The idea of the historic course in the revolutionary movement

In the series Historic Course

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Since the report on the class struggle to the last Congress, there have been no immediate shifts in the overall situation facing the class. The proletariat has demonstrated, through various struggles, that its combativity remains intact and that its discontent is growing (eg transport workers in New York, 'general strike' in Norway, struggles in numerous sectors in France, postal workers in Britain, movements in peripheral countries like Brazil, China, etc). But the situation continues to be much more clearly defined by the difficulties facing the class - difficulties imposed by the conditions of decomposing capitalism but continually reinforced by the bourgeoisie's ideological campaigns about the 'end of the working class', the 'new economy', 'globalisation', and even 'anti-capitalism'. Within the proletarian political milieu, meanwhile, there remain fundamental disagreements about the balance of class forces, with certain groups using the ICC's 'idealist' view of the historic course as a reason for not participating in any joint initiative against the war in Kosovo. This is certainly one reason to focus this report not so much on the struggles of the recent period, but on trying to deepen our understanding of the concept of the historic course as it has developed in the workers' movement: if we are to answer these criticisms effectively, we must obviously go to the historical root of the misunderstandings that infect the proletarian milieu. Another reason is that one of the weaknesses in our own analyses of recent struggles has been a tendency towards immediatism, a tendency to concentrate on particular struggles as 'proof' of our position on the course, or on the difficulties of the struggle as a possible basis for calling our conceptions into question. What follows is very far from an exhaustive survey; it's main aim is to assist the organisation to acquaint itself more closely with the general method through which marxism has approached this question.

Part 1: 1848-1952

From the Communist Manifesto to the First World War

The concept of the "historic course", as developed above all by the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left, is derived from the historic alternative developed by the marxist movement in the 19th century: the alternative between socialism and barbarism. In other words, the capitalist mode of production contains within itself two contradictory tendencies and possibilities - the tendency towards self-destruction, and the tendency towards the world-wide association of labour and the emergence of a new and higher social order. It must be emphasised that for marxism, neither of these tendencies are imposed on capitalist society from the outside, as for example in the bourgeois theories which explain manifestations of barbarism like Nazism or Stalinism as alien intrusions on capitalist normality, or as in the various mystical and utopian visions of the advent of communist society. Both the possible outcomes of capital's historic trajectory are the logical culmination of its innermost life-processes. Barbarism, social collapse, and imperialist war derive from the remorseless competition which drives the system forward, from the divisions inherent in commodity production and the perpetual war of each against all; communism, from capital's necessity to unify and associate labour, thus creating its own gravedigger in the proletariat. Against all idealist errors which tried to separate the proletariat from communism, Marx defined the latter as the statement of its "real movement", and insisted that the workers "have no ideals to realise, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant" (The Civil War in France).

In the Communist Manifesto, there is a certain tendency to assume that this pregnancy would automatically result in a healthy birth - that the victory of the proletariat was inevitable. At the same time the Manifesto, in talking about previous class societies, shows that if no revolutionary outcome takes place, the result has been "the mutual ruin of the contending classes" - in short, barbarism. Although this alternative is not clearly announced for capitalism, it is the logical deduction flowing from the recognition that the proletarian revolution is anything but an automatic process, and requires the conscious self-organisation of the proletariat, the class whose mission is to create a society which for the first time allows humanity to become master of its fate. Hence the Manifesto focuses on the necessity for the proletarians to "constitute themselves into a class, and thus into a political party". Notwithstanding later clarifications about the distinction between the party and the class, the kernel of this statement remains profoundly true: the proletariat can only act as a revolutionary and self-conscious force if it confronts capitalism on the political level; and in doing so it cannot dispense with the necessity to form a political party.

Again, it was clearly understood that the "constitution of the proletarians into a class" armed with an explicit programme against capitalist society was not possible at any moment. First of all, the Manifesto stressed the need for the class to have gone through a long period of apprenticeship where it could take its struggle from its initial, 'primitive' forms (such as Luddism) to more organised and conscious ones (formation of trade unions and political parties). And despite the Manifesto's 'youthful' optimism about the potential for immediate revolution, the experience of 1848-52 demonstrated that periods of counter-revolution and defeat were also part of the proletariat's apprenticeship, and that in such periods the tactics and organisation of the proletarian movement would have to adapt accordingly. This was the whole meaning of the polemic between the marxist current and the Willich-Schapper tendency, which in Marx's words "has substituted an idealist conception for a materialist one. Instead of seeing the real situation as the motor force of the revolution, it sees only mere will" (Address to the General Council of the Communist League, September 1850). This approach was the basis for the decision to dissolve the Communist League and focus on the tasks of clarification and the defence of principles - the tasks of a fraction - rather than squander energies in grandiose revolutionary adventures. In its actual practise within the ascendant period of capitalism, the marxist vanguard showed that it was vain to attempt to found a really effective class party in periods of retreat and reaction: the pattern of forming parties during phases of rising class struggle, and recognising the inevitability of their demise in phases of defeat, was followed again with the First International and with the creation of the Second.

It is true that the writings of the marxists of this period, though containing many vital insights, do not amount to a coherent theory of the role of fraction in periods of retreat; as Bilan (the publication of the Italian Left during the 1930s) pointed out, this could not be possible until the notion of the party was itself elaborated theoretically, a task which could only be fully accomplished in the period of the direct struggle for power inaugurated by the decadence of the capitalist system (see our article on the fraction-party relationship in International Review n°61). Furthermore, the conditions of decadence further sharpened the contours of this question since, whereas in ascendancy, with its long-term struggle for reforms, political parties could retain a proletarian character without being entirely composed of revolutionaries, in decadence the class party could only be composed of revolutionary militants and as such could not long sustain itself as a communist party - that is to say, as an organ having the capacity to lead the revolutionary offensive - outside phases of open class struggle.

By the same token, the conditions of ascendant capitalism did not make it possible to fully evolve the concept that, depending on the global balance of class forces, capitalist society was moving either towards world war or revolutionary upheavals. World war was not 'required' by a capitalism that could still overcome its periodic economic crises through the expansion of the world market; and because the struggle for reforms had not yet been exhausted, the world revolution remained, for the working class, an overall perspective rather than a burning necessity. The historic alternative between socialism and barbarism could not yet be distilled into a more immediate choice between war and revolution.

Nevertheless, as early as 1887, the emergence of imperialism had enabled Engels to make a startlingly clear prediction about the precise form that capitalism's tendency towards barbarism was bound to take - devastating war at the very heart of the system: "No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany except a world war and a world war indeed of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt-of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will massacre one another and in doing so devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any storm of locusts has ever done. The devastation of the Thirty Years War compressed into three or four years, and spread over the whole Continent: famine, pestilence, general descent into barbarism, both of the armies and the mass of the people; hopeless confusion of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy, collapse of the old states and their traditional elite wisdom to such an extent that crowns will roll by dozens on the pavement and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will come out of the struggle as victor; only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the final victory of the working class". (15 December 1887, Marx and Engels Collected Works Vol 26, p451). It is also noteworthy that Engels - basing himself no doubt on the very real experience of the Paris Commune a decade and a half earlier - foresaw that this European war would give birth to the proletarian revolution.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the growing threat of this war became an important preoccupation for the revolutionary wing of social democracy, those who were not fooled by the siren songs of 'perpetual progress', 'superimperialism' and other ideologies which had seized hold of large segments of the movement. At the congresses of the Second International, it was the left wing - Lenin and Luxemburg in particular - which insisted most strongly on the necessity for the International to take a clear position faced with the war-danger. The Stuttgart resolution of 1907 and the Basle resolution which reaffirmed its premises in 1912 were the fruit of their efforts. The former stipulates that "In the case of a threat of an outbreak of war, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries taking part, fortified by the unifying activity of the International Bureau, to do everything to prevent the outbreak of war by whatever means seem to them to be effective, which naturally differ with the intensification of the class war and of the general political situation.

Should war break out in spite of all this, it is their duty to intercede for its speedy end, and to strive with all their power to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule". In sum, faced with imperialism's slide towards a catastrophic war, not only was the working class to oppose this slide, but, if the war came, to respond to it with revolutionary action. These resolutions were to serve as the basis for Lenin's slogan during the First World War: 'turn the imperialist war into a civil war'.

