Reply to BC on the Course of History

In the series Historic Course

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IR – 50 3rd quarter 1987

Polemic: Reply to Battaglia Comunista

The course of history

Since 1968, the revolutionary groups which have come to form the ICC have been arguing that the international wave of workers’ struggles which began in France that year marked a new period in the balance of forces between bourgeoisie and proletariat: the ending of the long period of counter-revolution which followed the reflux of the 1917-23 revolution wave; the opening up of a course towards generalised was class confrontations. While the accelerating collapse of the capitalist economy could not fail to push the bourgeoisie towards another world war, this same economic disintegration was provoking a vigorous resistance by a new and undefeated generation of workers. Consequently, capitalism cannot go to war without first crushing the proletariat; on the other hand, the growing combativity and consciousness of the proletariat is inevitably leading to huge class battles whose outcome will determine whether the crisis of capitalism is to end in world war or world revolution.

This vision of the historic course is not shared by many groups in the proletarian political milieu, in particular by the main international current outside the ICC, the International Bureau for a Revolutionary Party. After a long period in which the IBRP’s seemed to have little or no interest in debating with the ICC, we can only welcome the recent contribution on this question in Battaglia Comunista, the publication of the IBRP’s affiliate in Italy, the Internationalist Communist Party (‘The ICC and the Historic Course: A Mistaken Method’ in BC No 3, March ’ 87, published in English in Communist Review No 5). Not simply because the text contains passages indicating that BC is waking up to certain realities of the present world situation – in particular the end of the counter-revolution and the   “signs” , at least, of a resurgence of class struggle. But also because, even where the text is fundamentally wrong, it does take us straight to the essential issues: the problem of the marxist method in grasping the unfolding of reality; the conditions for unleashing a new world war; the real level of class struggle today, and the approach to these problems taken by our common political ancestor, the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left in the 1930s and 1940s.

THE MARXIST METHOD: INDICATING THE LINE OF MARCH OR AGNOSTICISM?

In IR 36 we published another polemic with BC on the question of the historic course (‘The Course of History: the ‘80s are not the ‘30s’). A text emanating from BC’s 5th congress had affirmed that it was not possible to say whether the social storms stirred up by the crisis would break out before, during or after a world imperialist war. In our reply, as well as in a basic text on the historic course emanating from our third congress in 1979 (see IR 18) , we argued that it is a fundamental and crucial task of revolutionaries to indicate the general lines in which social events are moving. It is a pity that BC’s text doesn’t really address itself to these arguments. Indeed, it does little more than quote again the passage which we criticised at such length in IR 36! But in another part of the article, BC does at least try to explain why it feels it necessary to maintain an agnostic attitude about the historic course, and, rather than simply repeating all the arguments contained in our other two articles, we will address ourselves to this new ‘explanation’ . This is how BC poses the problem: “In relation to the problem the ICC has set us of being precise prophets of the future the difficulty lies in the fact that subjectivity does not mechanically follow objective movements. Although we can precisely follow tendencies, possible counter-tendencies and their reciprocal relations in the structures of the economic world, this is not the case for the subjective world, neither for the bourgeoisie nor the proletariat. No-one can believe that the maturation of consciousness, even the most elementary class consciousness, can be rigidly determined from observable, rationally correlated data.

It’s perfectly true that subjective factors are not mechanically determined by objective ones, and that, consequently, it is not possible to make exact predictions of the time and place of proletarian outbursts. But this does not mean that marxism historically has confined itself to predicting only the trends in the capitalist economy.

On the contrary: in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels defined the communists as those who were able to see the “line of march” of the “movement going on in front of our eyes” the movement of the proletariat. And throughout their careers they attempted to put this theoretical proposition into practice, closely aligning their organisational activity to the perspectives they traced for the class struggle (stressing the necessity for theoretical reflection after the defeats of the 1848 revolutions, for the formation of the 1st and 2nd Internationals in periods of class revival, and so on). Sometimes they were proved wrong, and they were obliged to revise their predictions, but they never abandoned the effort to be the most far-sighted elements of the proletariat. Similarly, the intransigently revolutionary positions adopted by Lenin in 1914 and in 1917 were based on an unshakable confidence that the ‘objective’ horrors of the imperialist war were giving rise to a profound maturation in the class consciousness of the proletariat. And when the Italian Fraction in the 1930s insisted so strongly on basing its whole activity on a proper analysis of the historic course, it was merely following on in the same tradition.

