The culture of debate: A weapon of the class struggle
The "culture of debate" is not a new question either for the workers' movement or for the ICC. Nevertheless, the evolution of history has obliged our organisation - from the turn of the new century on - to return to this question and examine it more closely. There were two main developments which obliged us to do so, the first one being the appearance of a new generation of revolutionaries and the second, the internal crisis we suffered at the beginning of this century.
Political dialogue and the new generation
It was first and foremost the contact with a new generation of revolutionaries that obliged the ICC to more consciously cultivate its openness towards the outside and its capacity for political dialogue.
Each generation forms a link in the chain of human history. Each one is confronted with three fundamental tasks: to receive the collective heritage from the previous generation; to enrich this heritage on the basis of its own experience; to pass it on so that the next generation can achieve more that it was able to.
These tasks, far from being easy, represent a particular challenge. This also goes for the workers movement. The older generation has its experience to offer. But it also bears the wounds and traumas of its struggles, has had to learn to face up to defeats, disappointments, and the realisation that the construction of lasting acquisitions of collective struggle often requires more than one lifetime. It needs the energy and élan of the following generation, but also its new questions and its capacity to see the world with new eyes.
But as much as the generations need each other, their capacity to forge the necessary unity is not automatically given. The more society distances itself from traditional natural economy, the more incessantly and rapidly capitalism "revolutionises" the productive forces and the whole of society, the more the experience of one generation differs from the next. Capitalism, the system of competition par excellence, also pits the generations against each other in the struggle of each against all.
It was with this framework in mind that our organisation began to prepare itself for the task of forging this link. But more than this preparation, it was the actual experience of meeting this new generation which gave the issue of the culture of debate an additional significance in our eyes. We encountered a generation which itself attaches a far greater importance to this question than that of the "1968" generation. The first major indication of this change at the level of the working class as a whole was the mass movement of the students and pupils in France against the "precarisation" of employment in the spring of 2006. Here, the emphasis on the freest and broadest possible debate, in particular within the general assemblies, was very striking. As opposed to this, the student movement, which developed in the late sixties, had often been marked by its incapacity for political dialogue. This difference is first and foremost the expression of the fact that the student milieu today is much more strongly proletarianised than it was 40 years before. Intense, wide scale debate has always been a principle hallmark of mass proletarian movements, and also characterised the workers assemblies of 1968 in France or 1969 in Italy. But also in 2006 there was the openness of youth in struggle towards the older generations, its eagerness to learn from their experience. This was very different from the attitude of the student movement in Germany in the late 1960s (which was perhaps the most caricatural expression of the mood at that time). One of its slogans was: those over 30 to the concentration camps! Hand in hand with this notion went a practise of shouting each other down, of violently breaking up "rival" meetings etc. Here lay, at the psychological level, one of the roots of the development of terrorism as a form of protest not only in Germany, but also in Italy. The break in continuity between the generations of the working class was one of the roots of this problem, since the relations between the generations is a privileged ground, from an early age on, of the forging of the capacity for dialogue. The militants of 1968 saw the generation of their parents either as having "sold themselves" to capitalism or (as in Germany or Italy) as a generation of fascists and war criminals. For the workers who had borne the horrible exploitation of the post 1945 phase in the hope that their children would live better than themselves, it was a bitter disappointment to hear their children accuse them of being "parasites" living from the "exploitation of the third world". But there is also no doubt that the parent generation of that time had to a large extent lost, or itself failed to learn, the capacity for dialogue. This generation was savagely scarred by World War II and the Cold War, by the Fascist, Stalinist and Social Democratic counter-revolution.
As opposed to this, 2006 in France announced something new and extremely fruitful. Already some years beforehand, this concern of the new generation had been announced by the revolutionary minorities of the working class. These minorities, from the moment they took to the stage of political life, were armed with their own critique of sectarianism and the refusal to debate. Among the first demands they raised were that debate should not be seen as a luxury but as an imperious necessity; that those who engage in it should take each other seriously and learn to listen to each other; that arguments are the arms of this combat and not brute force or the appeal to moral or theoretical "authorities". With regard to the proletarian internationalist camp, these comrades in general (and quite rightly) criticised (and were profoundly shocked by) the lack of fraternal debate between the existing groups. They were quick to reject the idea that Marxism is a dogma, which the new generation ought to uncritically adopt.
