incapable of drawing any positive elements from the ongoing polemic in order to further their own political growth and maturation” (Communist Review no. 1)
Here, as in the Bible, history gets ‘rearranged’ a bit, for the needs of mythology. Thus it is ‘forgotten’ that during the conferences, and partly thanks to them, the group For Kommunismen was able to “further its own political growth and maturation” by becoming the ICC’s section in Sweden.
And finally, Evil is also present. The Serpent has taken on the form of the ICC, the “resolution mongers” (CWO), who “want to present divergences as mere problems of formulation” (BC, Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference). It is the ICC that...
“wanted the Conferences to imitate on a wider scale their own internal method of dealing with political differences – ie. to minimise them – in order to keep the organisation together” (RP 18, p. 29).
It is the ICC
“whose motives (in rejecting opposition to national liberation as a criterion for participation in the International Conferences) were marxist in form, but opportunist in content, since the aim was to gain adherence to future meetings of their satraps Nucleo Comunista, a Bordigist group with which the ICC manoeuvred opportunistically against the PCInt” (RP 21, p. 8).
It is the ICC who
“did their best to sabotage any meaningful debate at the 3rd Conference by refusing to accept a straight forward resolution on the fundamental role of the revolutionary party put forward by Battaglia... When it comes down to it, the ICC is always the first to sabotage discussion in a cloud of verbiage” (Workers’ Voice no. 16, p. 6). Far be it from us to play the Devil’s advocate. All that interests us, as revolutionary marxists, is the historical reality of the proletariat and its political organisations. We would therefore remind BC and the CWO that it is certainly not the ICC that “wants to present divergences as mere problems of formulation”; even before the 1st Conference, it is BC that proposes for the agenda:
“Ways of discussing and transcending those technical and practical differences between the groups (such as party and unions, party and councils, imperialism and colonial and semi-colonial wars)” (PCInt’s 3rd Circular Letter, Proceedings of the 1st Int. Conf., p. 12). To which we replied:
“We must be careful not to rush into things and cover over our differences, while at the same time retaining a firm and conscious commitment to clarification and to the regroupment of revolutionaries. Thus, while we are in agreement with the proposed agenda, we don’t understand why questions “such as party and unions, party and councils, imperialism and colonial and semi-colonial wars” are seen as “technical and practical differences”” (ICC Reply, Proceedings of the 1st Int. Conf. p. 13).
As for the resolutions that we laid before the Conferences, a quick reading of the first of them is sufficient to demonstrate that its aim is to set out as clearly as possible what unites the ICC and the PCInt, and what divides them, as a basis for clarification and discussion. The IBRP is moreover singularly ill-placed to talk of “minimising divergences”, as we shall see later.
As for our “satraps”, if our aim in the Conferences had been to manoeuvre in an opportunist manner, to “control” them, we had no need of “satraps”. We had only to accept BC’s original invitation, addressed not the ICC as such but to our various territorial sections. The arithmetical calculation is simple enough: nine territorial sections equals nine votes in the Conferences – amply sufficient to “control” the Conferences from beginning to end, to vote all the resolutions we liked, and to make the Conferences take positions as often as we felt inclined. Instead, we replied: “Since we are not a federation of national groups, but an international Current with local expressions, our reply here is that of the whole Current.” (ICC’s first letter, Proceedings of the 1st Int. Conf., p. 7). In reality, the major criticism to be made of the ICC’s conduct at the Conferences is not one of opportunism, but of naivety. Our conception of revolutionary action excludes sham majorities, underhand tricks, and manoeuvres worthy only of parliamentary cretinism, and we were naive enough to think that the same was true of BC and the CWO; let them reassure themselves – we won’t make the same mistake twice.