And what applies to the broader historical dimension also applies to the immediate struggle; in order to be able to intervene concretely in a strike movement, communists must develop the capacity to assess and reassess the momentum and direction of the struggle.

Having to deal with ‘subjective’ factors has never prevented marxists from carrying out this essential work.

THE CONDITIONS FOR GENERALISED WAR TODAY

The ICC has always maintained that, in order to march the proletariat off to a new world war, capitalism requires a situation expressed in “the workers’ growing adherence to capitalist values (and to their political and trade union representatives) and a combativity which either tends to disappear, or appears within a political perspective totally controlled by the bourgeoisie,” (‘The Course of History: the ‘80s are not the ‘30s, IR 36).

Unwilling, perhaps, to go on insisting (as they have done in the past) that the proletariat today is still groaning under the ideological heel of the counter-revolution, BC comes up with a novel response to this: “...the form of war, its technical means, its tempo, its characteristics in relation to the population as a whole, has greatly changed since 1939. More precisely, war today has less need for consensus or working class passivity than the wars of yesteryear. Here we must make it clear that we are not theorising the complete separation of the ‘military’ and the ‘civil’ which are, especially on the level of production, intersecting more and more. Rather, we wish to put the speed and high technical content of warfare in relation to its economic, political and social background. The relation is such that involvement in the actions of war is possible without the agreement of the proletariat. Every bourgeoisie is able to rely on its victory for the re-establishing of consensus as well as for the other things that victory brings: occupation of territory, etc. And it is obvious that every bourgeoisie enters a war thinking of victory.”

Reading this passage, it is difficult to understand what BC is talking about. The above conditions could be applied to very limited imperialist adventure, such as the various raids and expeditions the west has carried out in the Middle east, though even these actions have to be accompanied by intense ideological campaigns to dull the proletariat’s awareness of what is being done. But we are talking not about limited or local actions, but a world war, a third world war in a century whose wars have been ever-more global – embracing the entire planet – and total – demanding the active cooperation and mobilisation of the entire population. Is BC seriously suggesting that World War 3 could be fought with professional armies on some ‘distant’ battlefield, and that the accompanying ‘intersection’ of the civil and military sectors would not involve imposing the most monstrous sacrifices on the entire working population? With such a gentlemanly vision of world war, it’s not surprising that BC can still talk hopefully about the proletarian revolution achieving its victory during and even after the next global conflict! Or else, by the increased “technical means” and “tempo” of modern warfare, BC means that World War 3 will begin straight away as a push-button affair. But if this is the case, then it makes no sense to talk about the victory either of one bourgeois camp or the proletariat, since the entire world would have been reduced to rubble.

In fact, it is practically certain that a third world war would rapidly escalate into a nuclear holocaust – which is a good reason for not talking glibly about the proletarian revolution arising during or after the next war. But we agree that “every bourgeoisie enters a war thinking of victory.” This is why the bourgeoisie doesn’t want to plunge straight into a nuclear war, why it is spending billions searching for ways of winning the war without annihilating everything in the process. The ruling class also knows what the main stakes of the next war would be: the industrial heartlands of Europe. And it is certainly intelligent enough to recognise that for the west to occupy eastern Europe, or for Russia to seize the fleshpots of western Europe, there would have to be a total involvement and mobilisation of the proletarian masses, whether at the military fronts or at the point of production, and particularly in Europe itself. But for this to be a possibility, the bourgeoisie would first have to have ensured not only the “passivity” of the working class, but its active adherence to the war-ideologies of its exploiters. And this is precisely what the bourgeoisie cannot ensure today.

THE HISTORIC RESURGENCE OF THE PROLETARIAT

In 1982, the text from BC’s Congress argued that : “if the proletariat today, faced with the gravity of the crisis and undergoing the blows of repeated bourgeois attacks, has not yet shown itself able to respond, this simply means that the long work of the world counter-revolution is still active in the workers' ’consciousness”; that the proletariat today “is tired and disappointed, though not definitively beaten.”