For our part, we were surprised by the reaction of this new generation to the ICC itself. The new comrades who came to our public meetings, the contacts from all over the world who began to correspond with us, the different political groups and circles with whom we debated - they repeatedly told us that they had recognised the proletarian nature of the ICC as much on account of our behaviour, in particular the way we debate, as through our programmatic positions.
Where does this profound concern of the new generation with this question come from? We think it results from the depth of the historic crisis of capitalism, which today is much graver and more dangerous than after 1968. This demands the most radical possible critique of capitalism, going to the deepest roots of problems. One of the most corrosive effects of bourgeois individualism is the way it destroys the capacity to discuss, and in particular to listen to and learn from each other. Dialogue is replaced by rhetoric; the winner is the one who can make the most noise (as in bourgeois elections). The culture of debate, thanks to human language, is the main way to develop consciousness as the primary weapon for the class that bears humanity's future. For the proletariat it is the sole means for overcoming its isolation and impatience and for directing itself toward the unification of its struggles.
Another aspect of this concern today is the struggle to overcome the nightmare of Stalinism. Many of the militants striving towards internationalist positions today are coming directly from a leftist milieu and are influenced by the latter. This milieu presents a caricature of decadent bourgeois ideology and behaviour in a socialist garb. These militants were brought up politically to believe that exchange of arguments is equivalent to "bourgeois liberalism", that a "good communist" is someone who shuts his mouth and switches off his mind and emotions. The comrades who today are determined to shake off the effects of this moribund product of the counter-revolution increasingly understand that this requires the rejection not only of its positions but also its mentality. In so doing, they are contributing to the re-establishment of a tradition of the workers movement which threatened to die out when the counter-revolution created a rupture in its organic continuity.
Organisational crises and tendencies towards monolithism
The second major impulse for the ICC to return to the question of a culture of debate was our own internal crisis at the beginning of the new century, characterised by the most malignant behaviour we had ever witnessed within our ranks. For the first time ever, the ICC had to exclude not one but several of its members. At the beginning of this crisis there were difficulties and differences of opinion about the question of centralisation in our section in France. There is no reason why divergences of this kind, in themselves, should be the cause of an organisational crisis. Nor were they its cause. What caused the crisis was the refusal to discuss, and in particular the attempt to isolate and denigrate; i.e. to personally attack those with whom one disagrees.
In the aftermath of this crisis, the organisation pledged itself to go to the deepest roots of the whole history of our crises and splits. We have already published contributions on certain of these aspects. One of the conclusions we came to was that a tendency towards monolithism had played a major role in all the split-offs that we suffered. As soon as divergences appeared, certain members began to assert that they could no longer work with the others, that the ICC was becoming a Stalinist organisation or was in the process of degenerating. These crises broke out in relation to divergences which, for the most part, could be perfectly contained within a non-monolithic organisation, and in all cases should be discussed and clarified before any separation takes place.
The repeated appearance of monolithic approaches is surprising in an organisation which specifically bases itself on the traditions of the Italian Fraction, which always defended that, whenever there are divergences concerning fundamental principles, the most profound and collective clarification must precede any organisational separation.
The ICC is the only current of the Communist Left today which places itself specifically in the organisational tradition of the Italian Fraction (Bilan) and the French Communist Left (GCF). As opposed to the groups which came out of the PCInt founded in Italy towards the end of World War II, the Italian Fraction recognised the profoundly proletarian character of the other international currents of the Communist Left which emerged in reaction to the Stalinist counter-revolution, in particular the German and Dutch Left. Far from dismissing these currents as "anarcho-spontaneist" or "syndicalist", it learnt all it could from them. In fact, the main critique it levelled against what became the "councilist" current was its sectarianism expressed through the rejection of the contributions of the Second International and in particular of Bolshevism. In this way, the Italian Fraction maintained, in the teeth of the counter-revolution, the Marxist understanding that class-consciousness develops collectively, and that no party or tradition can claim a monopoly of it. From this it follows that consciousness cannot be developed without fraternal, public, international debate.