When reflecting on this period, it is important not to project backwards as far as the consciousness of both sides of the class divide was concerned. At this stage neither the proletariat nor the bourgeoisie could have grasped fully what world war really meant. In particular, it could not yet have been clear that since modern imperialist war was a total war and no longer a remote combat between professional armies, it could not be waged without the total mobilisation of the proletariat - both the workers in uniform and the workers on the home front. True the bourgeoisie had understood that it could not launch a war until it was sure that social democracy was rotten enough not to oppose it, but the revolutionary events of 1917-21, directly provoked by the war, taught it many lessons that it will never forget, above all concerning the need to thoroughly prepare the social and political ground before unleashing a major war, in other words, to complete the ideological and physical destruction of proletarian opposition.

Looking at the problem from the standpoint of the proletariat, what is clearly lacking in the Stuttgart resolution is an analysis of the balance of class forces - of the real strength of the proletariat, of its capacity to resist the slide towards war. In the resolution's view, war might be prevented by the action of the class, or it might be halted after it had begun. In fact, the resolution argues that the various anti-war statements and interventions made by the unions and social democratic parties of the day "testify to the growing strength of the proletariat and to its power to ensure peace through decisive intervention". This optimistic statement represented a real underestimation of the degree to which the social democracy and the unions had already been integrated into the system and so would prove to be worse than useless as instruments for an internationalist response. This was to leave the lefts in some disarray when the war broke out - as witness, Lenin's initial belief that German High Command had forged the issue of Vorwärts which called on workers to support the war; the isolation of the Internationale group in Germany, and so on. And there is no doubt that it was the creeping betrayal of the old workers' organisations, their gradual incorporation into capitalism, which really tipped the balance of forces against the working class and opened a course towards war, and this in spite of the very high levels of combativity which the workers had displayed in many countries in the decade before the war, and even immediately before it.

This latter fact has frequently given rise to the theory that the bourgeoisie unleashed the war as a preventative measure against the looming revolution - a theory which we think is based on a failure to distinguish between combativity and consciousness, and which downplays the enormous historical significance and effect of the betrayal of the organisations which the working class had laboured so hard to build. What is true, however, is that the manner of the bourgeoisie's first crucial victory over the workers - the 'Sacred Union' proclaimed by social democracy and the unions - proved insufficient to totally break the dynamic of the mass strike which had been maturing in the European, Russian and American working class over the preceding decade. The working class proved able to recover from the mainly ideological defeat of 1914 and launch its revolutionary response three years later. Thus the proletariat, through its own action. shifted the historic course: the tide was now flowing away from imperialist world conflict and towards the communist world revolution.

From the revolutionary wave to the onset of the counter-revolution

During the revolutionary years that followed. the practise of the bourgeoisie provided its own 'contribution' to deepening the problem of the historic course. It proved that, faced with an openly revolutionary challenge from the working class, the drive towards war takes second place to the need to regain control of the exploited masses. This was the case not only in the heat of the revolution itself, when the uprisings in Germany obliged the ruling class to call a halt to the war and unite against its mortal enemy, but also in the years that followed, because although inter-imperialist contrasts did not disappear (the conflict between France and Germany, for example) they were to a large extent placed on a back burner while the bourgeoisie struggled to solve the social question. This is the meaning, for example, of the support given to Hitler's programme of anti-working class terror by many factions of the world bourgeoisie whose imperialist interests could only have been threatened by a resurgent German militarism. The reconstruction period that followed the war - although limited in extent and depth compared to the one after 1945 - also served to temporarily postpone the problem of redividing the imperialist spoils as far as the ruling class was concerned.

For its part, the Communist International was granted very little time to clarify such questions, although from the outset it had made it clear that if the working class failed to respond to the revolutionary challenge made by the Russian workers, the path to another world war would be open. The manifesto of the CI's first congress (March 1919) warns that if the working class were to be taken in by the sermons of the opportunists, "capitalist development would celebrate its restoration in new, more concentrated and more monstrous forms on the bones of many generations, with the prospect of a new and inevitable world war. Fortunately for mankind this is no longer possible" During this period, the question of the balance of class forces was indeed crucial, but less with regard to the danger of war than to the immediate possibilities of revolution. The last sentence in the passage just cited provides material for reflection here: in the first, heady phases of the revolutionary wave, there was a definite tendency to see the victory of the world revolution as inevitable, and thus to imagine that a new world war was not really possible. This represented a definite underestimation of the gigantic task that the working class faces in creating a society based on social solidarity and the conscious mastery of the productive forces. And in addition to this general problem, applicable to any revolutionary movement of the class, the proletariat in the years 1914-21 found itself confronted by the sudden and brutal 'outbreak' of a new historical epoch which compelled it to rid itself very quickly of ingrained habits and methods of struggle and acquire 'overnight' the methods appropriate to this new period.

As the initial impetus of the revolutionary wave subsided, the somewhat simplistic optimism of the early years proved more and more inadequate, and it became increasingly urgent to draw out a sober and realistic assessment of the real balance of class forces. In the early 20s, there was a particularly sharp polemic between the CI and the German left on this point, a debate in which truth was not exclusively on either side. The CI was quicker to see the reality of the retreat in the revolution after 1921, and thus the necessity to consolidate the organisation and to build up the confidence of the working class through participating in its defensive struggles. But, pressured by the demands of the stranded Russian state and economy to find points of support outside Russia, the CI increasingly translated this perspective into the language of opportunism (United Front, fusion with centrist parties, etc). The German left firmly rejected these opportunist conclusions; but its revolutionary impatience and its theory of the death crisis of capitalism prevented it from seeing the distinction between the overall epoch of capitalist decline, which poses the necessity for revolution in general historic terms, and the different immediate phases within that epoch, phases which do not automatically present all the conditions for a revolutionary overthrow. The German left's failure to analyse the objective balance of class forces was coupled with a key weakness on the organisational front - its inability to understand the tasks of a fraction fighting against the degeneration of the old party. These weaknesses were to have fatal consequences for the very existence of the German left as an organised current.

The contribution of the Italian left

It is here that the Italian left truly came into its own as an international pole of clarity. In the early 1920s, having lived through the experience of fascism, it was able to see that the proletariat was being pushed back by a determined bourgeois offensive. But this realisation led it neither towards sectarianism, since it continued to participate fully in the defensive struggles of the class, nor opportunism, since it made a very lucid critique of the danger of opportunism in the International, particularly through the latter's concessions to social democracy. Having already been schooled in the tasks of a fraction in its political combat within the Italian Socialist Party before the war, the Italian left also fully appreciated the necessity to fight within the existing organs of the class as long as they retained any proletarian character. By 1927-8, however, the left had recognised that the expulsion of the left opposition from the Bolshevik party, and of other left currents internationally, signified a qualitative deepening of the counter-revolution and demanded the formal constitution of an independent Left Fraction, even though the possibility of reconquering the Communist parties was left open.

The year 1933 was the next significant date for the Italian Left: not only because the first issue of Bilan came out in that year, but also because the triumph of Nazism in Germany convinced the Fraction that the course towards a second world war was now open. Bilan's grasp of the dynamic of the balance of class forces since 1917 was summarised in the logo it placed on its publications for some time: "Lenin 1917, Noske 1919, Hitler 1933": Lenin being the personification of proletarian revolution; Noske of the repression of the revolutionary wave by social democracy, Hitler of the completion of the bourgeois counter-revolution and the preparations for a new war. From the very beginning, therefore, Bilan's position on the historic course was one of its defining characteristics.

It is true that the editorial article of Bilan n°1, while recognising the profound defeat the working class has been through, appears somewhat hesitant as to the perspective facing the proletariat, leaving the door open to the possibility that the proletariat might be able to revive its struggle and thus prevent the outbreak of war through the development of the revolution (see The Italian Communist Left, p 71). This was perhaps partly the result of an unwillingness to rule out entirely the possibility of reversing the tide of counter-revolution. But over the next few years, all of Bilan's analyses of the international situation - whether of national struggles in the peripheries, the expansion of German power in Europe, the Popular Front in France, the integration of the USSR into the imperialist chess-game, or the so-called Spanish revolution - were founded on the sober recognition that the balance of forces had turned decisively against the proletariat and that the bourgeoisie was clearing the way towards another imperialist massacre. This evolution was expressed with stark clarity in a text in Bilan n°17: "To advocate the constitution of fractions in an epoch in which the crushing of the world proletariat is accompanied by a concretisation of the conditions for the unleashing of war, is the statement of a 'fatalism' which accepts the inevitability of war being unleashed and the impossibility of mobilising the proletariat against it being unleashed" ('Draft resolution on the problems of the left fraction').