BC's most recent text on the subject clearly marks an advance from this point. For the first time, it states unequivocably that: “the counter-revolutionary period following the defeat from within of the October revolution has ended,” and that “there are no lack of signs of a revival of class struggle and we do not fail to point them out.”  And in fact we have already noted that the pages of Battaglia have contained a serious coverage of recent massive class movements in Belgium, France, Yugoslavia, Spain, etc.
Nevertheless, the IBRP’s underlying attitude remains one of profound underestimation of the real depth of the class struggle today, and it is this above all which renders them incapable of seeing how the proletariat stands as an obstacle to the war-plans of the bourgeoisie. [1]
Battaglia may have noticed some “signs” of a class response in the years 1986-87. But these “signs” are in reality the advanced point of a succession of international waves going back to the events of May ’68 in
France. But when the first of these waves manifested itself, whether in France ’68 or the ‘hot autumn’ in Italy in ’69, Battaglia dismissed them as noisy eruptions of the petty bourgeois student strata; derided the arguments of the ICC’s predecessors about the beginning of a new period; and then went back to sleep. At its 5th Congress in 1982, it was still projecting its own tiredness onto the proletariat, despite the fact that there had already been a second wave of struggles between ’78 and ’81, culminating in the mass strike in Poland. And, after a brief reflux after 1981, a new wave began in Belgium in September ’83; but it wasn't until 1986 – i.e. three years into this third wave – that BC began seeing the “signs” of a class revival. It is thus hardly surprising that BC finds it so hard to see where the class movement is going – it has so little idea of where it has come from. Typical of this blindness even in relation to the past is the statement in the most recent article that : “after both ’74 and ’79, the crisis pushed the bourgeoisie into much more serious attacks on the working class but the much-exalted workers’ combativity did not in fact grow.” The wave of struggles from ‘78-81 is thus written out of history...

Because it sees today’s struggles as no more than the first timid beginnings of the class revival, rather than situating them in an evolving historical dynamic going back nearly 20 years, BC is naturally unable to measure the real maturation of class consciousness which has been both a product of and an active factor in these struggles.

Thus when the ICC points out that the ideologies which capitalism used to mobilise the class for war in the ‘30s – fascism/anti-fascism, defence of ‘socialist’ Russia, etc. – are now used up, discredited in the eyes of the workers’ Battaglia asserts that the bourgeoisie can always find alternatives to Stalinism or the fascism/anti-fascism campaigns of the ‘30s. But curiously enough, it avoids telling us which alternatives. If, for example, when it talks about finding “further obstacles” to Stalinism it means obstacles to the left of Stalinism, this only proves our case: because when  the bourgeoisie is forced to put its extreme left in the front line of opposition to the proletarian threat, this can only be a reflection of a real  process of radicalisation within the class.

The truth is that the proletariat’s growing disengagement from the main ideologies and institutions of bourgeois society is a real problem for the ruling class, particularly when it affects the main organs charged with disciplining the workers : the trade unions. And at this level, BC  seems particularly blind to what has been going on throughout the working class: “At this point the ICC should point out the terms in which the course they have adopted presents itself: the revival of combativity, the fall of old myths, the tendency to shake off union shackles... As there are no real pieces of evidence (for this).... it is necessary to tamper with reality, exaggerate it, distort it... invent it.”
By this token, the increasing tendency to ‘de-unionisation’ (which the bourgeois press has lamented in numerous countries); the growing number of strikes which break out spontaneously, ignoring or going beyond union directives (eg Belgium ’83 and ’86, Denmark ’85, British Telecom, French Rail strikes, Spanish miners and steel workers, and countless other movements); the mounting list of examples of workers booing unions speeches, ignoring union pseudo-actions or alternatively turning them into real class actions; the appearance of independent and unitary forms of workers’ self-organisation (as in Rotterdam in ’78, Poland ’80, the French rail strike, the teachers’ struggles in France and Italy...); the emergence of combative nuclei of workers outside the union structures (Italy, Belgium, France, Britain...) – all these “pieces of evidence” about “the tendency to shake off union shackles” which the ICC press has been documenting and publishing for years, all this is a mere ‘invention’ on our part, or at least a ‘distortion’ of reality.