As for our “opportunist manoeuvres”, we cannot help remarking that the CWO is incapable of giving the slightest concrete, and still less documented, example – and this not for lack of wanting to. After all, it was not the ICC, but BC and the CWO who held clandestine inter-group meetings in the corridors of the 3rd Conference. It was not the ICC, but BC who, after denying any desire to exclude the ICC right up to the eve of the 3rd Conference, launched their excluding criterion at the end of this same Conference. Why? In order to put their manoeuvre to the vote after the departure of the NCI’s delegation, whose interventions had supported our rejection of this criterion (see the Proceedings of the 3rd Conference, and the ICC’s letter to the PCInt after their sabotage operation). This kind of manoeuvre, well known in the US Congress under the name of ‘filibuster’ is worthy of bourgeois democrats, not proletarian revolutionaries.
And it is with these bourgeois parliamentary methods that BC and the CWO intend to build the class Party, which will defend the principles of communism within the proletarian movement.
FOR WHAT PARTY?
For BC and the CWO, the end apparently justifies the means; and the end, provisionally at least, is the famous IBRP. The Bureau is a truly bizarre animal, which puts us in mind of that mythical creature the Griffon, which is made up of several real animals: the head and wings of an eagle, the front paws of a lion, and the tail of a dolphin. In order to determine the Bureau’s real nature, it seems to us necessary to proceed by elimination, and decide first of all what the Bureau is not.
First of all, the Bureau is not a simple liaison committee, such as for example the one-time Technical Committee of the International Conferences. The TC’s function was to coordinate a job undertaken in common by several separate organisations, without this implying any regroupment, nor any identity of political positions. The TC carried out tasks that were both ‘technical’ (publishing bulletins, etc) and ‘political’ (decisions as to the agenda of the Conferences, on the groups to participate, etc); all this within the framework of the criteria for adhesion accepted by its members. By contrast, the Bureau, which defines itself as “a product of a process of decantation and homogenisation within the framework of the first four International Conferences of the Communist Left” (Communist Review no. 1, p. 12), looks more like a true political organisation, where adhesion is based on a platform of political positions and whose functioning is determined by its Statutes. The platform is apparently considered as constituting a political unity, since:
“Apart from exceptional cases, then only in the short-term, the admission of more than one organisation from the same country is not permitted.” (Ibid).
Right from the start, the Bureau is infected by a heavy dose of federalism: the organisations adhering in different countries keep their own separate identity, and “the Bureau only conducts relations with their leading committees” (Ibid). Yet another sign of the desire, so dear to the petty bourgeois, to remain “master in his own house”.
However, the IBRP is not a political organisation either – at least, not in the sense that we understand the term. The ICC is one single international organisation, based on a single platform, a single set of Statutes, and whose sections in each country are only local expressions of the whole. Faithful to the communist principle of centralisation, the ICC as a whole is represented by its International Bureau, elected at its International Congress; the positions of the IB always take priority at every level of the organisation, just as the whole is more important than any of its parts.
The IBRP by contrast, is not a single organisation; it is to “organised and coordinate the intervention of these organisations and promote their political homogenisation with the aim of their eventual organisational centralisation” (Ibid). Nor does it have a single platform, but three – of the Bureau, BC, and the CWO (not to mention the platforms of ‘factory groups’, ‘unemployed groups’, etc: a real embarrassment of riches!). When we look at the content of the IBRP’s platform, we have right to ask what is BC’s and the CWO’s “method for resolving political divergences... to maintain the unity of the organisation” if not to “minimise” them; what position, for example, are the wretched “French comrades”, “considered as militants of the Bureau” (Statutes of the IBRP), to defend on the question of revolutionary parliamentarism, given that BC is for, the CWO pretty much against, while the platform of the IBRP... has not a word to say on the subject! We certainly can’t accuse BC and the CWO of “minimising” their divergences: they simply make them disappear!
”The Bureau is not the Party, it is for the Party: (Communist Review no. 1). But what party is it “for”?
