The need for rigour in debate within the proletarian movement

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Recent publications of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, and discussions between the ICC and the CWO at the latter’s public meetings, have confirmed that the way debate between proletarian organisations is carried out has btions is carried out has become a political issue in itself.

The IBRP have themselves raised this issue in Internationalist Communist no. 18, since they accuse the ICC of displaying a "penchant for slander by allusion" when we levelled the charge of empiricism against some of their analyses in our article ‘The marxist method and the ICC’s appeal over the war in ex-Yugoslavia’ in International Review n°99.

We will not answer this particular accusation, except to refer readers to the text in question, which in our opinion contains no slanders but makes an entirely political argument for this characterisation. We want to pose the question in a more general way, although this will necessitate giving some very specific examples of the problem we are raising.

The ICC has always taken the question of polemics and debate between revolutionary organisations very seriously indeed; this is the direct reflection of the importance we have always ascribed to the existence and development of the proletarian political milieu itself. This is why we have from our inception made polemical articles a regular featureticles a regular feature of our press, consistently attended the meetings of other groups, supported or initiated numerous attempts to reinforce the unity and solidarity of the revolutionary movement (conferences, joint meetings, etc). In our own internal life, we systematically read and discuss the publications of other proletarian currents and make regular reports on the proletarian milieu. In our published polemics with other groups we have always tried to make it clear where we agree with them as well as where we disagree; and when dealing with disagreements, to pose them as clearly and accurately as possible, referring in some detail to the published texts of other groups. This concern has also been based on the understanding that sectarianism, the constant stressing of differences above what unites the movement, has been a real problem for the milieu since the end of the period of counter-revolution at the end of the 1960s. The clearest example of this danger is provided by Bordigism, which in its attempt to erect an impenetrable barrier against the encroaching counter-revolution, came to the conclusion - for the first time in the history of the workers’ movement – that communist politics could only be embodied in one monolithic current.

In the past few years, recognising that ars, recognising that the need to defend the essential unity of the proletarian camp against the attacks of the ruling class has grown more acute than ever, we have made an even more concerted effort to root out any vestiges of sectarianism in our own polemics. We have made sure that our polemics are carefully planned and centralised on an international scale; that they avoid exaggerations, any spirit of petty rivalry, any ‘tit-for-tat’ answers on secondary points. We have also rectified certain erroneous formulations that have caused misunderstandings between ourselves and other groups (see for example the article on "100 issues of the International Review"in IR 100). Our readers can only judge for themselves whether this effort has borne fruit. But they can refer to all of our recent polemics with the IBRP in the IR, for example, on the 6th congress of Battaglia Comunista in IR 90, on the origins of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista in IR n°s 91 and 92, or most recently, our critique of the IBRP’s "Theses On The Tasks Of Communists In The Capitalist Periphery", in IR 100. We offer such articles as examples of how we think a serious debate ought to be conducted: one which does not shy away from very sharp criticism of what we consider errors and even influencers and even influences of bourgeois ideology, but which is always based on the actual theory and practise of other proletarian groups.

We must speak frankly and say that the polemics of the IBRP in the recent period do not measure up to these standards. We will give the most serious example first. It is contained in the IBRP’s official statement "Revolutionaries faced with the prospect of war and the current situation of the working class" in Internationalist Communist n°18, a balance sheet of the meaning and historic significance of the recent war in the Balkans. Without entering into a more detailed discussion about the many important general questions raised in this text, we want to focus on the IBRP’s conclusions about the response of the rest of the proletarian milieu to the war: "Other political elements in this arena, although not falling into the tragic mistake of supporting one of the warring parties, have, in the name of a fake anti-imperialism or because of historically and economically impossible progressive visions, equally distanced themselves from the methods and perspectives of work which lead to regroupment in the future revolutionary party. They are beyond saving and are victims of their own idealist or mechanistic frameworks, incapable of recognising the peculiarities of the explosion of the perennial economic contradictions of modern capitalism".