DOES THE CLASS STRUGGLE AFFECT THE BOURGEOISIE?

If the idea of a swelling tide of proletarian resistance is a mere invention of the ICC, then it would follow that the bourgeoisie doesn’t have to take the working class into consideration when formulating its economic or political strategies. And BC doesn’t hesitate to draw this conclusion: “There is not a single policy in political economy in any of the metropolitan countries (with the possible exception of Poland and Rumania) which has been modified by the bourgeoisie in the wake of the struggle of the proletariat or any of its sections.”
If Battaglia is suggesting that the bourgeoisie doesn’t shape its economic attacks (or its propaganda campaigns, election strategies, etc) in anticipation of the reactions they will provoke from the workers, then it is denying an intelligence to the bourgeoisie, a mistake which marxists can ill-afford to make. Alternatively, it is suggesting that the Polish and Rumanian bourgeoisies are the most sophisticated in the world! Actually, the citing of these two cases isn’t accidental, because the Stalinist form of state capitalism often makes explicit tendencies which are less apparent in the ‘western’ varieties of state capitalism. One might well ask, however, what changes in the policy of the bourgeoisie BC discerns in
Rumania today? As for the modifications in the policy of the Polish bourgeoisie in order to attack the working class more effectively, we saw these at work against the class struggle in 1980: false liberalisation, the use of ‘renovated’ trade unionism a la Solidarnosc, staggering of the attacks, etc. In other words, the techniques used for decades in the west. The same ones which Gorbachev wants to generalise throughout his bloc in order to confront the revival of class struggle. Even the most rigid and brutal fractions of the bourgeoisie are now being led to modify and adapt their policies in order to cope with the development of the class struggle.

Furthermore, to argue that the proletariat, despite all the massive struggles of the last few years, has not succeeded in pushing back the bourgeoisie’s austerity attacks in any way is to deny all significance to the defensive struggles of the class. Logically it would imply arguing that only the immediate struggle for revolution can defend the workers’ interests. But while in global terms it’s true that the revolution is the proletariat’s only ultimate defence, it’s also true that the present struggles of the class on the terrain of economic demands have both held the bourgeoisie back from making more savage attacks, and have, in a number of circumstances forced the bourgeoisie to postpone attacks it was actually trying to impose. The example of Belgium ’86 is particularly significant here, because it was the real threat of a unification of struggles which obliged the bourgeoisie to make a temporary retreat.
But the most profound significance of the proletariat’s capacity to push back the economic attacks of the bourgeoisie is that it also represents the proletariat’s resistance to capitalism’s war-drive. Because if the ruling class is unable to compel the workers to acquiesce to ever-increasing sacrifices on behalf of the national economy, it will be unable to accomplish the militarisation of labour required for an imperialist war.
For Battaglia, however, the proletariat’s performance is still not up to scratch. The evidence we give of a growing disengagement from bourgeois ideology, of a developing combativity and consciousness, everything in fact “presented by the ICC as ‘proof’ is extremely weak and is insufficient to characterise an historic course.”

The fact is that for Battaglia, the only thing that could have any effect on the war drive is the revolution itself. Our text of 1979 already responded to this argument: “Some groups, like  Battaglia Comunista, consider that the proletariat’s response to the crisis is insufficient to constitute an obstacle to the course towards imperialist war. They consider that the struggle must be of a ‘revolutionary nature’ if it’s really going to counteract this course, basing their argument on the fact that in 1917-18 only the revolution put an end to the imperialist war. Their error is to try and transpose a schema which was correct at the time to a different situation. A proletarian upsurge during and against a war straight away takes the form of a revolution:

-          because society is plunged into the most extreme form of its crisis, imposing the most terrible sacrifices on  the workers;

-          because the workers in uniform are already armed;

-          because the exceptional measure (martial law, etc), which are in force make any class confrontation frontal and violent;

-          because the struggle against war immediately takes on the political form of a confrontation with the state which is waging the war, without going through the stage of less head-on economic struggles.

