The International Conferences of the Communist Left (1976-80)

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Twenty-five years ago, in May 1980, the cycle of international conferences of the communist left, initiated by the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt, Battaglia Comunista) some four years earlier, ended in disarray and confusion, following the adoption of a motion on the party tabled by Battaglia and the Communist Workers Organisation. This motion had been designed expressly to exclude the ICC because of its so-called “spontaneist” position on the question of organisation.

These conferences had been welcomed by the ICC as a positive step forward from the fragmentation and mutual misunderstanding which had plagued the international proletarian milieu. They still represent a valuable experience that holds many lessons for the new generation of revolutionaries emerging today, and it is important for this new generation to reacquaint itself with the debates that took place in and around the conferences. However, we cannot ignore the negative effects of the way in which they broke up. A brief glance at the sorry state of the proletarian political milieu today shows that we are still living with the consequences of this failure to create an organised framework for fraternal debate and political clarification among the groups of the left communist tradition.

Following the IBRP’s flirtation with the parasites of the “Internal Fraction” of the ICC and with the adventurer behind the “Circulo des Comunistas Internacionalistas” in Argentina, relations between this organisation and the ICC have never been so bad. The groups of the Bordigist tradition either remain in the self-satisfied tower of sectarian isolation in which they protected themselves from the conferences at the end of the 70s, or – as in the case of Le Prolétaire – have also shown themselves no less willing to lap up the flattery of the IFICC than the IBRP. In any case, the Bordigists have still not recovered from the traumatic crisis which hit them in 1981 and from which they have drawn very few lessons about their most important weaknesses. The last heirs of the Dutch/German left, meanwhile, have now gone the way of all flesh. And all this at a time when the new generation of searching elements is looking for inspiration and guidance from the organised communist movement, and when the stakes of history have never been so high.

When Battaglia took the decision to undermine the ICC’s participation in the conferences, it claimed that it had “assumed the responsibility that one has a right to expect of a serious leading force” (response to the ICC’s 1983 “Address to the proletarian milieu”). By going back over the history of these conferences, we aim to show, among other things, the real responsibility that this current bears for the disorganisation of the communist left.

We will not try to give an exhaustive account of the discussions in and around the three conferences. Readers can refer to a number of publications containing the texts and proceedings of these conferences, although these are now becoming quite rare and we would welcome offers to assist us in the task of creating an online archive of these publications. Our aim here will be to summarise the main themes that animated the meetings and above all to examine the principal reasons for their eventual failure.

Emerging from a long period of dispersal: background to the international conferences

The dispersal of the forces of the communist left was not a new phenomenon in 1976. The left communists have their origins in the left fractions of the Second International, which led the fight against opportunism from the end of the 19th century onwards. And this fight was itself carried out in dispersed order.

Thus, when Lenin initiated the struggle against Menshevik opportunism in the Russian party, Rosa Luxemburg’s first reaction was to side with the Mensheviks. And when Luxemburg began to perceive the real depth of Kautsky’s capitulation to the status quo, Lenin took a long a long time to realise that she had been right. All this was a product of the fact that the parties of the Second International had been formed on a national basis and carried out most of their activity on the national level; the International was more a federation of national parties than a single world party. And even though the Communist International pledged itself to overcoming these national particularities, the latter continued to exert a very heavy weight. There is no doubt that the left communist fractions which began to react against the degeneration of the CI in the early 20s were also affected by this; once again the left was responding in a largely fragmented way to the growth of opportunism in the proletarian International. The most obvious and damaging expression of this separation was the gulf that almost immediately divided the German left from the Italian left from 1920 onwards. Bordiga tended to identify the German left’s emphasis on the workers’ councils with Gramsci’s “factory councilism”, and the German left largely failed to see the “Leninist” Italian left as a possible ally against the degeneration of the CI.

The counter-revolution that had arrived in full force by the end of the ‘20s further scattered the forces of the left, although the Italian Fraction worked strenuously to combat this trend by seeking to lay the foundations for international discussion and co-operation on a principled basis. It thus opened its columns to debates with the Dutch internationalists, with the dissident groups of the left opposition, and so on. This open spirit displayed by Bilan was – along with many of the more general programmatic advances achieved by the Fraction in exile – one of the first victims of the opportunist formation of the Internationalist Communist Party in Italy at the end of the war. Succumbing to a good dose of national narrow-mindedness, the majority of the Italian Fraction rushed to greet the foundation of a new party (in Italy alone!), dissolving the Fraction and joining the new party on an individual basis. This precipitous regroupment of some very heterogeneous forces did not cement the unity of the Italian left current but provoked new divisions. First, in 1945, with the French Fraction whose majority had opposed the dissolution of the Italian Fraction and criticised the opportunist basis of the new party. The French Fraction was summarily expelled from the ICP’s international organisation (the International Communist Left) and formed the Gauche Communiste de France. By 1952, the ICP itself had suffered a major split between the two main wings of the party – the “Damenists” around Battaglia Comunista and the “Bordigists” around Programma Comunista, with the latter in particular developing a theoretical justification for the most rigid sectarianism, considering themselves to be the one and only proletarian party on the planet (which didn’t prevent further splits and the co-existence of several “one and only” International Communist Parties by the 1970s). This sectarianism was certainly one of the costs of the counter-revolution. On the one hand it expressed an attempt to hang onto principles in a hostile environment by building a wall of unchanging formulae around hard-won political positions. On the other hand, the growing tendency for revolutionaries to be isolated from their class and to exist in a world of small groups reinforced the circle spirit and a sect-like divorce from the real needs of the movement.