Two fundamental points are raised here. First, if indeed the organised groups of the proletarian milieu are "beyond saving", this has very serious implications for the future of this milieu. Apart from anything else, it implies that the future world party – unlike any class party formed in the past – will be formed around a single current in the marxist movement. At the same time, it would have the gravest consequences for the militant energies that are presently trapped in the organisations that are themselves "beyond saving", and it would be the responsibility of the IBRP to set about recuperating what it could from the wreckage - a task that the IBRP does not even consider in this text. But to return to the problem of the method of debate: despite the gravity of its assertions, not once does the IBRP make it explicit whom it is referring to. We are left to guess, on the basis of previous IBRP polemics, that the "idealists" are the ICC, the "mechanists" the Bordigists…but we cannot be sure. This is political irresponsibility of the worst sort, completely outside the best traditions of the workers’ movement. It was never the style, for example, of Lenin, who always made it absolutely clear whom he was directing his polemical fire against, or of the Italian left in the 1930s, who were extremely precise in their assessment of the potential or otherwise of the different currents who made up the proletarian milieu of their day. If the IBRP thinks that the ICC and the Bordigist groups are beyond saving, let them argue it openly, and on the basis of the real positions, analyses and intervention of these groups. We emphasise the latter point because while mentioning names is vital, it is not enough. To recognise this we only have to look at the other polemic in this issue of Internationalist Communist, "Idealism or marxism: once more on the fatal flaws of the ICC", written by an IBRP sympathiser who left the ICC in very unclear circumstances a few years ago. This text, which is offered up as an interim answer to our article on the IBRP in IR 99, is a "model" of bad polemic, making any number of assertions about the ICC’s political methodology without once troubling to quote any texts of the ICC.

The second example is provided by the "Correspondence with the ICC" in the publication of the Communist Worn of the Communist Workers’ Organisation, Revolutionary Perspectives (n°16). This correspondence deals mainly with our respective organisations’ analysis of the recent electricians’ strike in Britain. The circumstances of this letter are as follows: we wrote to the CWO in November to provide them with a copy of a pamphlet by J MacIver entitled "Escaping a paranoid cult", which was produced in conjunction with the expulsion of the ICC from the "No War but the Class War" discussion meetings in London (see World Revolution n°229). For us this document was an example of a classic parasitic attack, not only on the ICC but also the IBRP and other proletarian groups. The CWO chose not to publish this part of the letter, or their response to it. At the end of our letter we also asked the question which was published in Revolutionary Perspectives, concerning the class nature of the electricians’ strike committee. Since to our knowledge this was based entirely on the shop steward organisations, we took the position that it was a radical trade union organ rather than a real expression of the electricians’ struggle. However, the CWO in their article in RP n°15 seemed to see something much more positive in this body. Since we respect their opinions, we wanted to know from them whether they hadthem whether they had any information that could throw a different light on the question, since it can sometimes be very hard to tell the difference between a real organ of workers’ struggle and a very radical expression of the unions. The CWO’s reply, while not actually supplying us with any of the concrete information we hoped for, did raise many political issues, not least about the nature of the trade unions and rank-and-fileism. But this is not the place to enter that discussion. Again, we wish to draw attention to the method of the CWO’s polemic, above all when it comes to describing the actual positions of the ICC. We are told:

"You still have a perspective that the working class is really, ‘subterraneanly’ conscious of the need to smash capitalism. The only ‘mystification’ which holds the struggle back is that put about by the trades unions. If only the working class was ‘demystified’ of its trades unionism then they would take the revolutionary path. This is one of the examples of your semi-religious idealism. The marxist method knows that the working class will become revolutionary through its practical experience and the revolutionary programme which we defend will most closely match the needs of a class that grows in consciousness. It will not be a question of 1. ‘demystifying’ the workers, 2. then go into struggle. The demystification, the struggle and the reacquisition of its own programme will all occur simultaneously as a part of the movement against capitalism".

We agree that it would be idealist to argue that the workers will first be ‘demystified’ of trade unionism and then enter into struggle. But we defy them to point to any text by the ICC which defends this conception. Rather than making accusations of this type, or arguing as they do in the same letter that we "do not say anything positive about the actual workers’ struggle", we would ask them to actually relate to the many texts we have published on the present period of the class struggle, texts which attempt to place the current difficulties of the class – but also its forward steps – in their general context since the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Those texts would also have made it clear how important we think it is for the workers to go through the daily, practical confrontation with the unions in order to lay the ground for a an eventual break with them. The CWO may have many disagreements with our analyses, but at least the debate would be clear for the rest of the proletarian movement.