This is not the place to return to our basic conceptions on the constitution and function of the class party: we refer readers to our texts, in particular the text ‘On the Party’ adopted at the ICC’s 5th Congress (IR 35). However, it is necessary to insist that the concept of the party cannot cover anything and everything, and an essential aspect of this concept is the tight link between the existence of the party and the development of the class struggle. The party is thus necessarily a political organisation with a widespread influence in the working class, which recognises the party as one of its expressions. This influence cannot be reduced to a more question of the mechanical action of the party, where ‘revolutionary ideas’ win an ever greater ‘audience in the class. In the end, this comes back to the idealist vision, for which the party’s ‘ideas’ become the motive force for the inert ‘mass’ of the proletariat. In reality, there is a dialectical relationship between party and class, where the party’s growing influence depends on the proletariat’s organisational ability – in the assemblies and the soviets – to adopt and to put into action the party’s political orientation. The revolutionary programme is not merely a question of ‘ideas’ but a ‘critical practice’, to use Marx’s expression. Only through the revolutionary action of the working class can the positions of the party be concretely verified: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question” (Theses on Feuerbach). We cannot therefore, in the period of decadent capitalism, speak of the party existing outside revolutionary or pre-revolutionary periods – which obviously does not mean that the party can be created overnight, like Athena who sprang fully-grown from the head of Zeus. It will come into being after a long preliminary labour of clarification and organisation among revolutionary minorities or not at all.
Our conception of the party is thus radically opposed to that of the pure Bordigism of the PCI (Programma Comunista), for whom it is the party that defines the class. By contrast, BC and the CWO occupy a centrist position between the aberrations of Bordigism and the position of Marxism.
The definition of the party given by the Bordigists of Programma at least has the virtue of simplicity: there exists one, unique International Communist Party, based on a programme which is not only unique, but has remained unchanged since 1848. For the IBRP also, the party’s existence has nothing to do with its “influence” in the class, but depends on the programme, although the programme’s content evolves historically:
“The theoretical and political solutions to the problems connected to the withering away of the great Bolshevik experience in the soil of state capitalism allowed the re-organisation of tiny minorities around the theory and programme of communism. Even during the whirlwind of the second imperialist war there emerged a party which was opposed on the political, theoretical and organisational levels to all the bourgeois parties which operated both inside and outside the working class” (Platform of the IBRP, Communist Review no. 1, p.8).
The IBRP also recognises that the objective conditions of the proletariat’s existence mean that the same programme is valid for all countries; for the Bureau, therefore,
“The guiding political organ of the revolutionary assault must be centralised and international.” (Ibid).
A single international programme, then, defended by a single party internationally. But then, what is the IBRP for? If BC and the CWO are really convinced that “the problems tied to the retreat of the great Bolshevik experience” have been “resolved” in such a way as to allow the “erection” of a party – i.e. the PCInt of 1943 (or 1945? 1952?) – then why a Bureau to create another one? Why has the CWO not become the PCInt’s section in GB? If we are to believe the IBRP, another step remains to be taken:
“The formation of the International Party of the Proletariat will come about through the dissolution of various organisations which have worked on a national level in agreement with its platform and programme of action.” (Ibid).
Here is the International Party, which will be founded on the basis of national organisations, some of which at least are already parties, on a programme which remains to be defined, despite “the theoretical and political resolution of the problems linked to the great Bolshevik experience.” Unfortunately, we must demonstrate a great revolutionary patience, since BC and the CWO’s tests give not the slightest indication of what remains to be “defined” in their platforms. At least we won’t have too long to wait. “Where does communist consciousness lie today at the beginning of the revolutionary process?”, asks the CWO (‘Consciousness and the Role of Revolutionaries’, Workers’ Voice, no. 16); and they reply: “It resides in the class party... (The Party) is inside the class’ daily struggle playing a leading role at every point in order to return to the proletarian mass of today the political lessons of its struggles of yesterday” (WV 16). Splendid! The “class party” exists already! “Communist consciousness” “resides in the class party. It resides with those who debate, define, and promote the goals based on the last 150 years of proletarian struggle” (Ibid, our emphasis throughout).
With this kind of definition, even the ICC could be the Party!
Well no, it’s not quite as simple as that, because a few paragraphs further on in the same article in Workers’ Voice, we read:
“This is why we affirm the need for a party which is active at all times to the limits of its strength within the working class and which unites internationally to coordinate the class movement across national frontiers. The coming into existence of such a party on an international scale is dependent on both the increase in class consciousness amongst workers as a whole and on the increasing activity within the day-to-day struggle of the communist minorities themselves” (Ibid, our emphasis).