However, after the barren years of the 1950s, which marked the nadir of the international revolutionary milieu, the social climate began to change. The proletariat returned to the stage of history with the strikes of May ‘68, a movement which had a profoundly political dimension, since it raised the question of a new society and gave birth to a plethora of groups whose search for a revolutionary coherence led them naturally to re-appropriating the traditions of the communist left. Among the first to recognise the new situation were the comrades of the old GCF, who had already recommenced political activity with some young elements they had encountered in Venezuela, forming the group Internacialismo in 1964. After the events of May ‘68, comrades of Internacialismo came to Europe to intervene in the new proletarian milieu which this massive movement had called into being. In particular, these comrades encouraged the old groups of the Italian left, which had the advantage of a press and structured organisational forms, to act as the focal point for debate and contact among the new searching elements by organising an international conference. They met with an icy response, because both wings of the Italian left saw little in May ‘68 (and even Italy’s “Hot Autumn” of 1969) except for an upsurge in student agitation. After several failed attempts to convince the Italian groups to carry out their role (see the ICC’s letter to Battaglia in the pamphlet Troisième Conference des Groupes de la Gauche Communiste, Mai 1980, Procès-verbal), the comrades of Internacialismo and the newly formed Révolution Internationale group concentrated on working towards the regroupment of the newer elements produced by the revival of the class movement. In ‘68, two French groups - Cahiers du Communisme de Conseils and the Organisation Conseilliste de Clermont-Ferrand got together with Révolution Internationale to form a “new series” RI, which now formed an international tendency with Internacialismo and Internationalism in the USA. In 1972 Internationalism put forward a proposal for an international correspondence network. Once again the Italian groups abstained from the process but it did bring some positive results, most notably a series of conferences in 1973-4, bringing together RI and some of the new groups in Britain, one of whom, World Revolution, joined the international tendency that formed the ICC in 1975 (then made up of six groups: RI, Internationalism, WR, Internacionalismo, plus Accion Proletaria in Spain, and Rivoluzione Internazionale in Italy).

First conference, Milan 1977

The cycle of international conferences of the communist left began in 1976 when Battaglia finally emerged from its isolation in Italy and sent out a proposal for an international meeting to a number of groups worldwide.

The list of groups invited was as follows:

  • France: Révolution Internationale, Pour Une Intervention Communiste, Union Ouvrière, Combat Communiste.
  • Britain: Communist Workers Organisation, World Revolution.
  • Spain: Fomento Obrero Revolucionario.
  • USA: Revolutionary Workers Group.
  • Japan: Japan Revolutionary Communist League, “Revolutionary Marxist Faction” (Kakumaru-Ha).
  • Sweden Forbundet Arbetarmakt: (Workers Power League).
  • Portugal: Combate.

The introduction to the pamphlet Texts and Proceedings of the International Conference organised by the Internationalist Communist Party (Battaglia Comunista) notes that “a very rapid ‘natural selection’ process took place with the dissolution of Union Ouvrière and the RWG and the interruption of relations with Combat Communiste whose political positions showed themselves to be incompatible with the themes of the conference….Relations with the Portuguese group were interrupted following a meeting between their representative and a delegate of the PCInt in Lisbon, during which it became clear that this group had moved away from the fundamentals of the communist movement. The Japanese organisation did not reply, which could mean it never received the original ‘Address’”. The Swedish group expressed interest but was unable to attend.

This was an important step by Battaglia, a recognition of the fundamental importance, not of the need for “international links” (which every leftist group lays claim to), but of the internationalist duty of overcoming divisions in the world-wide revolutionary movement and working towards its centralisation and ultimate regroupment. The ICC warmly welcomed Battaglia’s initiative as an important blow against sectarianism and dispersal; moreover, its decision to participate in the initiative had a salutary effect on its own political life, since we were not entirely immune from the baleful tendency to see oneself as “the one and only” truly revolutionary group. Following questions being raised within the ICC about the proletarian character of the groups descended from the Italian left, a discussion ensued about the criteria for judging the class nature of political organisations and eventually gave rise to the resolution on proletarian political groups adopted at the ICC’s 1976 International Congress.

There were however a number of important weaknesses in Battaglia’s proposal and in the conference which it eventually engendered in Milan in April/May 1977.