But this fundamental understanding, although part of the basic heritage of the ICC, is not easy to realise in practise. The culture of debate can only be developed against the stream of bourgeois society. Since the spontaneous tendency within capitalism is not the clarification of ideas but violence, manipulation and the winning of majorities (best exemplified in the electoral circus of bourgeois democracy), the infiltration of this influence within proletarian organisations always contains the germs of crisis and degeneration. The history of the Bolshevik Party illustrates this perfectly. As long as the party was the spearhead of the revolution, the most lively, often controversial debate was one of its main characteristics. As opposed to this, the banning of real fractions (after the Kronstadt massacre of 1921) was a paramount sign and active factor of its degeneration. Similarly, the practise of "peaceful co-existence" (i.e. the non debate) of conflicting positions, which already characterised the foundation process of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste, or the theorisation of the virtues of monolithism by Bordiga and his supporters, can only be understood in the context of the historic defeat of the proletariat in the mid 20th century.
If revolutionary organisations are to fulfil their fundamental role of the development and spreading of class-consciousness, the cultivation of collective, international, fraternal and public discussion is absolutely essential. It is true that this requires a high level of political maturity (and also, in a more general way, of human maturity). The history of the ICC is one illustration of the fact that this cannot be gained overnight, but is itself the product of a historical development. Today, the new generation has an essential role to play in this ripening process.
The culture of debate in history
The capacity to debate has been a major characteristic of the workers movement. But it was not an invention of that movement. Here, as in other fundamental areas, the struggle for socialism was capable of assimilating the best acquisitions of humanity, adapting them to its own needs. In so doing, it transformed these qualities by raising them to a higher level.
Fundamentally, the culture of debate is an expression of the eminently social nature of mankind. In particular, it is an emanation of the specifically human use of language. The use of language as a means of exchange of information is something which humanity shares with many animals. What distinguishes mankind from the rest of nature at this level is the capacity to cultivate and exchange argumentation (linked to the development of logic and science), and to get to know each other (the cultivation of empathy, linked among other things to the development of art).
Consequently this quality is not new. In fact it preceded class society and certainly played a decisive role in the ascent of humanity. Engels for instance refers to the role of the general assemblies of the Greeks of the Homeric phase, of the early Germanic tribes or of the Iroquois of North America, specifically praising the culture of debate of the latter. Unfortunately, despite the pioneering work of the likes of Lewis Henry Morgan in the 19th century, and those who have followed him, we are insufficiently informed of the early, but most certainly decisive developments in this area.
But what we do know is that philosophy and the beginnings of scientific thought begin to flourish in history where mythology and naïve realism - this ancient, contradictory, inseparable couple - are put in question. Both of them are prisoners of the incapacity to more profoundly understand immediate experience. The thoughts which early man made about his practical experience were religious in nature. "Since very early times, when human beings, still quite ignorant about the construction of their own bodies, and animated by dreams, arrived at the idea that their thinking and feeling would not be an activity of their bodies, but of a separate soul living in this body and leaving it at death - since these times they had to ponder about the relation of this soul to the outer world. If it separated from the body with death, there was no reason to imagine it having a particular death of its own; thus arose the conception of immortality, which at this stage of development appeared not at all as a consolation, but as destiny, and often enough, as with the Greeks, as a real misfortune." 
It was in the framework of naïve realism that the first steps in a very slow development of culture and the productive forces took place. Magical thought, while containing a degree in particular of psychological wisdom, had above all the task of explaining the inexplicable, and thus limiting fear. Both made important contributions to the advance of mankind. The assumption that naïve realism has a particular affinity to materialist philosophy, or that the latter developed directly out of the former, is unfounded.