The passage we have quoted contains another problem: the tendency to attack as some kind of ICC shibboleth positions which are not at all our invention but which, at the very least, represent our attempt to develop the authentic traditions of the marxist movement. This is the case with the notion of subterranean maturation, which the CWO use almost as a term of ridicule, but which has a long pedigree going back via Trotsky to Marx – who coined the immortal phrase "well grubbed old mole" in describing the class struggle. In fact we argued this point in a polemic with the CWO in IR 43, back in the mid-80s, an article which has never elicited a reply. But if the CWO don’t like our interpretations of such concepts, let them go to the sources in the marxist classics (such as Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution) and argue against them directly.

The most recent public debate between the ICC and the CWO – at a CWO meeting in London – again showed this tendency on the latter’s part. The theme of the meeting was communism and how to get there, and in many ways the discussion that followed was a very positive one. The ICC saluted the presentation, which defended the marxist vision of communism and the class struggle against all the current campaigns of the ruling class about the "death of communism"; we had no hesitation in saying that we agreed with virtually all of it. Quite naturally as well, there was a discussion about the differences between the ICC and the CWO on the question of the state in the period of transition, and this was also positive in that it there seemed to be a real will on the part of the majority of CWO comrades there to understand what the ICC was saying about this. We argued, in response to the CWO, that while Lenin’s State and Revolution is a fundamental point of departure for posing the question of the state in the marxist framework, the views he defended in 1917 have to be deepened and to some degree revised in the light of the actual experience of proletarian power in Russia. Basing ourselves on the debates that took place within the Bolshevik party in this period, and in particular on the conclusions drawn by the Italian Left in the 1930s, the ICC considers that the proletarian dictatorship cannot simply be identified with the inevitable transitional state. Again, without going into all the ins and outs of this problem, we want to take issue with a statement made by one CWO comrade, which for us is another very clear example of how revolutionaries should not conduct a debate. According to this comrade, this position was no more than an invention of one member of the Left Fraction, Mitchell: "he just made it up". This assertion is factually incorrect – Mitchell’s own series of articles published in Bilan ("Problems of the period of transition") took as their starting point a previous series of studies of the state also published in Bilan ("The problem of the state"), and many other fundamental articles by the Italian and Belgian Fractions as collective bodies, as well as by other individual comrades, take the same position. But above all this kind of assertion shows a real contempt for the work of the Fraction, which after all is the common political ancestor of the ICC and the IBRP. At the meeting we already appealed to the CWO to read the article "The proletariat and the transitional state" in IR 100, which provides clear evidence that Bilan’s position on the state was based on the actual debates in the Bolshevik party, in particular the 1921 trade union debate (not to mention the tragedy of Kronstadt). We further call on the CWO to make a serious and collective effort to study the work of Bilan on this question, and are ready to supply them with the relevant texts (we intend in any case to republish the Mitchell series in the not too distant future).The comrades of the CWO are fully at liberty to reject the Fraction’s arguments, but let it be on the basis of a considered study and reflection.

In sum, we think that the issues facing the revolutionary movement today – whether the analysis of contemporary events, such as wars and class movements, or more historical experiences such as the Russian revolution, are too important to be diverted into false debates or to be cheapened by unsubstantiated assertions and accusations. We call on the IBRP to raise the level of their polemics as part of an effort towards improving the tone and the content of debate throughout the whole milieu. The presentation at the London CWO meeting said quite rightly that marxism is the advanced point in humanity’s attempt to demystify the world. In some ways therefore the milieu of marxist organisations can be compared to an international scientific community which is struggling to advance its understanding of fundamental questions such as the origins of the cosmos. Debate about such questions by genuine scientists demands a high level of rigour and accuracy, and if the marxists are to advance their understanding of the universe of the class struggle, they cannot afford to fall below this level themselves.