First of all, Battaglia’s proposals lacked any clear criteria for participation. The initial reason given for calling the conference was something, which - as hindsight fully confirms – was the passing phenomenon of the adoption of “Eurocommunism” by some of the main Communist Parties of Western Europe. The implications of a discussion about what Battaglia called the “social democratisation” of the CPs were unclear, but more important, the proposal completely failed to define the essential class positions which would ensure that any international meeting would be a coming together of proletarian groups and would exclude the left wing of capital. Vagueness on this issue was nothing new for Battaglia, which in the past had issued appeals for an international meeting with the Trotskyists of Lutte Ouvrière. And this time the list of invitees also included radical leftists like the Japanese group and Combat Communiste. The ICC therefore insisted that the conference should adopt a minimum of basic principles which would exclude leftists, but also those who, even if they defended a certain number of class positions, were opposed to the idea of a class party. The aim of the conference was thus envisaged as being part of a long-term process towards the formation of a new world party.

At the same time the conferences immediately came up against the sectarianism which had come to dominate the movement. To begin with, Battaglia seemed to have decided that it would be the sole representative of the “Italian” left, and thus failed to invite any of the Bordigist groups to the conference. This approach was also reflected in the fact that the appeal was not addressed to the ICC as such (which already had a section in Italy), but only to certain territorial sections of the ICC. Secondly, we had the sudden decision of the group “Pour Une Intervention Communiste” not to participate, having initially agreed that it would. In a letter dated 24th April 1977, it wrote that the meeting would be “nothing but a dialogue of the deaf”. Thirdly, at the meeting itself, there was a small expression of what later became a major problem: the failure of the conferences to adopt any common positions whatsoever. At the end of the meeting, the ICC proposed a short document stating the points of agreement and disagreement that had emerged through the discussion. This was too much for Battaglia. Although they had given very grandiose objectives to the conference – “An outline of a platform of basic principles, so as to enable us to begin to work in common; an international co-ordination bureau” (Third Circular of the PCInt, February 1977) - well before the premises for such a step had been established, they got cold feet at the thought of signing anything together with the ICC, even so modest a proposal as a summary of agreements and disagreements.

As it happens, the only groups who were able to take part in the meeting in Milan were Battaglia and the ICC. The Communist Workers’ Organisation in Britain had agreed to come - which was a considerable step forward because it had hitherto broken off relations with the ICC, deeming it “counter-revolutionary” because of its analysis of the degeneration of the Russian revolution - but was unable to do so for practical reasons. Similarly for the group around Munis in Spain and France, the FOR. Nevertheless the discussion was wide-ranging and focused on a series of crucial issues, summarised in the ICC's proposed joint statement, which noted that there had been:

  • an agreement that capitalist society was in its epoch of decadence, although there were different analyses of the causes: the ICC defended Rosa Luxemburg’s thesis that the fundamental contradiction which plunges capitalism into decadence is the problem of realisation, whereas for Battaglia this was secondary to the problem of the falling rate of profit;
  • an agreement on the opening of a new phase of acute economic crisis;
  • disagreement on the significance of the class movements of the late 60s and early 70s, which for the ICC signalled the end of the period of counter-revolution, while for Battaglia the counter-revolution still predominated;
  • agreement on the counter-revolutionary role of the CPs and SPs, although the ICC criticised Battaglia's definition of these organisations as opportunist or reformist, since such epithets can only apply to proletarian organisations affected by bourgeois ideology;
  • agreement that the trade unions were organisations of the bourgeoisie, but disagreement on how to intervene towards them. Battaglia still talked about working inside the unions, which could include standing for election in the union-based “factory commissions”. At the same time it talked about forming its own “factory groups”, which it called “communist factory groups” or “communist union groups”;
  • this question of factory groups was also a major point of discussion, with Battaglia seeing them as transmission belts between party and class, and the ICC arguing that such transmission belts cannot exist in decadence since there could be no other mass permanent organs to take the place of the trade unions;
  • this discussion was connected to major disagreements on the question of the party and class consciousness, with Battaglia defending Lenin’s thesis that consciousness must be brought to the workers “from the outside”, by the party. This question would be taken up at the next conference.

These issues have continued to be points of divergence between the ICC and Battaglia (and the IBRP) in the period since the conferences (with the addition of a major shift by the IBRP towards abandoning the very notion of decadence – see recent articles in the International Review). However, this was not by any means a dialogue of the deaf. Battaglia did evolve on the union question, at least in so far as dropping the term “union” from its factory groups. By the same token, some of the ICC's replies to Battaglia on class consciousness at the Milan meeting reveal a visceral “anti-Leninism “ which the ICC would confront within its own ranks in the ensuing years, particularly in the debate with what became the “External Fraction of the ICC” after 1984. In short, this was a discussion which could lead to mutual clarification, and was certainly of interest to the wider political milieu. And the conference did draw a positive conclusion from its work to the extent that it agreed to take the process further forward.

Second Conference: Paris November 1978

This conclusion was concretised in the fact that the second conference marked a considerable step forward in relation to the first. It was better organised, based on clear political criteria, and was attended by more organisations. A number of discussion documents were published as well as the proceedings (see volumes I and II of the pamphlet Second Conference of the Groups of the Communist Left, still available from us in English).