"It is an old postulate of dialectics, which has passed into popular consciousness, that extremes touch. We will hardly go wrong in searching for the most extreme grade of phantasmagoria, credulity and superstition, not in that scientific direction which, as in the German natural philosophy, tries to force the objective world into the framework of its subjective thinking, but rather in the opposite direction, that which, insisting on mere experience, treats thought with sovereign contempt, and which has really gone the furthest in its thoughtlessness. This school rules in England."
Religion, as Engels indicated, emerged not only out of a magic world view, but also out of naïve realism. Its first, often daring, generalisations about the world are necessarily given an authoritative character.
The first farming communities soon understood their dependence on rain, for instance, but they were still far from understanding the conditions on which rainfall depended. The invention of a rain god is a creative self-assuring act, giving the impression that it is possible through bribes or devotion to influence the course of nature. Homo sapiens is the species which has banked on the development of consciousness to assure its survival. As such, it is confronted with a previously unheard of problem: the often paralysing fear of the unknown. The explanations of the unknown thus have to be put beyond all doubt. Out of this need emerges, as its most developed expression, the religions of revelation. The whole emotional basis of this world view is belief, not knowledge.
Naïve realism is but the other side of this same coin, a kind of elementary mental "division of labour". Whatever we cannot explain in an immediate practical sense necessarily enters the world of magic. Moreover, the practical understanding is itself embedded in a religious vision, originally that of animism. Here, the whole world is fetichised. Even the processes which human beings can consciously produce and reproduce appear to take place with the assistance of personalised forces existing independently of our will.
It is clear that in this world there is little room for debate in the modern sense of the term. Around two and a half thousand years ago, a new quality began to assert itself more strongly, directly challenging the twin sisters of religion and "common sense". It developed out of the old, traditional thinking in the sense that the latter was transformed into its opposite. Thus, the early dialectical thinking which preceded class society - expressed for instance in China in the idea of the polarity between yin and yang, between the male and female principles, became transformed into a critical thought based on the essential components of science, philosophy, materialism. But all of this was unthinkable without what we have called the culture of debate. The Greek word for dialectics actually means dialogue or debate.
What gave rise to this new approach? Very generally speaking, it was the enlargement of the world of social relations and knowledge. As Engels loved to repeat, common sense is a strong and healthy boy as long as it is at home in its own four walls, but experiences all kinds of mishaps as soon as it ventures into the big wide world. But the limits of religion in appeasing fear were also revealed. In fact, it had not conquered fear, but merely externalised it. Through this mechanism, humanity had attempted to cope with a terror that would otherwise have crushed it at a moment when it had no other means of self defence. But in doing so, it made of its own fear an additional force ruling over it.
"Explaining" what is still inexplicable means renouncing its real investigation. There thus arose the struggle between religion and science, between belief and knowledge, or, as Spinoza put it, between submission and investigation. Greek philosophy arose originally in opposition to religion. Thales, the first philosopher known to us, already broke out of the mystical world view. Anaximander, who followed him, demanded that nature be explained out of itself.
But Greek thought was no less a declaration of war against naïve realism. Heraclitus explained that the essence of things is not written on their foreheads. "Nature loves to conceal itself" he declared. Or as Marx put it: "But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided."
The new approach challenged at once belief, but also prejudice and tradition, which is the creed of everyday life (in German the two words for belief are related: "Glaube" - belief - and "Aberglaube" - superstition). To this were opposed theory and dialectics. "No matter how much all theoretical thinking may be disdained, you cannot connect two natural facts with each other, or understand their interconnection without theoretical thought."
Increased social intercourse was of course linked to the development of the productive forces. There thus appeared, together with the problem - the inadequacy of the existing modes of thought - the means of its resolution. First and foremost an increase in self-confidence, in particular in the power of human thought. Science can only arise when there is a capacity and a readiness to accept the existence of doubt and uncertainty. As opposed to the authority of religion and of tradition, the truth of science is not absolute but relative. There thus arises not only the possibility, but also the necessity of exchange of opinions.