The irreconcilable opposition between a course towards war and a course towards revolution was summed up in Bilan 16: "We have already said: war and revolution are two opposite expressions of the same situation, in that they mature out of the explosion of contradictions? but they are 'opposite expressions', which means that the unleashing of war results from political conditions which exclude the revolution. It is an anarchistic simplification that considers that since the moment has arrived when capitalism has to arm the workers, the conditions are already ripe for the proletariat to use these arms for the triumph of its revolutionary cause? The opposition between war and revolution reveals its full breadth when we consider that the political conditions which allow the war to be unleashed involve not only the disappearance of all the conditions that would permit the victory of the proletariat, but of any kind of revolutionary movement up to the least statement of the consciousness of the proletariat" ('Draft resolution on the international situation')

This methodological approach was in profound contrast to the position of Trotsky, who was by the far the better known 'representative' of the left opposition to Stalinism at that time (and ever since). Trotsky, it should be said, had also seen 1933 and the victory of Nazism as a turning point. As for Bilan, this event also marked the definitive betrayal of the Communist International; vis-à-vis the regime in the USSR. Trotsky, like Bilan, continued to refer to it as the workers' state, but from this period on he no longer felt that the Stalinist regime could be reformed, but had to be forcibly overthrown in a "political revolution". But behind these apparent similarities, fundamental differences remained and were to result in a final break between the Italian Fraction and the International Left Opposition. These differences were deeply connected to the Italian left's notion of the historic course and the task of a fraction within it. For Trotsky, the bankruptcy of the old party meant the immediate proclamation of a new party; Bilan rejected this as voluntarist and idealist, and insisted that the party, as the effective political leadership of the class, could not exist in moments of profound depression of the class movement. Trotsky's efforts to cobble together a mass organisation in such a period could only result in opportunism, exemplified by the left opposition's turn towards the left wing of social democracy from 1934 onwards. For Bilan, a real party of the proletariat could only be formed when the class was on a course towards open conflict with capitalism. But the task of preparing for such a modification in the situation, of laying the basis for the future party, could only be carried out by a fraction which defined as its primary task that of drawing the 'balance sheet' of' past victories and defeats.

With regard to the USSR, Bilan's overall view of the situation facing the proletariat led it to reject Trotsky's perspective of an attack by world capital on the workers' state - and hence the need for the proletariat to defend the USSR against such an attack. Instead it saw that in a period of reaction the inevitable tendency of an isolated proletarian state was to be drawn into the system of capitalist alliances preparing the ground for a new world war. Hence the rejection of any defence of the USSR as being incompatible with internationalism.

It is true that Trotsky's writings of the time do often contain vivid insights into the profoundly reactionary tendencies dominating the world situation. But what Trotsky lacked was a rigorous method, a real conception of the historic course. Thus, despite the triumph of reaction all along the line, and despite his own recognition of the approach of war, Trotsky constantly succumbed to a false optimism which saw fascism as the bourgeoisie's last card against the danger of revolution, and anti-fascism as in some sense a statement of the radicalisation of the masses; which held that "everything was possible" at the time of the strikes under the Popular Front in France in 1936, or which accepted at face value the notion that a proletarian revolution had got underway in Spain that same year. In sum, Trotsky's failure to grasp the real nature of the period sped Trotskyism's slide towards the counter-revolution, while Bilan's clarity on the same question enabled it to hold fast in the defence of class principles, even at the price of a terrible isolation.

Certainly this isolation took its toll on the Fraction itself; its clarity was not defended without major combats within its own ranks. First, against the positions of the minority on the war in Spain: the pressure to take part in the illusory "Spanish revolution" was immense and the minority succumbed to it with its decision to fight in the militias of the POUM. The intransigence of the majority was maintained in large part because it refused to treat the events in Spain in isolation and saw them as an statement of a world-wide balance of forces. Thus, when groups like the Union Communiste or the LCI (Ligue des Communistes Internationalistes, the Belgian Hennault group), whose positions were similar to those of the minority, accused Bilan of being unable to see a class movement if it was not being led by the party, and of seeing the party as a kind of deus ex machina without which the masses could achieve nothing, Bilan's response was that the lack of a party in Spain was the product of the defeats the proletariat had suffered internationally, and while expressing its total solidarity with the Spanish workers, insisted that this lack of programmatic clarity had led to their initial spontaneous reactions being dragged off their own terrain and onto the terrain of the bourgeoisie and of inter-imperialist war.

The Fraction's view of the events in Spain were verified by reality; but no sooner had this ordeal been passed than it was plunged into a second and even more damaging one - the adoption by Vercesi, one of the main theoreticians within the fraction, of a conception which put all the Fraction's previous analysis of the historic period into question - the theory of the war economy.

This theory was a result of a flight into immediatism. Witnessing the ability of capitalism to use the state and its preparations for war to partially re-absorb the mass unemployment that had characterised the first phase of the economic crisis of the 1930s, Vercesi and his followers concluded that capitalism had somehow gone through a profound alteration which had overcome its historic crisis of overproduction. Turning to the elementary marxist axiom that the principal contradiction in society is the one between the exploiting and the exploited class, Vercesi then made the leap into concluding that imperialist world war was no longer the response of capitalism to its internal economic contradictions, but an act of inter-imperialist solidarity aimed at massacring the revolutionary working class. Thus if war was approaching, it only meant that the proletarian revolution was becoming an ever greater threat to the ruling class. In fact, the main effect of the theory of the war economy during this period was to completely play down the danger of war. Local wars and selected massacres, it was argued, could do the same job for capitalism as a world war. The result was a complete failure to prepare for the impact that the war would inevitably have on the work of the organisation, and thus the almost total disintegration of the Fraction at the beginning of the war. And Vercesi's theorisations about the meaning of the war once it had broken out completed the rout: the war signified the "social disappearance of the proletariat" and made any organised militant activity useless. The proletariat could only return to the path of struggle following the outbreak of the "crisis of the war economy" (provoked not by the operation of the law of value but by the exhaustion of the material means to carry on with war production). The consequences of this aspect of the theory at the end of the war will be examined shortly, but their initial effect was to sow disarray and demoralisation within the ranks of the fraction.

In the period after 1938, when Bilan was replaced by Octobre in the expectation of new revolutionary assaults by the working class, the original analyses of Bilan were kept alive and developed by a minority which saw no reason to question the fact that war was imminent, that it would be a new inter-imperialist conflict for the division of the world, or that revolutionaries had to maintain their activity in adverse circumstances in order to keep the flame of internationalism alive. This work was carried on above all by the militants who revived the Italian Fraction after 1941 and who were instrumental in forming the French Fraction in the next few years of war.

The Gauche Communiste de France continues the work of Bilan

Those who remained loyal to the work of Bilan also maintained its interpretation of how the course would change - in the fires of war itself. This view was solidly founded on the real experience of the class - in 1871, 1905 and 1917; and the events in Italy in 1943 seemed to confirm it. Here was an authentic class movement with a clear anti-war dimension, and it was not without an echo in the other defeated European axis power, Germany itself. When the Italian movement also produced a powerful impetus towards regroupment among the scattered proletarian forces in Italy itself, the French nucleus of the communist left, along with the Italian Fraction in exile and in Italy itself concluded that "the course towards the formation of the party is now open". But while a large number of militants took this to mean the immediate formation of the party, and on bases that were not well defined programmatically, the French Fraction (in particular comrade Marco (MC), who was a member of both the Italian and French Fractions) did not abandon its rigorous approach. Opposed to the dissolution of the Italian Fraction and the precipitous formation of the party, the French Fraction also insisted on examining the Italian situation in the light of the overall world situation, and refused to be carried along by the sentimental 'Italocentrism' which had gripped many of the comrades of the Italian Fraction. The group in France (which became the Gauche Communiste de France) was also the first to recognise that the course had not changed, that the bourgeoisie had drawn the necessary lessons from the experience of 1917 and had inflicted a further decisive defeat on the proletariat.