This time the conference began with a number of participants: Battaglia Comunista, the ICC, the CWO, the Nucleo Comunista Internazionalista (Italy), Fur Kommunismen (Sweden) and the FOR. Three other groups declared themselves in favour of the conferences, though unable to attend: Arbetarmakt, Il Leninista from Italy and Organisation Communiste Révolutionnaire Internationalise d’Algérie.

The themes of the meeting continued the discussion at the first – the crisis and the economic foundations of capitalist decadence, the role of the party. There was also a discussion on the problem of national liberation struggles, which was a stumbling block for many of the groups from the Bordigist tradition. These debates were an important contribution to a more general process of clarification. For one thing, they enabled certain of the groups taking part in the conferences to see that they had enough in common to engage in a process of regroupment which did not put into question the overall framework of the conferences. This would be the case for the ICC and the Swedish group Fur Kommunismen. Secondly, they provided an invaluable reference point for the milieu as a whole – including those elements not attached to any particular group but looking for a revolutionary coherence.

However, this time the problem of sectarianism was to appear in a much sharper light.

For the second conference, the Bordigist groups were invited, but their response was a classic expression of their refusal to engage with the real movement, of a deeply sectarian attitude. The so-called “Florentine” PCI (which split from the main Bordigist group Programma in 1972 and publishes Il Partito Comunista) said it wanted nothing to do with any “missionaries of unification”. But as we pointed out in our response in “The second international conference” in International Review n°16, unification was certainly not the issue in any short-term sense: “The hour has not yet struck for the unification in one party of the different communist groups existing today”.

The same article also addressed the response of Programma:

Only slightly different is the reply from the second PCI (Programma). What makes it especially distinguished is its grossness. The articles title, ‘the struggle between the fottenti and fottuti’ (literally, the struggle between the fuckers and the fucked) indicates already the stature that the Programma PCI gives itself – which really is hardly accessible to anyone else. Are we to believe that Programma is so saturated in Stalinist habits that they can only imagine the confrontation of positions among revolutionaries in terms of ‘rapists’ and ‘raped’? For Programma, no discussion is possible among groups who base themselves on the firm ground of communism: in fact, it’s especially impossible among such groups. One may, if it comes to the crunch, march alongside Trotskyists, Maoists and such like in a phantom soldiers’ committee, or sign leaflets with these and other leftists for ‘the defence of immigrant workers’, but never can one consider discussion with other communist groups, or even among the numerous Bordigist parties. Among these groups there can only be a rapport de force, and if they can’t be destroyed, their very existence must be ignored! Rape or impotence, such is the sole alternative which Programma wants to offer the communist movement, the sole model for relations between its groups. Not having any other conception, they see this vision everywhere and gladly attribute it to others. An international conference of communist groups cannot, in their eyes, have any other objective than splitting off a few members from another group. And if Programma didn’t come it’s certainly not for lack of desire to ‘rape’, but because they were afraid of being impotent... for Programma you can only discuss with yourself. For fear of being impotent in a confrontation of positions with other communist groups, Programma takes refuge in ‘solitary pleasure’. This is the virility of a sect – and its only means of satisfaction”.

The PCI also put forward another excuse: the ICC is “anti-party”. Others refused to participate because they were against the party – Spartacusbond (Holland) and the PIC, which as the article points out, much preferred the company of left wing social democrats to “Bordigo –Leninists”. And finally:

The conference also had to witness a theatrical performance by the group FOR (Fomento Obrero Revolucionario, Spain and France). After giving its full support to the first conference in Milan, and agreeing to come to the second and contribute by a text and in the discussions, the FOR retracted its position at the beginning of the Conference, on the pretext that it disagreed with the first point on the agenda, i.e. the evolution of the crisis and its perspectives. The FOR defends the idea that capitalism is not in an economic crisis. The present crisis, they say, is simply a conjunctural crisis of the kind capitalism has known and overcome throughout its history. Because of this it doesn’t open up any new perspectives, above all it doesn’t pave the way to any resurgence of proletarian struggle. Rather the opposite is the case. On the one hand the FOR defends the thesis of a ‘crisis of civilisation’ totally independent of the economic situation. We can see in this thesis the vestiges of modernism and situationism. This isn’t the place to demonstrate that, for marxists, it’s absurd to talk about decadence and the collapse of an historical mode of production and simply base this on its superstructural and cultural manifestations, without any reference to the economic infrastructure, even going so far as to assert that this infrastructure, fundamental to any society, is flourishing and growing stronger than ever, this is an idea closer to the vagaries of Marcuse than to the thought of Marx. Thus the FOR bases its revolutionary activity not on objective economic determinism but on subjective voluntarism, a trait common to all the contestationist groups. But we must ask ourselves: were those aberrations the fundamental reason for the FOR’s withdrawal from the Conferences? Not at all. Its refusal to participate at the Conference, its withdrawal from the debate, is above all the expression of the spirit of the little chapel, the spirit of ‘everyone for themselves’ which still strongly impregnates the groups of the communist left”.1

Altogether, this was certainly enough evidence that sectarianism was a problem in itself. But the conference refused to support the ICC's proposal for a joint statement condemning this kind of attitude (although the Nucleo was in favour of it). The reasons given were that the attitude of the groups was not the problem - the problem was their political divergences. It's true that groups like Spartacus and the PIC, by rejecting the necessity for a class party, made it clear that they did not accept the criteria. But what is false is the idea that political activity consists simply of arguing for or against political positions. The attitude, trajectory, behaviour and organisational practice of political groups and their militants are of equal importance, and the sectarian approach certainly falls into this category.