Here then is the situation: the party exists and intervenes today, and it is the party that possesses class consciousness; but the party of tomorrow remains to be built, thanks to “the growth in consciousness amongst the workers”. It is for this reason that the CWO and the Internationalist Communist Party have created a Bureau “for the Party”.
As for what this party is going to do, there again we miss the clarity of Bordigism, which declares without any beating about the bush that the party governs for the class, and that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the dictatorship of the party. Battaglia’s platform, on the other hand, is less clear-cut: on the one hand, “At no time and for no reason does the proletariat abandon its combative role. It does not delegate to others its historical mission and it does not give its power away ‘by proxy’, even to its political party” (Platform of BC, p. 6); but on the other hand, the party must “politically lead the proletarian dictatorship”, while “the workers’ state (is) maintained on the path of revolution by the party cadres who must never confuse themselves with the state nor mere with it” (Ibid, p. 4). The CWO is no better: on the one hand “Communism needs the active participation of the mass of workers who must be entirely conscious of the proletariat’s own revolutionary objectives, and who must as a whole participate in the elaboration and putting into action of communist policies through the intermediary of their mass organs whose delegates they control” (Platform of the CWO: our translation from the French version); but on the other hand, as the CWO has declared on several occasions, it is the party that takes power, and it is “the Communist party, the vanguard of the class, which organises and leads the revolutionary uprising and all the proletariat’s important actions during the period of transition, and the party will not abandon this role as long as a political programme is necessary” (CWO, The Period of Transition: our translation from the French)
We are waiting impatiently for the comrades of BC and the CWO, who are so fond of the “concrete”, to explain to us “concretely” how the party is going to “take” the power that the working class “does not delegate”. At all events, it is certainly not to the IBRP that we must look for an answer, since its platform has not a word to say on the subject.
When it comes down to it, the IBRP is neither a simple liaison committee, nor a real revolutionary political organisation. It is not the party, it is “for” the party, but it does not really know what party it is “for”. It is an animal even more monstrous than the Griffon, and, it must be said, even less viable.
INCOHERENCE IN DEFENCE OF CLASS POSITIONS
If these were merely the antics of music-hall clowns, we could laugh at them. But BC and the CWO are part of those meagre revolutionary forces who have the responsibility of defending class positions within the proletarian struggle; their failings, their concessions to bourgeois ideology in the defence of communist principles, weaken the revolutionary movement and the class as a whole.
Because it is an exploited class, the working class can only develop its consciousness through a permanent and bitter struggle. The slightest theoretical fault becomes a breach through which the class enemy injects its deadly poison. This is why marxism is a real fighting weapon, indispensable in the struggle; it also explains why marxist revolutionaries have always given such importance to general theoretical questions which may at first sight seem far removed from the ‘practical’ problems of the class struggle. Just as a defect in the foundations of a building affects the stability of the entire structure, so a defect in the basic conceptions of a revolutionary organisation inevitably weakens the whole of its activity.
The unions and rank-and-file unionism
BC and the CWO’s preliminary general declarations seem irreproachably clear:
“The Party states categorically that, in the present stage of totalitarian domination of imperialism, the unions are an absolutely necessary part of this domination since their aims correspond to the counter-revolutionary requirements of the bourgeoisie. We therefore reject as false the perspective that in future such organisations could have a proletarian function and that the Party should therefore reverse its view and reconsider the possibility of conquering the unions from within” (Platform of BC, p. 7)
“Like Social Democracy the trade unions showed they had crossed over to capitalism by 1914 when they defended imperialist war and supported the “national interest” against the interests of the working class... Always the trade unions’ activity is based on containing and derailing the class struggle...” Platform of the CWO, pp. 22-23).
But the explanation of why this situation exists is fundamentally wrong. For BC and the CWO, the unions, whether in ascendant or decadent capitalism, were and remain the “mediators” between capital and labour. Their “historical function (is that) of mediators between capital and labour”; they are the “mediators with the employers to negotiate the terms of sale of the workers’ labour power” (‘Marxism and the Trade Union Question’, RP 20, pp. 19, 24).