“But the situation is quite different when war hasn’t yet been declared. In these circumstances, even a limited tendency towards struggle on a class terrain is enough to jam up the war machine, since:

-          it shows that the workers aren’t actively drawn into capitalist mystifications;

-          imposing even greater sacrifices on the workers than the ones which provoked their initial response runs the risk of provoking a proportionally stronger reaction,” (IR 18, The Historic Course’).

To which we can only add that today, for the first time in history, we are moving towards a generalised class confrontation provoked not by a war but by a very long drawn-out crisis. The movement of struggles which is laying the foundation for this confrontation is consequently itself a long drawn-out one and often seems very unspectacular compared to the events of 1917-18. Nevertheless, to remain fixated on the images of the first revolutionary wave and to dismiss today’s struggles as amounting to very little is the very last way to prepare oneself for the massive social explosions that lie ahead.

THE ITALIAN FRACTION AND THE HISTORIC COURSE

The ICC’s approach to the question of the historic course is based to a large extent on the method of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left, whose political activity in the 1930s was founded on a recognition that the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave and the onset of the crisis of 1929 had opened up a course towards imperialist war.

Although the Internationalist Communist Party also claims a historical continuity with the Fraction, it has not really assimilated many of its most vital contributions, and this is particularly true with regard to the question of the historic course. Thus whereas for us the clarity of the Fraction’s approach to this position enabled it to make an internationalist response to the events in Spain in 1936-37, in contrast to nearly all the other proletarian currents from Trotskyism to the Union Communiste and the Fraction’s own minority, who succumbed to a greater or lesser extent to the ideology of anti-fascism, Battaglia is only too keen to seek out the “methodological error” of the Fraction: “The Fraction (especially its EC and in particular Vercesi) in the ‘30s judged the perspective as being towards war in an absolute fashion. Did they have reasons to do so? Certainly, the facts in their entirety gave them reason.  But even then the absolutisation of a ‘course’ led the Fraction to make political errors... The political error was the liquidation of any possibility of a revolutionary political intervention in Spain before the real defeat of the proletariat, with the consequent hardening of the differences between the minority and majority on a basis which held little advantage for either of them. The ‘interventionists’ allowed themselves to be absorbed by the POUM militia only to then be rapidly disillusioned and return to the Fraction. The majority remained watching and pontificating that : 'There is nothing to be done’....”

Turning to the ICC today, Battaglia goes on: “Today, the ICC’s error is substantially the same, even if its object has been stood on its head. Absolutisation of the course towards conflict before war; all attention is turned on this in the ingenuous and irresponsible undervaluation of what is in front of everyone’s eyes as regards the bourgeois course towards war.”
This passage is replete with errors. To begin with, BC seems to be mixing up the notions of the course with that of the tendencies produced by the crisis. When they accuse us of “absolutising” the course towards class confrontations they seem to think we are simply denying the tendency towards war. But what we mean by a course towards class confrontations is that the tendency towards war– permanent in decadence and aggravated by the crisis – is obstructed by the counter-tendency towards proletarian upsurges. Furthermore, this course is neither absolute nor eternal: it can be reversed by a series of defeats for the class. In fact, simply because the bourgeoisie is the dominant class in society, a course towards class confrontations is far more fragile and reversible than a course towards war.
In the second place, BC completely distorts the history of the Fractions. We can’t here go into details about the complete history of the groups of the Communist Left [2]. However, a few brief points must be made:

- it is not true that the majority position was that “there is nothing to be done.” while opposing any idea of enrolment in the anti-fascist militias, the majority sent a delegation of comrades to Spain to seek out the possibility of creating a communist nucleus there, despite the evident danger posed by the Stalinist hit squads: these comrades narrowly missed being assassinated in Barcelona. At the same time, outside Spain, the Italian and Belgian Fractions (and also the Mexican ‘Marxist Workers Group’) issued a number of appeals denouncing the massacre in Spain and insisting that the best solidarity with the Spanish workers was for the proletarians in other countries to fight for their own class demands;