It is evident that the claim to the rule of knowledge can only be made where the forces of production (in the broadest cultural sense) have reached a certain stage of maturity. It cannot even be thought of without a corresponding development of the arts, of education, of literature, of the observation of nature, of language. And this goes hand in hand, at a certain stage in history, with the appearance of class society and a ruling layer freed from the burden of material production. But these developments did not automatically give rise to the new, independent approach. Neither the Egyptians nor the Babylonians, despite their progress in science, nor the Phoenicians, who first developed a modern alphabet, went as far in this development as the Greeks.
In Greece, it was the development of slavery that made possible the emergence of a class of free citizens alongside the priests. This delivered the material basis for the undermining of religion. (We can thus better understand the formulation of Engels in Anti-Dühring: without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism). In India, where around the same time there is a development of philosophy, materialism (the so-called Lokayata) and the study of nature, this coincides with the formation and strengthening of a warrior aristocracy opposed to the Brahmin theocracy, partly based on agricultural slavery. As in Greece, where the struggle of Heraclitus against religion, immortality and the condemnation of bodily pleasures was directed against the prejudices both of the ruling tyrants and of the oppressed population, the new militant approach in India originated from an aristocracy. Buddhism and Jainism, appearing around the same time, were much more anchored in the toiling population, but remained in the religious framework - with their conception of the reincarnation of the soul typical of the caste society they wanted to oppose (also to be found in Egypt).
As opposed to this, in China, where there was a development of science and a kind of rudimentary materialism (for instance in the Logic of Mo'- Ti'), this was limited by the absence of a caste of ruling priests against which one could revolt. The country was ruled by a military bureaucracy formed in the struggle against the neighbouring "barbarians".
In Greece there was an additional and in many ways decisive factor, which also played an important role in India: A more advanced development of commodity production. Greek philosophy began, not on the Greek mainland, but in the harbour colonies of Asia Minor. Commodity production involves the exchange not only of goods, but also of the experience contained in their production. It accelerates history, thus favouring the higher expressions of dialectical thinking. It makes possible a degree of individualisation without which an exchange of ideas at such a high level is difficult. And it begins to put an end to the isolation in which social evolution had previously taken place. The fundamental economic unit of all farming societies based on natural economy is village or at best regional autarchy. But the first exploiting societies based on a broader co-operation, often in the interests of irrigation, were still basically agricultural in character. As opposed to this, trade and seafaring opened Greek society to the world. It reproduced, but at a higher level, the attitude of conquest and discovery of the world which characterises nomadic societies. History shows that, from a certain stage of its development, the appearance of the phenomenon of public debate was inseparable from an international development (even
if concentrated in one area), and was in a sense "inter-nationalist" in character. Diogenes and the Cynics opposed the distinction between Hellenes and Barbarians, and declared themselves to be world citizens. Democritus was put on trial for having allegedly squandered a heritage, which he used to pay for educational trips to Egypt, Babylonia, Persia and India. He defended himself by reading out extracts of his writings, the fruits of his journeys - and was declared not guilty.
Debate arose in response to practical necessity. In Greece, it develops through the comparison of different sources of knowledge. Different ways of thinking, modes of investigation and their results, production methods, customs and traditions are compared with each other. They are found to contradict, to confirm or to complete each other. They enter into struggle with each other or support one another, or both. Absolute truths are rendered relative by comparison.
These debates are public. They take place at the harbours, in the market places (the forums), in the schools and academies. In written form, they fill the libraries and extend across the known world.
Socrates - this philosopher who spent his time debating at the market place - embodied the essence of this development. His main preoccupation - how to reach real knowledge of morality - is already an attack against religion and against prejudice, which assume that these questions are already answered. He declared that knowledge is the main precondition of correct ethics, and ignorance its principle enemy. It is thus the coming to consciousness, and not punishment, which enables moral progress, since most people cannot for long consciously go against the voice of their own conscience.