It is impossible for “capitalism to realise its objectives of the monopolistic transformation of its economy without the trade unions’ collaboration with a wage policy which conciliates the needs of the workers with those of big capital” (BC, Piattaforma dei Gruppi Sindicali Comunisti Internazionalisti).
“The unions are the organs of mediation between labour and capital” (Platform of the IBRP). And the CWO even ends up by affirming that, at the beginning of capitalist decadence, “it was capitalism that changed, not the unions” (‘Trade unions and Workers’ Struggles’, WV 16).
On the contrary, capitalism’s passage into its decadent, imperialist phase changed the trade unions from top to bottom by transforming them into an integral part of the bourgeois state. Obviously, this transformation was not carried out overnight: the British unions, for example, were already associated with the first measures of Social Security in 1911. Nor was the process immediately clear to revolutionaries, as can be seen from the Communist International’s often contradictory positions on the union question. But this being said, we absolutely reject any idea of ‘mediation’ which, by introducing a perfectly inter-classist vision of unionism, obscures the reality that the unions, from being organs of the workers’ struggle against capital, have become cogs in the police apparatus of the capitalist state. BC and the CWO have still not understood this reality, because they have not understood that state capitalism is not merely a question of managing a decadent economy, but also – and even essentially – a question of an unremitting control of the whole of civil society.
We are therefore not surprised to see the notion of the unions ‘belonging’ to the workers, which BC and the CWO have just thrown out the door, coming back in through the window:
“The objective, irreversibly counter-revolutionary and anti-working class nature of the unions in the imperialist period does not alter their working class composition, or the fact that they are organisations in which the proletariat presses for its immediate self-defence” (Theses of the 5th Congress of the PCInt, translated in WV 16).
Unfailingly, theoretical weaknesses have brought with them concessions to unionism in practice. Already in 1952, BC was far from being as clear as the CWO likes to claim. In spite of its denunciation of the bourgeois nature of the unions, “the Party considers that its militants must participate, in the proletariat’s general interest, in all the internal expressions of union life, criticising and denouncing the policy of the union leaders... the Party does not underestimate the importance of being present, where the balance of forces allows it at elections to union or factory representative organs” (BC, 1952 Platform). This ambiguity is still more marked in a text entitled ‘Formation and Duties of Factory Groups’ : “Both unions and non-union members participate in the life of the “factory group”; the group’s duty is above all to conduct the struggle against the use and abuse of delegations imposed by the union leadership, which limits and hinders free participation in the union, adopting towards the workers a police discrimination aimed at removing all those suspected of having a union line opposed to the dominant line” (our emphasis). This, in a word, is the struggle for union democracy...
BC’s platform adopted in 1982 is not any clearer, but is more discreet: there is no longer any talk of union elections, but only of “the Party’s activity (which) will be carried out from inside or outside the union organisations, depending on the material conditions communists find themselves working in” (Platform of BC, p. 8).
By contrast, the CWO in its latest texts is in the process of abandoning the (very relative) clarity of its own platform. According to the Platform (adopted in July 1982), “Against those who argue that revolutionaries must work inside the trade union framework (eg. in shop stewards committees, union branch meetings et al.) to increase their influence in the working class, we maintain that such activities only sow illusions about the class nature of the unions and the possibility of their reform... The only way the class can begin to wage a struggle for its own interests in an era when reformism is impossible is by going outside of and beyond the framework of the trade union organisation”. Nine months later (in RP 20) we read:
“If being trade union members allows communists access to mass assemblies, strike committees, even branch meetings (although at present the latter would be pointless in Britain) in order to denounce the manoeuvres of the unions to the majority of the workforce and in order to put forward a practical revolutionary alternative, then we will not abstain” (“Marxism and the Trade Union Question’, RP 20, p. 25, our emphasis).
A year later, it’s the old leftist refrain:
“Often those who remain in the unions are amongst the most militant workers... Being ordinary members of unions can allow revolutionaries to fight the unions manoeuvres more effectively.” (WV 16, p. 4).