We have had the same response from the IBRP in response to some of the crises in the ICC. According to the IBRP, the attempt to understand internal crises by talking about such problems as the circle spirit, clannish behaviour, or parasitism is simply a distraction from the “political” issues, even a deliberate obfuscation. In this view, the ICC’s organisational problems can all be explained by pointing to our erroneous view of the international situation or the historic period; the daily impact of bourgeois habits and ideology within proletarian organisations is simply of no interest. But the clearest proof that the IBRP is wilfully blind about such matters was provided by their lamentable conduct over the recent attacks on the ICC by the parasites of the IFICC and the adventurer behind the “Circulo” in Argentina. Unable to see the real motivation behind such groups, which has nothing to do with the clarification of political differences, the IBRP has been made a direct accomplice to their destructive activities.2 Questions of behaviour are not irrelevant to proletarian political life. On the contrary, they are matters of principle, connected to a vital necessity for any form of working class organisation: the recognition of a common interest opposed to the interests of the bourgeoisie. In short, the necessity for solidarity - and no proletarian organisation can ignore this elementary necessity without paying a very heavy price. The same applies to the problem of sectarianism, which is also a means of weakening the bonds of solidarity that should link organisations of the working class. By refusing to condemn sectarianism at the second conference, the conferences were striking a blow against the very basis on which they had been convened – the urge to go beyond the spirit of every man for himself and to work towards the real unity of the revolutionary movement. And by shying away from any kind of joint statement, they were falling even more surely into the sectarian pitfall.

According to Marx’s definition: “The sect sees its raison d'être and its point of honour not in what it has in COMMON with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement." (Marx to Schweitzer, 13th October 1868. Selected Correspondence, p 201). This is an exact description of the behaviour of too many of the groups who participated in the international conferences.

Third Conference, Paris May 1980

Thus although we remained optimistic about the work of the second conference in that it marked a definite advance over the first, the danger signs were there. And they were to come to a head at the third conference.

The groups taking part were: the ICC, Battaglia, the CWO, L’Eveil Internationaliste, the Nuclei Leninisti Internazionalisti (formed from a regroupment between the Nucleo and Il Leninista), the Organisation Communiste Révolutionnaire Internationaliste d’Algérie (though not physically present) and the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste, which attended as an “observer”.3

The main points on the agenda were once again the crisis and its perspectives, and the tasks of revolutionaries today. The ICC balance sheet of this meeting, “Quelques remarques generales sur les contributions pour le 3eme Conference Internationale…”, published in the Troisieme Conference pamphlet, drew out a number of important points of agreement underlying the conference:

  • capitalism faces a deepening crisis which is leading the system towards a third world war;
  • this war will be imperialist and revolutionaries must oppose both sides;
  • communists must aim to contribute to the revolutionary action of their class, the only alternative to the march towards war;
  • the working class needs to rid itself of the influence of the “workers’” parties and unions, and here again the activity of revolutionary minorities is vital.

At the same time, the text notes that there was considerable disagreement on the question of the historic course, with Battaglia in particular arguing that there can be a simultaneous course towards war and towards revolution, and that it is not the task of revolutionaries to decide which one has the upper hand. The ICC, on the other hand, basing itself on the method of the Italian Fraction in the 1930s, insisted that a course towards war can only be based on the weakening and defeat of the working class, and that by the same token a class moving towards a revolutionary confrontation with capitalism could not be marched off to war. Moreover, it was vital for revolutionaries to have as clear a position as possible about what was the dominant tendency, since the form and content of their activity had to be adapted to the conclusion they drew.

The question of factory groups was once again a bone of contention between the groups. Presented by Battaglia as a way of building up a real, concrete influence in the class, for the ICC this conception was based on nostalgia for the epoch of permanent large-scale organisations like the trade unions. The idea that the small revolutionary groups of today could create such an influential network, such “transmission belts between party and class”, revealed a certain megalomania about the real possibilities for revolutionary activity in this period. At the same time, however, the gap between this approach and an understanding of the real movement could result in a severe underestimation of the genuine work that revolutionaries could do, and in a failure to grasp the need to intervene towards the real forms of organisation which had begun to appear in the struggles of 78-80: not only general assemblies and strike committees (which were to make their most spectacular appearance in Poland, but had already manifested themselves, in the Rotterdam dock strike in particular) but also the groups and circles formed by combative minorities in or after the struggle. On this point, the ICC’s views were close to those put forward by the NLI in its criticisms of Battaglia’s “factory group” schema.

However, any possibility of developing the debate on these and other issues was to be cut short by the definitive victory of sectarianism over the conferences.