But Socrates went further, laying the theoretical basis for all science and all collective clarification: the recognition that the point of departure of knowledge is the setting aside of pre-judgement. This clears the way for what is essential: search (research). He was a fierce opponent of precipitated conclusions, of uncritical self-satisfied opinions, of arrogance and boasting. What he believed in was the "modesty of non-knowledge" and the passion flowing from a real knowledge based on deep insight and conviction. This is the point of departure of the Socratic Dialogue. Truth is the result of a collective search, consisting in the dialogue of all the pupils, where everybody is teacher and pupil at the same time. The philosopher is no longer a prophet announcing revelations, but a searcher for truth along with others. This brings with it a new conception of leadership: being the most determined in pushing forward clarification, without ever losing sight of its final goal. The parallel to the way the role of the Communists in the class struggle is defined in the Communist Manifesto is striking.
Socrates was a master of the stimulation and directing of discussions. He evolved public debate to the heights of an art or science. His pupil, Plato, developed the dialogue to an extent that has rarely been attained since.
In the introduction to Dialectics of Nature Engels speaks of three great periods of natural science in history to date, with the "genius of intuition" of the ancient Greeks, and the "highly significant, but sporadic" results of the Arabs as the predecessors of modern science which began with the Renaissance. What is striking about the "Arabic-Muslim cultural epoch" was the remarkable capacity to absorb and make a synthesis of the acquisitions of different antique cultures, and its openness to discussion. August Bebel quotes an eyewitness of the culture of public disputation in Baghdad. "Just imagine, at the first meeting there were not only representatives of all the existing Muslim sects, orthodox and heterodox, but also fire worshipers (Parser), Materialists, Atheists, Jews and Christians, in a word every kind of infidel. Each of these sects had their spokesmen who had to represent them. When one of these party leaders entered the hall, everybody stood up respectfully from their seat, and nobody would sit down until he had reached his place. When the hall was almost completely full, one of the infidels began to speak, saying: 'You all know the rules. The Muslims are not allowed to combat us with proofs taken from their holy books, or based on the speeches of their prophet, since we believe neither in your books nor in your prophets. Those present are only allowed to base themselves on arguments taken from human reason.' These words were greeted with generalised rejoicing."
Bebel declares: "The difference between Islam and Christianity was the following: The Arabs collected, during their conquests, all the works which could serve their studies and which could instruct them about the peoples and countries their had conquered. The Christians destroyed during the spreading of their doctrine all such monuments of culture as works of the devil and as pagan horrors." And he concludes. "The Muslim-Arabic cultural epoch is the connecting link between the doomed Greek-Roman culture and the antique culture as a whole, and the European culture which has blossomed since the Renaissance. Without this intermediary, the latter could hardly have attained its present day heights. Christianity was hostile to this whole cultural development."
One of the reasons for the blind fanaticism and sectarianism of Christianity was already identified by Heinrich Heine, and later confirmed by the workers movement: The more sacrifice and renunciation a culture demands, the more intolerable becomes the very thought that its principles could be put in question.
Concerning the Renaissance and the Reformation, which he called "the greatest progressive transformation which humanity had experienced", Engels underlines the role of the development not only of thought, but of emotions, personality, human potential, and combativity. It was a time "which required giants and which produced giants, giants in thought, passion and character, in versatility and learnedness. (...) The heroes of those times were not yet submitted to the yoke of the division of labour, the limiting, one-sided effects of which we so often find among their successors. But what was particularly characteristic was that almost all of them were in the midst of the movements of the time, part and parcel of the practical struggles, taking sides and struggling, sometimes with words, sometimes with a dagger, and sometimes with both."
Debate and the workers' movement
Reviewing the three "heroic" ages of the human mind, which, according to Engels, prepared the development of modern science, it is noticeable how limited they were in time and space. To begin with, they appear very late relative to the history of humanity as a whole. Even when we include the Indian or Chinese chapters, these phases were geographically restricted. Nor did they last very long (the Renaissance in Italy or the Reformation in Germany only a few decades). And the portions of the already extremely minoritarian, exploiting classes actually actively involved were minuscule.