BC and the CWO have accused us of “sabotaging discussion”. How can we discuss anything seriously with people who change position on basic principles, class lines, from one month to the next and without a word of explanation?
The worst of it is that BC and the CWO’s vagueness and equivocation on rank-and-file union work has become doubly dangerous in the present period. The CWO declare that they understand nothing of our analysis of ‘the left in opposition because it supposedly has no impact on our intervention. What you have not understood comrades, is that its aim is not so much to modify our intervention as to maintain it in the face of the tactics of the bourgeois left. This analysis gives a theoretical framework to a process that anyone with even a minimal experience in the daily struggle can see already: faced with a growing disgust for the left parties, it is increasingly the unions that must control the workers, and faced with the progressive desertion of the unions, it is increasingly up to rank-and-file unionism to bring the workers back onto the ‘right path’.
With this framework, we can understand the growing involvement of the leftists in the unions, the appearance of ‘autonomous unions’ (France) or ‘fighting unionism’ (Italy), the radicalisation and politicisation of rank-and-file unionism in general.
And because they understand nothing either about the period, or about the development in class consciousness that it implies, or about the nature of the bourgeoisie’s attack, BC and the CWO are diving head-first into a radical rank-and-file union practice.
In the miners’ strike in Britain, the CWO’s whole intervention turns around the slogan “victory to the miners”. The frantic denunciation of scabs, the insistence on the need to block coal transport, simply comes down to radicalised union tactics. Certainly, the tens of thousands of mines who refused to follow the union line, the dockers who did the same during the latest strikes, are not a clear expression of an anti-union consciousness; but the imbecile reaction of the CWO, who can find nothing better than to outdo the union in its attacks on “the scabs” totally ignores the development in recent years of an enormous mass of distrust by workers towards anything to do with unions. The bourgeoisie is aware of this; they are prepared to do anything to prevent the juncture of these two masses of distrust and combativity, for fear that they become a critical mass.
We remember the CWO’s previous ‘practical’ demands: these ranged from ludicrous adventurism (the call for “revolution now” in Poland 1980) to banal leftism (the slogans against percentage increases and for flat rate wage rises). Clearly they have learnt nothing from these slidings into leftism, since today, once again the CWO calls on miners in Britain to establish “precise demands” (though without saying which ones, this time (‘Miners’ Strike Must be Won’, WV 16)). This kind of attitude towards the struggle stands communist intervention on its head. In reality, all large-scale struggles have a dynamic of their own, which very quickly tends to go beyond the “specific demands” with which they began. The example of Poland 1980 is striking in this respect: the initial demand of the Lenin Shipyard workers for the reinstatement of a sacked comrade became perfectly secondary as soon as the struggle spread to other sectors. The miners’ strike shows the same tendency: having started on the question of redundancies, it has since raised demands for the reduction of working hours, wage rises, etc.
By contrast, the real specialists of the “specific demand” are the unions and the rank-and-file unionists. For the unions, “specific demands” are an invaluable weapon for holding back the struggle, for fixing it at its starting-point, for diverting it toward bourgeois perspectives, for isolating it in its specificity instead of generalising it to the rest of the class. Here again, Poland 1980 and Britain 1984 provide striking examples. It is no accident that the Solidarnosc union was founded on the basis of the Gdansk agreements. As for the miners’ strike, the whole game of so-called “negotiations” between the NUM and the Coal Board on the exact definition of an “uneconomic” pit only serves to hide the profound identity of the miners’ strike with the struggle of the proletariat as a whole against an overall attack by the bourgeoisie.
In the same way, at the level of extending the struggle, the CWO remains a prisoner of its “precisions”. In the article on the miners’ strike cited above, workers’ solidarity is seen merely in terms of the miners’ strike an and the need to prevent the movement of coal. Quit apart from the fact that this kind of action is very easily recuperated by the unions (we remember the CGT’s nationalist campaigns against “German iron ore” during the recent struggles in the Lorraine), this ‘economistic’ view of the struggle ignores its real political development; above all, it completely misses the point of what a communist organisation’s specific intervention should be : to dissipate the smokescreens of British coal, the national economy, the policies of the right, etc, to bring out into the full light of day the need for workers’ solidarity and how to build it. To give an example, the participation by miners in the occupation of the Cammell Laird shipyards had nothing to do with the movement of coal; it had everything to do with the growing consciousness within the proletariat that its struggle is a general and political struggle against capitalism. Communists have the duty to push this consciousness forward, to develop it, by untiringly attacking everything that is likely to bog it down in the ‘specificities’ and the ‘precisions’ of each struggle.