First, there was the rejection of the ICC's proposal to make a common declaration faced with the threat of war, which was certainly a major issue following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan:

The ICC asked the Conference as a whole to take up a position on this question and proposed a resolution for discussion and amendment, if that proved necessary, which would affirm the position of revolutionaries faced with war.

The PCInt refused to sign it, and the CWO and L’Eveil Internationaliste followed suit. The Conference remained silent. Given the criteria determining participation in the conferences, each of the groups present inevitably shared the same basic positions on what attitude the proletariat must have in the event of world conflict or the menace of war. But the partisans of silence told us: ‘Watch it. As for us, we’re not about to sign anything with just anyone. We’re not opportunists’. And we replied to them: ‘opportunism is the betrayal of principles at the first opportunity. What we are proposing isn’t the betrayal of a principle, but the affirmation of that self-same principle with all of our strength. The principle of internationalism is one of the highest and most important principles of the proletarian struggle. Whatever other divergences may separate the internationalist groups, few political organisations in the world defend it in a consistent way. Their conference should have spoken about war in the loudest possible way…’

The content of this brilliant ‘non-opportunist’ logic is the following: ‘if revolutionary organisations can’t succeed in agreeing on all questions, then they must not mention those positions which they do agree on and have agreed on for a very long time’. The specificities of each group are made, on principle, more important than what is common to all of them. That is sectarianism. The silence of all three conferences is the clearest demonstration of how sectarianism leads to impotency” (International Review n°22 “Sectarianism, an inheritance from the counter-revolution that must be overcome”).

This problem has not gone away: it was highlighted in 1999 and 2003 by the response to the ICC’s more recent proposals to make a joint declaration against the wars in the Balkans and Iraq.

Secondly, the debate on the party was suddenly broken off at the end of the meeting by Battaglia and the CWO proposing a new criterion, designed to exclude the ICC because of its position clearly rejecting the idea that the party should take power in the revolution: the criterion reads “the proletarian party, an organism that is indispensable to the political leadership of the revolutionary class movement and of the revolutionary power itself”. This meant ending the debate before it had even begun. According to Battaglia, this marked a process of selection which had organically eliminated the “spontaneists” from the ranks of the conferences, leaving only those who were seriously interested in building the revolutionary party. In fact, all the groups attending the conference were by definition committed to building the party as a long-term aim. The discussion alone – linked to the real practise of revolutionaries – could resolve the most important disagreements about the structure and function of the party.

Indeed, the Battaglia/CWO criterion shows that these groups themselves had not come to a clear position on the role of the party. At the time of the conference, while often pouring out grand phrases about the party as the “captain” of the class, Battaglia normally rejected the more “frank” Bordigist view, which advocates the dictatorship of the party, stressing the need for the party to remain distinct from the state. And yet at the second conference the CWO had chosen to polemicise mainly against the ICC’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks’ “substitutionist” errors and had stated categorically that the party does take power, albeit “through” the soviets. So these two groups could hardly declare the debate “settled”. But the reason why Battaglia – which had begun the conferences without any criteria and now had become fanatics of especially “selective” criteria – put it forward was not out of any desire for clarification, but out of a sectarian urge to rid itself of the ICC, seen as a rival to be overcome, and to present itself as the sole international pole of regroupment. This was in fact to be more and more the practice and the theory of the IBRP in the 80s and 90s, to the point where it abandoned the very concept of the proletarian camp and declared itself to be the only force working for the party.

It’s important to understand, moreover, that the other side of sectarianism is always opportunism and the merchandising of principles. This was demonstrated in the method by which this new criterion was put forward – following private corridor negotiations with the CWO, and whipped out of the hat and put to the vote when the only other group likely to have opposed it – the NLI – had already left the meeting (this trick is known as “filibustering” in bourgeois parliaments and clearly has no place in a meeting of communist groups).

Against such methods, the ICC letter written to Battaglia after the conference (published in the Troisieme Conference) shows what would have been a responsible attitude:

If you indeed thought that it was time to introduce a supplementary and much more selective criterion for the convocation of future conferences, the only serious and responsible attitude, the only one compatible with the concern for clarity and fraternal discussion that must animate revolutionary groups, would have been to have asked explicitly for this question to have been put on the agenda of the conference and for texts to have been prepared on this question. But at no point during the preparations for the third conference did you explicitly raise such a question. It was only after some corridor negotiations with the CWO that you hurled your little bomb at the end of the conference.

How are we to understand your volte-face and your deliberate hiding of your real intentions? For our part, it is difficult to see anything less than a desire to avoid the basic discussion which would have been posed by the introduction of a supplementary criterion on the function of the party. It was indeed to carry out this basic debate - even though we considered that a ‘selection’ on this point would have been very much premature - that we proposed putting on the agenda of the next conference ‘The question of the party, its nature, its function, the relationship between party and class in the light of the history of the question in the workers’ movement and the historical verification of these conceptions’ (draft ICC resolution). It is this discussion which you wanted to avoid (did it embarrass you so much?), and this was clearly shown at the end of the conference when you refused to make explicit what you meant by the formula in your proposed criterion: ‘the proletarian party, an organism that is indispensable to the political leadership of the revolutionary class movement and of the revolutionary power itself’. For all the participants, it was clear that your sole concern was not to clarify the debate but ‘rid’ the conferences of elements you call ‘spontaneists’ and especially the ICC.