In relation to this, two things seem astonishing. Firstly, that these moments of upsurge of science and public debate took place at all, and that their impact was so important and so lasting - despite all the breaks and dead ends. Secondly, the extent to which the proletariat - despite the break in the organic continuity of its movement in the middle of the 20th century, despite the impossibility of permanent mass organisation in capitalist decadence - has been able to maintain, and sometimes considerably enlarge, the scope of organised debate. The workers movement has kept alive this tradition, despite interruptions, for almost two centuries. And there have been moments - such as during the revolutionary movements in France, Germany or Russia - where this process has encompassed millions of human beings. Here, quantity becomes a new quality.
This quality is however not only the product of the fact that the proletariat, at least in the industrialised countries, comprises the majority of the population. We have already seen how modern science and theory, after its glorious beginning with the Renaissance, was marred and hampered in its development by the bourgeois division of labour. At the heart of this problem lies the separation of science from the producers to a degree not yet possible in the Arabic epoch or the Renaissance. This break "is completed in modern industry, which makes science a productive force distinct from labour and presses it into the service of capital."
The conclusion of this process Marx described in the first draft of his reply to Vera Sassulitsch: "This society is waging war against science, against the popular masses, and against the productive forces it creates."
Capitalism is the first economic system which cannot exist without the systematic application of science to production. It must limit the education of the proletariat in order to maintain its class rule. It must push forward the education of the proletariat in order to maintain its economic position. Today, the bourgeoisie becomes more and more an uncultivated and primitive class, whereas science and culture are in the hands either of proletarians, or of paid representatives of the bourgeoisie whose economic and social situation increasingly resembles that of the working class.
"The abolition of classes in society (...) presupposes, therefore, the development of production carried out to a degree at which appropriation of the means of production and of the products, and, with this, of political domination, of the monopoly of culture, and of intellectual leadership by a particular class of society, has become not only superfluous but economically, politically, intellectually a hindrance to development. This point is now reached."
The proletariat is the heir to the scientific traditions of humanity. Even more so than in the past, any future revolutionary proletarian struggle will necessarily lead to an unheard of flourishing of public debate, and the beginnings of the move towards the restoration of the unity of science and labour, the achievement of a global understanding more in keeping with the demands of the contemporary age.
The capacity of the proletariat to attain new heights was already proven with the development of Marxism, the first scientific approach concerning human society and its history. The proletariat alone was capable of assimilating the highest acquisition of bourgeois philosophical thought: the philosophy of Hegel. The two forms of dialectics known to Antiquity were the dialectics of change (Heraclitus) and the dialectics of interaction (Plato, Aristotle). Hegel alone combined these two forms, delivering the basis for a truly historical dialectics.
Hegel added a new dimension to the whole concept of debate by attacking, more profoundly than ever before, the rigid, metaphysical opposition of true and false. In the introduction to his Phenomenology of Mind he showed how the different and opposed phases of a process of development - such as the history of philosophy - constitute an organic unity, like the blossom and the fruit. Hegel explained that the failure to recognise this was linked to the tendency to concentrate on the contradiction and lose sight of the development. By placing this dialectic on its feet, Marxism was able to absorb the most progressive side of Hegel, the understanding of processes leading toward the future.
The proletariat is the first class which is at once revolutionary and exploited. As opposed to previous revolutionary classes, which were exploiters, its search for truth is not limited by any interest of self-preservation as a class. As opposed to previous exploited classes, which could only survive by consoling themselves with (in particular religious) illusions, its class interest demands the loss of illusions. As such, the proletariat is the first class whose natural tendency, as soon as it reflects, organises and struggles on its own terrain, is towards clarification.