Whereas the CWO is falling into the mire of rank-and-file unionist practice, BC have never really extricated themselves from it. An article from Battaglia Comunista translated in Workers’ Voice no. 17 (‘Communist Intervention in Italy’; from the style, we assume that this article is written by BC, though there is no indication of this in WV) shows us what the ‘factory groups’ are really capable of, and we can only regret that this significant article is so short on detail. After the Craxi government’s new ‘Decree on Wages’, “Our comrades had their work cut out simply getting the first assembly in the Milan Farini Station off the ground. They only succeeded in achieving this by gathering, together with the more combative delegates (only one of whom was a PCI (i.e. Italian CP member), the signatures of all the workers in the goods traffic sector”. The article does not make clear where these “delegates” came from – from the unions? From rank-and-file ‘struggle committees’? Nor is it explained why it was necessary to “gather signatures” to call a general assembly – unless, of course, it was an assembly called according to union rules. At all events, the result of this assembly is – a 24-hour strike! Here again, it is not clear what was Battaglia’s attitude towards this proposition, which is absolutely typical of the tricks used by rank-and-file unionism to get the workers to “let off steam”.
Better still, “The assembly... decided not to fix the date of the strike straight away since there was news that assemblies were being called in other plants and among the workers of Milan Central”. Here, once again, there is no indication of BC’s position on this classic manoeuvre of rank-and-file unionists: under cover of ‘solidarity’, make the workers hang about in a debilitating ’wait-and-see’ attitude in order to break the dynamic towards the extension and radicalisation of the struggle.
And what do BC and the CWO draw from this lamentable episode? “There remains for our comrades the difficult task of clarification and organisation of the more combative vanguard that emerged in this struggle, with the object of preventing them being reabsorbed into the forces of the PCI and the majority (?? sic) of the CGIL” (Our emphasis). There at least, BC is going to “assume the responsibility that one has a right to expect from a serious leading force”. BC would do better to ask themselves what is the meaning of an activity that consists:
-- in working with “delegates” and “members of the Italian CP”
-- in drawing up petitions for general assemblies,
-- in (apparently) supporting typically trade unionist ‘actions’ such as the 24-hour strike, the delayed strike, etc.
As far as we are concerned, BC’s “correct strategy” boils down to falling feet first into the trap of radical unionism.
Before concluding on the union question, we feel it’s necessary to single out a last, particularly repulsive ‘tactic’ that the CWO has discovered in the arsenal of rank-and-file unionism: the denigration of revolutionary organisations. In Workers’ Voice no. 17 (‘The Miners’ Strike and Communist Organisation’) we read that the ICC “defends scabbing and contributes to demoralisation”, that we “spread defeatism as well as adventurism”, that we “undermine the class’ attempts to hit the bosses by blocking coal movements”; and, in conclusion, that the ICC “defends, along with Thatcher and the police, the right to scab”.
In recent months especially, our militants have been systematically denounced to the police, or physically threatened, by union goons. On several occasions, they have been able to get away from under the noses of the unions solely thanks to the workers' protection. The unions accuse us of ‘breaking workers’ unity’, of being ‘wreckers’ of ‘provocateurs’, of being ‘in the pay of the fascists’ or of the CIA. We are used to this kind of slander from the unions and the leftists. Now the CWO has taught us that we can expect to hear it from revolutionaries as well. For our part, we will continue to agitate within the proletariat for the principle that its assemblies, meetings and strike committees should be open to all workers and revolutionary organisations. This is the only way forward for the development of the political consciousness of the proletarian class.
In another article, we will analyse the slidings of BC-CWO on parliamentarism and national liberation struggles.