- it is true that, in the face of the second world war, a tendency crystallised around Vercesi, denying the “social existence of the proletariat” and rejecting any possibility of revolutionary activity. It was also true that the Left Fractions in general were thrown into disarray and inactivity shortly before the outbreak of the war. But the source of these errors lay precisely in the abandonment of their previous clarity about the historic course. The theory, articulated in particular by Vercesi, of a ‘war economy’ that has overcome the crisis of overproduction, and consequently of all further wars as evidence of an inter-imperialist solidarity to crush the proletarian danger, resulted in the disappearance of the review Bilan and the publication of Octobre on anticipation of a new revolutionary upsurge. This left the Fractions completely disarmed on the eve of the war: far from ‘fixating all attention on the war’ at this point, as BC claims, Octobre saw the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the Munich agreement as desperate attempts to forestall the revolution!

- it should be said that this radical revision of the Fraction’s previous analyses was opposed by a significant minority within the organisation. Some of the most articulate spokesmen of this minority were silenced by ­­­­the Nazi death-camps. But in France this position was maintained throughout the war; and it is not accidental that the same comrades who insisted on the necessity to carry on with the communist activity during the war were also able to resist the activist turn provoked by the proletarian movements in Italy in 1943, when the majority of the comrades of the Italian Left – including Vercesi – mistakenly saw a new 1917 and decided that the time had come to form the Party. The Internationalist Communist Party is the direct heir of this error of method;

- in this context it is also worth pointing out that the ‘interventionist’ minority did not return to the Fraction as BC claims. They returned to the Union Communiste, which stood half way between the communist left and Trotskyism. And after 1943 they returned... to the Internationalist Communist Party. No doubt they felt at home within an organisation whose ambiguities concerning the partisan formations in Italy were virtually identical to their own ambiguities towards the anti-fascist militias in Spain... [3]­­­­­

THE DANGER FACING BATTAGLIA

As we have seen, the origins of Battaglia themselves lie in a mistaken analysis of the historic course. The precipitous formation of the ICP during WW2 resulted in an abandonment of the clarity attained by Bilan on many issues, particularly the problem of fraction, party and historic course. These errors have reached their most caricatured form in the ‘Bordigist’ current which split from the Battaglia current in 1952, but it is extremely difficult for the latter to overcome all the remaining ambiguities without calling its own origins into question.
In its recent article BC claims that the ICC’s errors in method, its deformations of reality, have led to splits and will result in more. But the truth is that the ICC’s prognoses have been proved consistently correct ever since 1968. We were the first to reaffirm the reappearance of the historic crisis in the late ‘60s. We have seen our predictions about the development of the class struggle confirmed by the various waves which have taken place since then. And, despite all the scoffings and incomprehensions in the political milieu, it is becoming more and more obvious that the ‘left in opposition’ is indeed the essential political strategy of the bourgeoisie in this period. This is not to deny that we have made mistakes or suffered splits. But with a framework of analysis that is basically sound, in a period full of possibilities for revolutionary work, mistakes can be corrected and splits can result in overall political strengthening of the organisation.
The danger facing Battaglia is of a different order. Since it is so historically bound up with a false analysis if the historic course, since it is tied to a number of obsolete political conceptions, it runs the risk that the apparent ‘homogeneity’ it displays today will give way to a series of explosions brought about by the insistent pressure of the class struggle, by the growing contradiction between its analyses and the reality of the class struggle.

Whether Battaglia like it or not, we are heading towards immense class conflagrations. Those currents who are not prepared for them are in danger of being swept aside by the heat of the blast.

MU


[1] We are talking on a general level here. At certain moments – and in total contradiction to the article we’ re responding to here - Battaglia  even go so far as to lend support to the thesis that capitalism must first silence the proletariat before being able to go to war. Thus in the same issue of Battaglia as this article, we can read an article ‘Let’s Reaffirm some Truths about the Class Struggle’ which says: “let us reaffirm to the point of boredom to the workers that not to fight against the sacrifices imposed by the bourgeoisie amounts to allowing the bourgeoisie  to enlarge the social peace required as a prelude to the third imperialist war.” (our emphasis).

 

[2] See our pamphlet La Gauche Communiste D’Italie .

[3] On the ICP’s ambiguities on the question of the partisans, see IR 8.