In the text 'The task of the hour - formation of the party or formation of cadres', published in the August 1946 issue of Internationalisme (republished in International Review n°32), there is a biting polemic against the inconsistencies of the other currents of the proletarian milieu of the day. The main substance of the polemic is aimed at showing that the decision to found the PCInt in Italy was based on an erroneous estimation of the historic period and had effectively led to an abandonment of the materialist conception of the fraction in favour of a voluntarist and idealist approach that owed a great deal to Trotskyism, for whom parties must be 'built' at all times without any reference to the real historical situation confronting the working class. But - probably because the PCInt itself, caught up in an activist stampede, did not really develop any coherent conception of the historic course - the article focuses on the analyses developed by other groups in the milieu, in particular the Belgian Fraction of the Communist Left which was organisationally linked to the PCInt. In the period before the war, the Belgian Fraction, led by Mitchell[1], had been the most vigorous opponents of Vercesi's theory of the war economy; the rump that was left after the war was now its most enthusiastic proponent. The theory contained the idea that the crisis of the war economy could really only break out after the war; therefore, "it is in the post-war period that the transformation of imperialist war into civil war is realised? The present situation is thus analysed as one of the 'transformation into civil war'. With this central analysis as a starting point, the situation in Italy is declared to be particularly advanced, thus justifying the immediate constitution of the party, while the disturbances in India, Indonesia and other colonies, whose reins are firmly held by the various competing imperialisms and by the local bourgeoisies, are seen as signs of the beginning of the anti-capitalist civil war". The catastrophic consequences of totally misreading the real historic balance of class forces was evident, leading the Belgian Fraction to see local inter-imperialist conflicts as expressions of a movement towards revolution.

It is also noteworthy that the Internationalisme article criticised an alternative theory of the course put forward by the RKD (Revolutionäre Kommunisten Deutschlands: a group which split from Trotskyism during the war to defend internationalist positions). For Internationalisme, the RKD "more cautiously, takes refuge in the theory of a double course, ie of a simultaneous and parallel development of a course towards revolution and a course towards imperialist war. The RKD has obviously not understood that the development of a course towards war is primarily conditioned by the weakening of the proletariat and of the danger of revolution".

Internationalisme, by contrast, was able to see very clearly that the bourgeoisie had drawn its lessons from the experience of 1917 and had taken brutal preventative measures against the danger of revolutionary uprisings provoked by the misery of war; it had thus inflicted a decisive defeat on the working class, centred in Germany: "WHEN CAPITALISM 'FINISHES'AN IMPERIALIST WORLD WAR WHICH HAS LASTED SIX YEARS WITHOUT ANY REVOLUTIONARY FLARE-UPS, THIS MEANS THE DEFEAT OIF THE PROLETARIAT, AND THAT WE ARE LIVING, NOT ON THE EVE OF GREAT REVOLUTIONARY STRUGGLES, BUT IN THE AFTERMATH OF A DEFEAT. This defeat took place in 1945, with the physical destruction of the revolutionary centre that was the German proletariat, and it was all the more decisive in that the world proletariat remained unaware of the defeat it had just undergone".

Thus Internationalisme emphatically rejected all voluntarist and activist schemes for founding a new party in such a period of defeat, and insisted that the task of the hour remained 'the formation of cadres' - in other words, the continuation of the work of the left fractions.

However, there was a serious weakness in the GCF's arguments - the conclusion, expressed in the above article, that "the course is open towards the third imperialist war?Under present conditions, we can see no force capable of stopping or modifying this course". A further theorisation of this position is contained in the article 'The evolution of capitalism and the new perspective', published in 1952 (Internationalisme no , reprinted in International Review n°21). This is a seminal text because it summarises the GCF's work towards understanding state capitalism as a universal tendency in decadent capitalism, and not simply as a phenomenon isolated to the Stalinist regimes. But its failing is that it does not make a sharp distinction between the integration of the old workers' organisations into state capitalism, and the integration of the proletariat itself: "The proletariat now finds itself associated to its own exploitation. It is thus mentally and politically integrated into capitalism". For Internationalisme, the permanent crisis of capitalism in the epoch of state capitalism would no longer take the forms of 'open crises' which ejected the workers from production, and thus pushed them to react against the system, but would instead reach its culminating point in war; and it was only in the war - which again, the GCF saw to be imminent - that the proletarian struggle could take on a revolutionary content. Otherwise the class "can only express itself as an economic category of capital". What Internationalisme failed to see was that the very mechanisms of state capitalism, operating in a period of reconstruction after the massive destruction of the war, would permit capitalism to enter a period of 'boom' in which inter-imperialist antagonisms, although still very acute, did not pose a new world war as an absolute necessity, and this despite the weakness of the proletariat.

Shortly after this text was written, the GCF's concern to maintain its cadres in the face of what it saw as the approaching world war (a conclusion that was far from irrational given the outbreak of the war in Korea) led to the 'exile' of its leading comrade, MC, in Venezuela, and to the rapid dissolution of the group. It thus paid a heavy price for this weakness in seeing the perspective with sufficient clarity. But the dissolution of the group also confirmed its diagnosis of the counter-revolutionary nature of the period. It is no accident that the PCInt went through its major split in the same year. The full story of this split has yet to be told to an international audience, but it seems that little clarity emerged from it. Stated very briefly, the split was between the tendency around Damen on the one hand, and the tendency inspired by Bordiga on the other. The Damen tendency was closer to the spirit of Bilan as far as its political positions were concerned - ie, it shared Bilan's willingness to put into question the positions of the Communist International in its early years (eg on unions, national liberation, party and state, etc). But it leaned heavily towards activism and lacked Bilan's theoretical rigour. This was particularly true of the question of the historic course and the conditions for the foundation of the party, since any return to Bilan's methodology would have led to the very foundations of the PCInt being called into question. This the Damen tendency, or more precisely the Battaglia Comunista group, has never been willing to do. Bordiga's current, by contrast, seems to have been more aware that period was one of reaction and that the PCInt's activist, recruitist approach had proven to be sterile. Unfortunately, Bordiga's theoretical work in the period after the split - while containing much of value at a general level - was almost totally cut off from the advances made by the Italian Fraction during the 30s. The political positions of his new 'party' were not an advance, but a regression towards the CI's weakest analyses, for example on the union and national questions. And its theory of the party and its relationship to the movement of history was based on semi-mystical speculations about 'invariance', and about the dialectic between the 'historic party' and the 'formal party'. In sum, with these starting points, neither of the groups that emerged from the split could add contribute anything of real value to the proletariat's understanding of the historic balance of forces, and this question has remained one of their principal weaknesses ever since. (To be continued)

Part 2: 1968-2001

The end of the counter-revolution

Despite the mistakes it made in the 40s and 50s - in particular, the conclusion that a third world war was imminent - the GCF's fundamental loyalty to the method of the Italian left enabled its immediate successor, the Internacialismo group in Venezuela in the 60s, to recognise that both the post-war reconstruction boom and the long period of counter-revolution were drawing to a close. The ICC has had more than one occasion to quote the incisive words from Internacialismo no. 8 in January 1968, but it will do no harm to cite them again, since they are a fine example of the ability of marxism - without claiming prophetic powers - to be able to anticipate the general course of events:

"We are not prophets, nor can we claim to predict when and how events will unfold in the future. But of one thing are conscious and certain: the process in which capitalism is plunged today cannot be stopped? and it leads directly to the crisis. And we are equally certain that the inverse process of developing class combativity which we are witnessing today will lead the working class to a bloody and direct struggle for the destruction of the bourgeois state".

Here the Venezuelan group expresses its understanding that not only was a new economic crisis about to surface, but that it would rendezvous with a new and undefeated proletarian generation. The events of May 68 in France, and the ensuing international wave of struggles over the next four or five years, provided a striking confirmation of this diagnosis. Of course, a component of this diagnosis was the recognition that the crisis would sharpen imperialist tensions between the two military blocs which dominated the globe; but the enormous impetus of the first international wave of struggles showed that the proletariat would not be willing to be marched off to a new world holocaust. In sum, the course of history was flowing not towards world war, but towards massive class confrontations.