What’s more this cavalier way of acting shows the greatest contempt towards all the groups taking part, those who were present but also and above all those who for material reasons were unable to come, and aside from these groups, for the whole of the revolutionary milieu for whom the conferences were a reference point. Such a way of acting seems to indicate that Battaglia Comunista saw the conferences as ‘ITS’ thing which it could make or unmake at will, according to its whim of the moment.

No comrades! The conferences were not the property of Battaglia, or even of all the organising groups. These conferences belong to the proletariat, for whom they constitute a moment in the difficult and tortuous movement towards its coming to consciousness and towards the revolution. And no group can give itself the right of life and death over them through a simple brainstorm and through the frightened refusal to debate in depth the problems facing the class”.

The opportunism contained in the approach of Battaglia and the CWO was fully confirmed by the “4th conference” which they eventually held in London in 1982. Not only was this an organisational fiasco, with far less participants than the previous meetings, no publication of texts and proceedings and no follow up, but it also represented a dangerous blurring of principles, since the only other group to attend was the Supporters of the Unity of Communist Militants (SUCM) – a radical Stalinist group with direct connections to Kurdish nationalism and to what is now the Workers’ Communist Party of Iran (sometimes known as “Hekhmatists”). Thus sectarian “hardness” towards the ICC and the proletarian milieu was combined with a very soft attitude to the counter-revolution. This blatant opportunism has been repeated over and over again in the IBRP’s approach to regroupment, as we showed in the article “IBRP: an opportunist policy of regroupment that leads to nothing but ‘abortions’” in International Review n°121.

Years of Truth for revolutionaries

The 1970s had been years of growth for the revolutionary movement; which was still reaping the benefits of the first upsurge of workers’ struggles at the end of the 1960s. But from the beginning of the 1980s, the political environment began to grow much more sombre. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and the aggressive response of the US, clearly marked a sharpening of inter-imperialist conflicts in which the menace of world war once again began to assume its terrifying shape. The bourgeoisie talked less and less about the bright future it had in store for us, and began to talk the brutal language of realism, typified by the style of the Iron Lady in Britain.

At the beginning of the decade the ICC said that the years of illusions were over and that the years of truth were about to start. Faced with the dramatic deepening of the crisis and the acceleration of preparations for war, we argued that the working class would be obliged to take its struggles onto a higher level, and that the ensuing decade could be decisive in determining the ultimate destiny of capitalist society. The proletariat, driven by harsh necessity, did indeed raise the stakes of the class struggle. In Poland, in August 1980, we saw the return of the classic mass strike, which demonstrated the capacity of the working class to organise itself at the level of an entire country. And although this movement was isolated and ultimately crushed by brutal repression, the wave of struggles which began in 1983 in Belgium showed that the workers of the key countries of Western Europe were ready to respond to the new attacks on their living standards imposed by the crisis. Revolutionaries would have many important opportunities for intervention in the movements that followed, but it was not an “easy” period for communist militancy. The seriousness of the situation proved too much for those who were not ready for the long haul which commitment to the communist cause necessarily entails, or had come into the movement with all sorts of petty bourgeois illusions inherited from the happy days of the 1960s. And at the same time, despite the importance of the workers’ struggles in this period, they did not attain a sufficient level of politicisation. The struggles of the British miners, of the Italian schoolworkers, the French railway workers, the Danish general strike…all these and many other movements certainly expressed the open defiance of an undefeated class and continued to obstruct the bourgeoisie’s drive towards world war; but they did not raise the perspective of a new society, they did not clearly establish the credentials of the proletariat as the revolutionary force of the future. And as a result, they did not produce a whole new generation of proletarian groups and militants.

The global result of this balance of forces between the classes would be what we term the phase of capitalist decomposition, where neither historic class would be able to clearly pose its alternative of war or revolution. And for the revolutionary milieu, the “years of truth” would mercilessly expose any weaknesses. The PCI (Programma) underwent a devastating crisis at the beginning of the 1980s, as vital lacunae in its programmatic armoury – above all on the question of national liberation – led to the penetration into its ranks of overtly nationalist and leftist elements. The ICC’s crisis of 1981 (culminating in the split by the “Chenier” tendency) was to a large extent the price paid for weaknesses in its grasp of organisational questions, while the rupture with the “External Fraction” in 1985 showed that the Current still had to settle scores with the councilist residues of its early years. In 1985, the IBRP was formed out of the marriage between Battaglia and the CWO. The ICC characterised it as an “opportunist bluff”; and its ensuing failure to build a really centralised international organisation proved that this term was only too accurate.