A direct consequence of the revival in the class struggle was the appearance of new proletarian political forces after a long period in which revolutionary ideas had more or less been buried from view. The events of May 68 and their aftermath engendered a plethora of new political groupings, marked by a great deal of confusion, but willing to learn and eager to reappropriate the real communist traditions of the working class. The insistence on the need for the "regroupment of revolutionaries" by Internacialismo and its offspring - Révolution Internationale in France and Internationalism in the US - summarised this aspect of the new perspective. These currents thus took the lead in pushing for debate, correspondence, and international conferences. This effort gained a real echo among the clearest of the new political groupings, who found it easiest to understand that a new period had opened up. This applied in particular to the groups who aligned themselves with the 'international tendency' formed by RI and Internationalism, but it also applied to a group like Revolutionary Perspectives, whose original platform clearly recognises the historic resurgence of the class movement:

"In parallel to the renewal of the crisis, a new period of international class struggle was opened in 1968 with the mass strikes in France, followed by the upheavals in Italy, Britain, Argentina, Poland etc. Today's generation of workers is unburdened by reformism, as after World War One, or by defeat, as in the 1930s, and allows us to have hope in its future, and in that of humanity. These struggles all show, to the discomfiture of modernist dilettantes, that the proletariat has not become integrated into capitalism despite fifty years of almost total defeats: with these struggles it revives the memory of its own past history and prepares itself for its ultimate task" (Revolutionary Perspectives n°1, old series, c.1974)

Unfortunately the 'established' groups of the Italian left, the ones who had succeeded in maintaining an organisational continuity throughout the post-war reconstruction, had done so at the cost of a process of sclerosis. Neither Battaglia Comunista (publication of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista) nor Programma Comunista published in Italy by the International Communist Party) attributed much significance to the revolts of the late 1960s and early 70s, seeing mainly the student/petty bourgeois features which were undoubtedly mixed up within them. For these groups - who had started out, let us recall, by seeing a course towards revolution in a period of profound defeat - the night of the counter-revolution had not lifted, and they saw little reason to emerge from the splendid isolation which had 'protected' them for so long. The Programma current actually did go through a period of considerable growth in the 1970s; but this was a building constructed on the sand of opportunism, particularly on the national question. The disastrous consequences of this kind of growth were to become apparent with the break up of the ICP in the early 80s. For its part, Battaglia for a long time hardly peered beyond the Italian borders; it took almost a decade before it was to launch its own appeal for international conferences of the communist left, and when it did so, its reasons were entirely unclear (the "social-democratisation of the Communist Parties").

The groups who went on to form the ICC were faced with a combat on two fronts in this period. On the one hand they had to argue against the scepticism of the existing groups of the communist left, who saw nothing new under the sun. On the other hand they also had to criticise the immediatism and impatience of many of the new groups, some of whom had been convinced that May 68 had raised the spectre of immediate revolution (this was especially the case with those influenced by the Situationist International, who saw no connection between the class struggle and the state of the capitalist economy, which was only just entering a new phase of open crisis). But just as the 'spirit of 68', the influence of student, councilist and anarchist prejudices had a considerable weight on the young ICC as regards its understanding of the tasks and the functioning of the revolutionary organisation, so these influences also expressed themselves in its conception of the new historic course. The absolutely necessary proclamation of a new historic course, of the proletarian revival, tended to go together with an underestimation of the immense difficulties which lay ahead of the international working class. This expressed itself in various ways:

  • a tendency to forget that the development of the class struggle is by nature an uneven process that must pass through advances and retreats, and thus to expect a more or less uninterrupted advance towards revolutionary struggles - a prospect implied to some extent in the passage from Internacionalismo quoted above;

  • the underestimation of the bourgeoisie's capacity to phase in the economic crisis, to use various state capitalist mechanisms to reduce the ferocity of its effects, particularly on the central proletarian concentrations;

  • the definition of the new course as a "course towards revolution", implying that the class revival would inevitably culminate in a revolutionary confrontation with capital;

  • linked to this was the focus - very strong throughout the milieu of the day - on the question of the transition period from capitalism to communism. This debate was by no means irrelevant, particularly because it was part of the new milieu's effort to reappropriate the lessons and traditions of the past movement. But the passions that it generated (leading, for example, to splits between different elements of the milieu) also expressed a certain naivete about the difficulty of even reaching a period when such questions as the form of the transitional state would be a burning issue for the working class.

Over the next decade, the ICC's analyses were refined and developed. It began the work of examining the bourgeoisie's mechanisms for 'controlling' the crisis, and thus of explaining why the crisis would inevitably be a long drawn out and uneven process; similarly, after the experiences of the refluxes in the mid-70s and early 80s, it was compelled to recognise more clearly that within the context of a generally upward historical curve of the class struggle, there would certainly be important moments of retreat. Furthermore, by 1983, the ICC had explicitly recognised that there was no automatism about the historic course; at its 5th congress it thus passed a resolution which criticised the term "course towards revolution":

"The existence of a course towards class confrontations means that the bourgeoisie does not have a free hand to unleash a new world butchery: first, it must confront and beat the working class. But this does not prejudge the outcome of this confrontation, in one way or the other. This is why it is preferable to talk about a 'course towards class confrontations' rather than a 'course towards revolution'"(Resolution on the international situation, published in International Review n°35).

Within the milieu, however, the difficulties and set-backs encountered by the proletariat had strengthened the sceptical and pessimistic views which had long been espoused by the 'Italian' groups. This was expressed in particular during the international conferences at the end of the 70s, when the Communist Workers' Organisation (the descendent of the Revolutionary Perspectives group) aligned itself with the views of Battaglia, rejecting the ICC's view that the class struggle constituted a barrier to world war. The CWO shifted in its explanations for why the war had not broken out; one minute attributing it to the fact that the crisis was not deep enough, the next minute to the idea that the blocs were not formed; more recently, to the rationality of the Russian bourgeoisie in recognising that it could not win a war. In short: anything but the class struggle!

There were also echoes of this pessimism about the class struggle within the ICC itself; the future GCI tendency[2], and in particular RC[3] who adopted similar views, went through a phase of being "more like Bilan than Bilan" and argued that we were in a course towards war.

By the end of the 70s, therefore, the ICC's first major text on the historic course, adopted at the 3rd Congress and published in International Review n°18, had to define our position against the empiricism and scepticism that was beginning to dominate the milieu.

The text crossed swords with all the confusions held within the milieu:

  • the idea, rooted in empiricism, that it is not possible for revolutionaries to make general predictions about the course of the class struggle. Against this notion, the text reaffirms the fact that its capacity to define a perspective for the future - and not only the general alternative between socialism and barbarism - is one of marxism's defining characteristics and always has been. More specifically, the text insists that marxists have always based their work on their ability to grasp the particular balance of class forces within a given period, as we saw again in the first part of this report. By the same token, the text shows that an inability to grasp the nature of the course had led past revolutionaries into serious errors;

  • an extension of this agnostic view of the historic course was the concept, defended in particular by the IBRP[4], of a "parallel" course towards war and revolution. We have already seen how the approach adopted by Bilan and the GCF excluded such a notion; the text of the Third Congress goes on to argue that such a concept is the result of losing sight of the marxist method itself:

"Other theories have also arisen more recently, according to which 'with the development of the crisis of capitalism, both terms of the contradiction are reinforced at the same time: war and revolution don't exclude each other mutually but advance in a simultaneous and parallel manner, without it being possible for us to know which one will reach its culminating point before the other'. The main error in this conception is that it totally neglects the factor of class struggle in the life of society, just as the conception developed by the Italian left [the theory of the war economy] was based on an overestimation of this factor. Beginning from the phrase in the Communist Manifesto which says that 'the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle', the Italian Left applied this mechanically to the analysis of imperialist war and saw imperialist war as a response to the class struggle; it failed to see that, on the contrary, imperialist war could only take place thanks to the absence or weakness of the class struggle. Although it was wrong, this conception began from correct premises; the mistake lay in the way these premises were applied. In contrast, the theory of a 'parallelism and simultaneity of the course towards war and the course towards revolution' plainly casts aside this basic marxist premise, because it holds that the two principal antagonistic classes in society can go on preparing their respective responses to the crisis - imperialist war for the one, revolution for the other - completely independently of each other, of the balance of forces between each other, of confrontations and clashes between each other. If it can't be applied to something which is going to determine the whole historic alternative for the life of society, the schema of the Communist Manifesto has no reason for existing and we can consign marxism to a museum alongside other outmoded productions of human imagination".

Finally, the text also takes up the arguments of those who talked openly of a course towards war - an argument which enjoyed a brief vogue but which has lost its punch since the collapse of one of the camps due to fight this war.

In many ways, the debate within the proletarian milieu about the historic course has not advanced very much since this text was written. In 1985, the ICC wrote a further critique of the concept of the parallel course which had been defended in a document emanating from the 5th Congress of Battaglia Comunista (International Review n°85 - 'The 80s are not the 30s'). In the 1990s, texts by the IBRP have reaffirmed both the 'agnostic' view which questions the capacity of marxists to make general predictions about the dynamic of capitalist society, and the closely linked notion of a parallel course. Thus in a polemic on the significance of May 68 in Revolutionary Perspectives n°12, the CWO quote an article in World Revolution n°216 which summarised a discussion that had taken place on this theme at one of our London forums. Our article points out that "the CWO's apparent rejection of the possibility of anticipating the overall course of events is also a rejection of the work carried out in this vital field by marxists throughout the history of the workers' movement". The CWO's response is extremely facetious: "If this is the case then the marxists have a poor record. Let us leave aside the usual (but irrelevant) example of Marx after the 1848 revolutions and look at the Italian left in the 1930s. Whilst they did some good work in trying to come to terms with the terrible defeat of the revolutionary wave after the First World War they basically theorised themselves out of existence just before the second imperialist slaughter". Let us 'leave aside' this unbelievably patronising attitude to the entire marxist movement: what is really striking here is the way the CWO fails to grasp that it was precisely because it abandoned its previous clarity on the historic course that a part of the Italian left "theorised itself out of existence" on the eve of the war, as we saw in the first part of this report.

As for the Bordigist groupings, it is hardly their style to take part in debates between the groups of the milieu, but in recent correspondence with a mutual contact in Australia of our two organisations, the Programma group rejected out of hand the possibility that the working class has been a barrier to world war, and their speculations about whether the economic crisis will end in war or revolution do not differ in substance from those of the IBRP.

If anything has changed in the positions put forward by the IBRP, it is in the virulence of their polemic against the ICC. Whereas in the past a pretext for breaking off discussions with the ICC was our "councilist" view of the party, in the recent period the reasons for rejecting any joint work with us have focussed much more sharply on our differences over the historic course. Our views on this question are seen as the main proof of our idealist method and our total divorce from reality; furthermore, according to the IBRP, it is the shipwreck of our historical perspectives, of our concept of the 'years of truth', which is the real cause of the recent crisis in the ICC, the whole debate on functioning being in essence a diversion from this central issue.

The impact of decomposition

Although the debate within the milieu has advanced little since the end of the 70s, reality certainly has. The entry of decadent capitalism into the phase of decomposition has profoundly modified the manner in which the question of the historic course has to be approached.

The IBRP has long admonished us for arguing that the 'years of truth' meant that the revolution would break out in the 80s. What did we actually say? In the original article 'The 80s, years of truth' (International Review n°20), we argued that, faced with a profound deepening of the crisis and an intensification of imperialist tensions concretised by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the capitalist class would be more and more compelled to jettison the language of comfort and illusion, and use the 'language of truth', the call for blood, sweat and tears; and we committed ourselves to the following prediction: "In the decade beginning today, the historical alternative will be decided: either the proletariat will continue its offensive, continue to paralyse the murderous arm of capitalism in its death throes and gather its forces to destroy the system, or else it will let itself be trapped, worn out, demoralised by speeches and repression and then the way will be open for a new holocaust which risks the elimination of all human society".

There are certain ambiguities here, in particular the suggestion that the proletarian struggle is already on the offensive, a misformulation which springs from the tendency, already identified, to underestimate the difficulties facing the working class in moving from a defensive to an offensive struggle (in other words, to a political confrontation with the capitalist state). But despite this, the notion of the years of truth does contain a profound insight. The 80s were to prove a decisive decade, but not quite in the way that the text envisages. For what this decade witnessed was not the decisive advance of one major class over another, but the social stalemate which resulted in the process of decomposition assuming a central and defining role in social evolution. Thus, the decade began with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, which provoked a real exacerbation of imperialist tensions; but this event was quickly followed by the mass strikes in Poland, which demonstrated very clearly the near-impossibility of the Russian bloc mobilising its forces for war. But the Polish struggle also highlighted the chronic political weaknesses of the working class. And although the Polish workers faced particular problems in politicising their struggle in a proletarian sense faced with the profound mystifications arising from Stalinism (and the reaction against it), the workers in the West, although making considerable advances in their struggles during the 80s, also proved unable to advance a clear political perspective. Their movement was thus 'overwhelmed' by the fall out from the collapse of Stalinism; more generally, the definitive onset of the phase of decomposition was to place tremendous difficulties in front of the class, reinforcing at almost every turn the retreat in consciousness that resulted from the events of 1989-91.

In sum, the onset of decomposition is a result of the historic course identified by the ICC since the 60s, since it is partly conditioned by the inability of the bourgeoisie to mobilise society for war. But it has also compelled us to raise the problem of the historic course in new and unforeseen ways:

  • first of all, the break up of the two imperialist blocs formed in 1945, and the dynamic of 'every man for himself' which it unleashed - both results and expressions of decomposition - became a new factor obstructing the possibility of world war. While exacerbating military tensions all over the world, this new dynamic has far outweighed the tendency towards the formation of new blocs. Without blocs, without a new centre of power capable of directly challenging US hegemony, a key precondition for unleashing a world war is absent;

  • at the same time, this development brings no solace whatever to the cause of communism, since it has created a situation in which the bases of a new society could be undermined without world war and thus without the necessity to mobilise the proletariat in favour of war. In the previous scenario, it would be world nuclear war that would have definitively compromised the possibility of communism, by destroying the planet or at least a major part of the world's productive forces, including the proletariat. The new scenario envisages the possibility of a slower but no less deadly slide into a state where the proletariat has been fragmented beyond repair and the natural and economic bases for transforming society equally ruined, through an accretion of local and regional military conflicts, ecological catastrophes and social collapse. Furthermore, whereas the proletariat can fight on its own terrain against the bourgeoisie's attempts to mobilise it for war, this is much more difficult as regards the effects of decomposition.

This is particularly clear with the 'ecological' aspect of decomposition: although capitalism's destruction of the natural environment has in itself become a real threat to the survival of humanity - one that was only partially glimpsed by the workers' movement right up until the last few decades - it is a process which the proletariat can do little to 'block' until it has assumed political power on a world scale. Struggles around issues of pollution on a class basis are possible, but they are not likely to be the main factor for stimulating the proletariat's resistance.

We can thus see that the decomposition of capitalism places the working class in a harder situation than before. In the previous situation, it would require a frontal defeat of the working class, a victory by the bourgeoisie in a class against class confrontation, before the conditions for a world war could be fully united. In the context of decomposition, the 'defeat' of the proletariat can be more gradual, more insidious, and far less easy to resist. And on top of this, the effects of decomposition, as we have analysed many times, have a profoundly negative effect on the proletariat's consciousness, on its sense of itself as a class, since in all their different aspects - the gang mentality, racism, criminality, drug addiction, etc - they serve to atomise the class, increase the divisions within its ranks, and dissolve it into the general social rat race.

Faced with this profoundly important alteration in the world situation, the response of the proletarian milieu has been totally inadequate. Although they can recognise the effects of decomposition, the groups of the milieu are unable either to see its roots - since they reject the notion of the stalemate between the classes - or its real dangers. Thus, the IBRP's dismissal of the ICC's theory of decomposition as no more than a description of "chaos" leads them in practise to look for the possibilities of capitalist stabilisation. This is apparent, for example, in their conception of "international capital" seeking peace in Northern Ireland in order to be able to peacefully enjoy the benefits of exploitation; but it is also apparent in their view that new blocs are in the process of formation around the existing poles of economic competition (USA, European Union, etc). Although this vision, with its refusal to make any long term 'predictions' can encompass the idea of imminent war, it is more often linked to a touching faith in the rationality of the bourgeoisie: since the new "blocs" are economic rather than military formations, and since we have now entered a new period of "globalisation", the door is at least half open to the notion that these blocs, acting in the interests of "international capital", could achieve a mutually beneficial stabilisation of the world for an indefinite future.