These problems would certainly have manifested themselves had the international conferences not been sabotaged at the start of the decade. But the absence of the conferences meant that once again the proletarian milieu would have to confront them in dispersed order. It is almost symbolic that the conferences collapsed on the very eve of the mass strikes in Poland, underlining the failure of the international milieu to be able to speak with one voice not only on the question of war, but also on such an overt and inspiring expression of the proletarian alternative.

In the same way, the difficulties facing the proletarian political milieu today are not all the product of the failure of the international conferences: as we have just seen, they have deeper and wider historical roots. But there is no doubt that the absence of an organised framework for political debate and co-operation has contributed to these difficulties.

Nevertheless, given the emergence of a new generation of proletarian groups and elements, the need for an organised framework will certainly present itself in the future. One of the first initiatives of the NCI in Argentina was to make a proposal in this sense, only to meet with a blank response from virtually all the groups of the proletarian milieu. But such proposals will be made again, even if the majority of the “established” groups are less and less able to make any positive contribution to the development of the movement. And when these proposals begin to bear fruit, they will certainly have to reacquaint themselves with the lessons of the 1976-80 conferences.

In its letter to Battaglia in the Troisieme Conference pamphlet, the ICC outlined the most important of these lessons:

  • Importance of these conferences for the revolutionary milieu and for the class as a whole;
  • necessity for criteria;
  • necessity to take position;
  • rejection of any precipitation;
  • necessity for the most thorough discussion on the crucial questions facing the proletariat”.

If these lessons are assimilated by the new generation, then the first cycle of conferences will not have entirely failed in its tasks.

Amos


Appendix: brief notes on the groups mentioned

Some of the groups mentioned in this article have subsequently disappeared:

Spartacusbond

This group was one of the last remnants of the Dutch communist left, but by the 1970s it was a pale shadow of the council communism of the 1930s and of the post-war Spartacusbond that had declared the need for a proletarian party.

Forbundet Arbetarmakt

A Swedish group which exhibited a curious mixture of councilism and leftism. It defined the USSR as “the state-bureaucratic mode of production” and supported national liberation struggles and work inside the unions. However there were considerable differences within its ranks and some of its members left at the end of the 70s to join the ICC.

Pour Une Intervention Communiste

Split from the ICC in France in 1974, claiming that the ICC didn’t intervene enough (for the PIC this meant producing endless quantities of leaflets). The group evolved rather quickly towards semi-councilist positions and has since disappeared

Nucleo Comunista Internazionalista

This group split from the PCI (Programma) in Italy in the late 70s and initially developed a much more open attitude to the tradition of Bilan and to the existing proletarian milieu, an attitude which can be seen in many of its interventions at the conferences. By the time of the third conference, it had regrouped with Il Leninista to form the Nuclei Leninisti Internazionalisti. It subsequently formed the Organizzazione Comunista Internazionalista, which has effectively collapsed into leftism. The NCI’s original weaknesses on the national question have come home to roost, since the OCI came out in open support of Serbia in the 1999 war and Iraq in both Gulf wars

Fomento Obrero Revolucionario

Current founded by Grandizo Munis in the 1950s. Munis had split with Trotskyism on the defence of the USSR and evolved towards the positions of the communist left. The group’s confusions about the crisis, and the death of the highly charismatic Munis, dealt a fatal blow to this current, which had effectively disappeared by the mid-90s.

L’Eveil Internationaliste

This group had emerged in France at the end of the 70s following a split in Maoism. At the third conference, it lectured all the other groups on their insufficiencies in matters of theory and intervention, and vanished without trace soon afterwards.

Organisation Communiste Révolutionnaire Internationaliste d’Algérie

Sometimes known as the TIL from its paper Travailleurs Immigrés en Lutte. It gave its support to the conferences, but claimed that it could not participate physically for security reasons. In fact this was part of a more general problem – an avoidance of confrontation with the revolutionary milieu. It did not survive very long into the 80s.


[1]. It is interesting to note that the FOR seems to have scored a posthumous victory at this conference. There is after all a striking similarity between its idea that capitalist society is decadent, but not the capitalist economy, and the IBRP’s new discovery of a distinction between the capitalist mode of production (not decadent) and the capitalist social formation (decadent). See in particular Battaglia’s text ‘Decadence and decomposition, products of confusion’ and our response on our website in French.

[2]. See in particular, ‘Open letter to the militants of the IBRP’ on our website.

[3]. The GCI’s attitude to the conferences showed, as we remarked in our article in International Review n°22, that it had no place in a meeting of revolutionaries. Although the ICC had not yet developed its understanding of the phenomenon of political parasitism at the time of the conferences, the GCI was already showing all the hallmarks: it came to the conferences only to denounce them as a “mystification”, insisted that it was only present as an observer and yet insisted that it be allowed to speak on all the issues, and at one point almost provoked a fist-fight. In short, this is a group which exists to sabotage the proletarian movement. At the conference it made many grand declamations in favour of “revolutionary defeatism” and “internationalism in deed not word”. The value of these phrases can be measured against the GCI’s subsequent apologia for nationalist gangs in Peru and El Salvador, and its current view that there is a proletarian core to the ‘Resistance’ in Iraq.