The rejection of the theory of decomposition can only result in an underestimation of the dangers facing the working class. It underestimates the level of barbarism and chaos that capitalism has already sunk into; it tends to downplay the threat that the proletariat can be progressively undermined by the disintegration of social life; and it fails to register clearly that humanity could be destroyed even without a third world war.

Where are we now?

The onset of the period of decomposition has thus altered the way in which we pose the question of the historic course. But it has not made it irrelevant, on the contrary. In fact it tends to focus even more sharply the central question: is it too late? Has the proletariat already been defeated? Is there any obstacle to the descent into total barbarism? As we have said, it is less easy to answer the question today than in a period when world war was still a more direct option for the bourgeoisie. Thus, Bilan for example was able to point not only to the bloody defeat of proletarian uprisings and the ensuing counter-revolutionary terror in the countries where the revolution rose the highest, but also to the subsequent ideological mobilisation for war, the 'positive' adherence of the working class to the war-banners of the ruling class (fascism, democracy, etc). In today's conditions, where capitalist decomposition can engulf the proletariat without a single frontal defeat, and without this kind of 'positive' mobilisation, the signs of irrecoverable defeat are by definition harder to discern. Nevertheless, the key to understanding the problem resides in the same place as it did in 1923, or, as we saw in the GCF's analysis, in 1945 - in the central concentrations of the world proletariat, and above all in Western Europe. Did these sectors of the world proletariat say their last word in the 1980s, (or as some would have it, in the 1970s), or do they retain sufficient reserves of combativity, and a sufficient potential for the development of class consciousness, to ensure that major class confrontations are still on the agenda of history?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to establish a provisional balance sheet of the last decade - of the period since the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the definitive onset of the phase of decomposition.

The problem here is that, since 1989, the 'pattern' of the class struggle has been different from what it was in the period after 1968. During that period, there were clearly identifiable waves of struggle, with their epicentre in the main capitalist centres even though the shock waves went out all across the globe. Furthermore, it was possible to analyse these movements and draw out the advances made in class consciousness within them - for example on the union question, or regarding their progress towards the mass strike.

Furthermore, it was not only the revolutionary minority that carried out this reflection. During the different waves of struggle it was evident that struggles in one country could be a direct stimulus for struggles in others (for example the connection between May 68 and Italy 69, between Poland in 1980 and subsequent movements in Italy, between the large movements in Belgium in the 80s and workers' reactions in nearby countries). At the same time workers could be seen to be drawing lessons from previous movements - for example, .in Britain, where the defeat of the miners' strike produced a reflection in the class about the need to avoid being trapped in long drawn out isolated strikes, or in France and Italy in 86 and 87, where attempts to organise outside the unions mutually reinforced each other.

The situation since 1989 has not been characterised by such easily observable advances in class consciousness. This is not to say that the movement in the 90s has been totally featureless. In the report on the class struggle to the 13th congress we drew out the principal phases the movement had been through:

  • the powerful impact of the collapse of the Eastern bloc, accentuated by the remorseless campaigns of the bourgeoisie about the death of communism. This historic event brought the third wave of struggles to a sudden halt and inaugurated a profound reflux both in consciousness and class militancy, the effects of which are still with us, particularly at the level of consciousness;

  • the tendency towards a revival of militancy after 1992, with the struggles in Italy, followed in 93 by those in Germany and Britain;

  • the grand manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie in France 1995, which provided the model for similar operations in Belgium and Germany. Here the ruling class felt confident enough to provoke widespread movements aimed at restoring the image of the unions. In this sense they were both a product of the disarray within the class, and of a recognition by the bourgeoisie that this disarray could not last forever, and that credible unions would be a vital instrument for controlling future outbreaks of class resistance;

  • the slow but real development of discontent and militancy within the working class faced with the deepening crisis was confirmed with added vigour after 1998, with the massive strikes in Denmark and Norway and a series of struggles in the USA, Britain and France, as well as peripheral countries like Korea China and Zimbabwe. This process has been further illustrated in the past year or so by the demonstrations of the transport workers in New York, the postal workers' struggles in Britain and France, and in particular by the important outburst of struggles in Belgium in the autumn of 2000, where we saw some real signs not only of general discontent, but also of discontent with the unions' 'leadership' of the struggle.

None of these movements, however, have had a scale or impact capable of providing a real riposte to the massive ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie about the end of the class struggle, or of helping workers around the world to rediscover confidence in themselves and in their own methods of struggle; nothing comparable to the events of May 68 or the mass strike in Poland, or even the sustained movements of the 1980s. Even the most important struggles seem to have very little echo within the rest of the class: the phenomenon of struggles in one country 'responding' to movements elsewhere appears to be almost non-existent. In this context it is difficult even for revolutionaries to see a clear pattern or definite signs of progress in the class struggle in the 90s. For the class in general, the fragmented and unconnected nature of the struggles does little, on the surface at least, to reinforce or rather restore the self-confidence of the proletariat, its awareness of itself as a distinct force in society, as an international class with the potential to challenge the existing order.

This tendency for a disoriented working class to lose sight of its specific class identity, and thus to feel essentially powerless in the face of an increasingly grave world situation, is the result of a number of interwoven factors. At the most basic level - and this is a factor which revolutionaries have always tended to underestimate, precisely because it is so basic - is the fundamental position of the working class as an exploited class suffering the entire weight of ruling class ideology. On top of this 'invariant' factor in the life of the working class, is the effect of the drama of the 20th century - the defeat of the revolutionary wave, the long night of the counter-revolution, and the near disappearance of the organised proletarian political movement during this period. These factors, by their very nature, remain extremely powerful during the phase of decomposition; in fact, if anything, they both reinforce, and are themselves reinforced by, its negative influence. This is especially clear with the anti-Communist campaigns: they derive historically from the experience of the Stalinist counter-revolution, which first established the great lie that Stalinism equals communism. But the collapse of Stalinism - a product of decomposition par excellence - is then used by the bourgeoisie to further drive home the message that there can be no alternative to capitalism, and that the class war is over.

However, in order to understand the particular difficulties facing the working class in this phase, it is necessary to focus on the more specific effects of decomposition on the class struggle. Without going into details, since we have written many other texts about this problem, we can say that these effects operate at two levels: the first being the real, material effects of the process of decomposition, the second being the manner in which the ruling class utilises these effects in order to accentuate the disorientation of the exploited class. Some examples:

  • the process of disintegration brought about by massive and sustained unemployment, especially among the young, by the break-up of traditionally militant working class concentrations in the heart of industry, all of which reinforces atomisation and competition amongst workers. This objective process, directly linked to the economic crisis, is then reinforced by the ideological campaigns about 'post industrial society' and the obsolescence of the proletariat. This latter process in particular has been described by various elements in the proletarian milieu or the swamp as the 'recomposition' of the proletariat; in fact, such terminology, like the similar tendency to see globalisation as a new stage in capitalist development, emanates from a serious underestimation of the dangers facing the class. The fragmentation of class identity that we have witnessed over the past decade in particular is not an advance in any sense, but a clear manifestation of decomposition which holds profound dangers for the working class.

  • the wars which proliferate on the peripheries of the system, and which have been moving closer to the heartlands of capital, are evidently a direct statement of the process of decomposition, and contain an immediate threat to the proletariat in the areas which they devastate, both because of the slaughter and destruction they bring in their wake, and because of the ideological poisoning of the workers mobilised for these conflicts: the situation in the Middle East bears ample witness to the latter in particular. But the ruling class in the main centres of capital also makes use of these conflicts - not only for furthering its imperialist interests but also for boosting its assaults on the consciousness of the central proletarian battalions, aggravating feelings of powerlessness, of dependence on the 'democratic' and 'humanitarian' state to solve the world's problems and so on.

  • Another important example is the process of 'gangsterisation' which has gathered pace enormously over the last decade. This process involves both the higher echelons of the ruling class - the Russian mafia being a caricature of a much wider phenomenon - and the lowest strata in society, including a considerable proportion of proletarian youth. This is true whether we look at countries like Sierra Leone, where gang rivalries are part of an inter-imperialist conflict, or at the inner cities of the more developed countries, where the street gang seems to offer the only 'community' and even the only source of livelihood for the most marginalised sectors of society. At the same time, the ruling class, as well as using these gangs to organise the 'illicit' side of its commerce (drugs, arms,etc) has not hesitated to package 'gangsta' ideology through music, film or fashion, cultivating it as a kind of false rebellion which obliterates any sense of belonging to a class by exalting the identity of the gang, whether the latter is defined in local, racial, religious or other terms.

Other examples could be given: the point is to emphasise the considerable range and impact of the forces currently acting as a counter-weight to the proletariat 'constituting itself into a class'. Nevertheless, against all these pressures, against all the forces claiming that the proletariat is dead and buried, revolutionaries must continue to affirm that the working class has not disappeared, that capitalism cannot exist without a proletariat, and that the proletariat cannot exist without struggling against capital. This is elementary for any communist. But the specificity of the ICC is that it is prepared to commit itself to an analysis of the course of history and the overall balance of forces between the classes. And here it must be affirmed that the world proletariat at the beginning of the 21st century, in spite of all the difficulties it faces, has not said its last word, still represents the only barrier to the full development of capitalist barbarism, and still has within itself the potential to unleash massive class confrontations at the core of the system.

This is not an abstract faith, nor an eternal truth; we do not shy away from the possibility that we might in the future have to revise our analysis and recognise that a fundamental shift in this balance has taken place to the detriment of the proletariat. Our arguments are based on a constant observation of the processes within bourgeois society, which have led us to conclude:

  • that despite the blows to its consciousness over the last decade, the working class still retains enormous reserves of combativity which have surfaced in a considerable number of movements during this period. This is of vital importance, because although combativity and consciousness are not to be confused, the development of open resistance to the attacks of capital is in today's conditions more than ever crucial in the proletariat rediscovering its identity as a class, which is a precondition for a more general evolution in class consciousness;

  • that a process of subterranean maturation has continued, and is demonstrated among other things by the emergence of "searching elements" all over the world, of a growing minority who are asking serious questions about the existing system and are looking for a revolutionary alternative. These elements are made up of a majority which gravitates towards the swamp, towards the various expressions of anarchism and so on. The recent growth of the "anti-capitalist" protests - although undoubtedly manipulated and exploited by the ruling class - also expresses a massive expansion of the swamp, that ever-shifting zone of transition between the politics of the bourgeoisie and the politics of the working class. But even more significant in the most recent period is the considerable expansion of the number of elements who are relating directly to the existing revolutionary groups, particularly to the ICC and the IBRP. This influx of elements who are going further than the vague questioning of the swamp and seeking a genuinely communist coherence is the 'tip of the iceberg', the statement of a deeper and more widespread process within the proletariat as a whole. Their arrival on the scene is bound to have a considerable effect on the existing proletarian milieu, altering its physiognomy and compelling it to break from long-established sectarian habits.

  • The continued existence of a proletarian menace can also be measured to some degree in a "negative" manner - by examining the policies and campaigns of the bourgeoisie. We can see this on various interconnected levels - ideological, economic, and military. On the ideological level, the campaign around "anti-capitalism" is a case in point. Earlier on in the decade the campaigns of the bourgeoisie were aimed at accentuating the disarray of a class which had been only recently struck by the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and their themes could be more openly bourgeois: the Dutroux campaign, for example, was entirely centred around the issue of democracy. The insistence on "anti-capitalism" today, by contrast, is an statement of the exhaustion of the mystification of the "triumph of capitalism", of capitalism's need to recuperate and distort the potential for a real questioning of capitalism within the working class. The fact that the anti-capitalist protests have only marginally mobilised workers as workers does not diminish their general ideological impact. The same could be said for the tactic of the left in government. Although much of the ideology of the left governments is inherited directly from the campaigns about the failure of socialism and the need for a new or third way into the future, these governments have to a large extent been put into place not simply to maintain the existing disorientation of the class, but as a precautionary measure, to prevent the working class from raising its head, from giving vent to all the discontent that has been building up in its ranks over the past decade.

On the economic level, we have argued elsewhere that the bourgeoisie of the major centres will continue to use every means at its disposal to keep its economy from collapsing, from 'adjusting' to its real level. The logic behind this is both economic and social. It is economic in the sense that the bourgeoisie must at all costs keep its economy grinding on and even maintain its own illusions about the prospect of expansion and prosperity. But it is also social in the sense that the ruling class still lives in fear that dramatic plunges in the economy will provoke massive reactions amongst the proletariat, which would then be able to see much more clearly the real bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production.

Perhaps most importantly, in all the major military conflicts involving the central imperialist powers this decade (Gulf conflicts, Balkans, Africa), we have witnessed the extreme caution of the ruling class, its reluctance to use anyone but professional soldiers in these operations, and even then, its hesitation to risk the lives of these soldiers for fear of provoking a reaction 'back home'.

It is certainly significant that, with the NATO bombing in Serbia, imperialist war took a new step back towards the heartlands of the system. But Serbia is not Western Europe. We see no evidence today that the working class of the major industrial countries is ready to march behind national banners, to enrol directly in major imperialist conflicts (and even within a country like Serbia, the limits of sacrifice have been seen, even if the massive discontent there has been diverted into a democratic carnival). Capitalism is still compelled to mask its imperialist divisions behind a façade of alliances for humanitarian intervention. Partly this reflects the inability of the secondary powers to openly challenge US domination, as we have seen; but it also expresses the fact that the system has no serious ideological basis for cementing new imperialist blocs - a fact totally ignored by the proletarian groups who essentially reduce such blocs to an economic function. Imperialist blocs are more military than economic in their function; but to operate at the military level, they also need to be ideological. For the moment it is impossible to see what ideological themes could be used to justify war between the main imperialist powers today - all of them espouse the same democratic ideology, and none can point the finger at an evil empire which represents the number one threat to this way of life: the anti-Americanism being encouraged in a country like France is a pale reflection of the previous ideologies of anti-fascism and anti-Communism. We have said that capitalism would still have to inflict a major and open defeat of the working class in the advanced countries before it could create the ideological conditions for mobilising them directly for world war. But there are strong grounds for arguing that this also applies to the more limited conflicts between the blocs-in-formation that would prepare the ground for a more generalised conflict. This is a real statement of the 'negative' weight of an undefeated proletariat on the evolution of capitalist society.

We have of course recognised that in the context of decomposition, the working class could be overwhelmed without such a frontal defeat and without a major war between the central powers. It could succumb to an advance of barbarism into the central countries, a process of social, economic and ecological collapse comparable to, but even more nightmarish than, what has already started to happen in countries like Rwanda and the Congo. But although more insidious, such a process could hardly be invisible, and we are still a long way from it - a fact again expressed 'negatively' in the recent campaigns about 'asylum seekers', which is to a large extent based on the recognition that western Europe and North America remain as oases of prosperity and stability in relation to those parts of Eastern Europe and the 'Third World' most directly affected by the horrors of decomposition.

It can therefore be said without hesitation that the undefeated character of the proletariat in the advanced countries remains a barrier to the full unleashing of barbarism in the centres of world capital.

Not only that: the development of the world economic crisis is slowly chipping away at the illusion that we are heading for a bright new future - a future founded on the 'new economy' where everyone is a stakeholder. This illusion will be further evaporated when the bourgeoisie is compelled to centralise and deepen its attack on working class living conditions in order to 'adjust' to the real state of its economy. Although we are still a long way from an openly political struggle against capitalism, we are unlikely to be very far away from a series of hard-fought and even wide-scale defensive struggles as the simmering discontent within the proletariat takes the form of outright combativity. And it is within these struggles that the seeds of a future politicisation can be sown. It goes without saying that the intervention of revolutionaries will be a key element in this process.

It is thus with a clear and sober recognition of the terrible difficulties and dangers facing our class that revolutionaries can continue to affirm with confidence: the course of history has not turned against us. The prospect of massive class confrontations remains ahead of us and will continue to determine our present and future activity.

December 2000


1 Mitchell died in 1945 as a result of his imprisonment in the Buchenwald concentration camp during the war.

2 This tendency left the ICC to form the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste, which preached a form of anarcho-Bordigism and itself broke up into a series of smaller mini-groups.

3 An ex-militant of the ICC.

4 International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party, formed by Battaglia Comunista and the CWO (see www.ibrp.org).