This unique nature was forgotten by Bordigism when it invented its concept of invariance. Its point of departure is correct: the need to remain loyal to the basic principles of Marxism in the face of bourgeois ideology. But the conclusion that it is necessary to limit, or even abolish debate in order to maintain class positions, is a product of the counter-revolution. The bourgeoisie has understood much better that in order to draw the working class onto the terrain of capital, it is above all necessary to suppress and stifle its debates. Having at the onset attempted this above all through ferocious repression, it has since developed more effective weapons such as democracy and the sabotage of the left of capital. Opportunism has also long understood this. Since its essential characteristic is its incoherence, it has to hide itself, to flee open debate. The struggle against opportunism and the need of a culture of debate are not only not contradictory; they are indispensable to each other.
Such a culture does not at all exclude fierce political collisions of positions, on the contrary. But this does not mean that political debate is necessarily traumatic, leading to splits. The most edifying example of the "art" or "science" of debate in history is that of the Bolshevik Party between February and October 1917. Even in the context of massive incursions of alien ideology, these discussions were passionate, but extremely fraternal, and inspiring to all the participants. Above all, they made possible what Trotsky called the "re-arming" of the party, the re-adjustment of its policies to the changing demands of the revolutionary process, one of the preconditions for victory.
The "Bolshevik Dialogue" requires an understanding that not all debates have the same meaning. The polemic of Marx against Proudhon was of the demolishing kind, because its task was to dismiss to the rubbish bin of history what had become a fetter to the whole workers movement. As opposed to this, the young Marx, while engaging in titanic struggles against Hegel, and against utopian socialism, never for a moment lost his enormous respect for Hegel, Fourier, Saint Simon or Owen, whom he helped to enshrine for ever in our common heritage. And Engels was later to write that without Hegel, there would not have been Marxism, and without the utopians, no scientific socialism as we know it.
The gravest crises in the workers organisations, including the ICC, were for the most part caused, not by the existence of divergences as such, however fundamental, but by the avoidance and even the open sabotage of the process of clarification. Opportunism uses every possible means to this end. These include, not only the playing down of important divergences, but equally the exaggeration of secondary divergences, or the invention of non-existent ones. They also include personalisation and even denigration.
The dead weight, on the workers movement, of everyday common sense on the one hand, and of an uncritical, almost religious abiding to certain habits and traditions on the other, was linked by Lenin to what he called the circle spirit. He was profoundly correct about the submission of the process of the construction of the organisation and its political life to the "spontaneity" of everyday common sense and its consequences. "The spontaneous movement in the direction of the least resistance leads to the domination of bourgeois ideology, why? For the simple reason that the bourgeois ideology is much older than the socialist, is developed in a more many sided manner and commands incomparably more means."
Characteristic of the circle mentality is the personalisation of debate, the reaction to political argumentation according, not to what is said, but to who says what. It goes without saying that this personalisation is an enormous hindrance to a fruitful collective discussion.
Already the Socratic Dialogue understood that the development of debate is a question not only of thought; it is an ethical question. Today, the quest for clarification serves the interests of the proletariat, whereas the sabotage of clarification harms it. In this sense, the working class could adopt the motto of the German enlightener Lessing, who said that there was one thing he loved more than the truth, that being the search for the truth.
The struggle against sectarianism and impatience
The most powerful examples of a culture of debate as an essential element of mass proletarian movements are provided by the Russian Revolution. The class party, far from opposing it, was itself the vanguard of this dynamic. The discussions within the Party in Russia in 1917 concerned questions such as the class nature of the revolution, whether or not to support the continuation of the imperialist war, and when and how to seize power. Yet throughout, the unity of the Party was maintained despite political crises in which the fate of the world revolution, and with it that of humanity, were at stake.
Yet the history of the proletarian class struggle, in particular that of the organised workers movement, teaches us that these levels of culture of debate are not always reached. We have already mentioned the repeated intrusions of monolithic approaches within the ICC. It is not surprising that these intrusions often gave rise to splits from the organisation. Within the framework of monolithism, there can be no other resolution of divergences than separation. However, the problem is not resolved by the splitting of those elements that embodied this approach in a caricatural manner. The possibility for such non-proletarian approaches to appear and reappear indicates the existence of more widespread weaknesses on this question within the organisation itself. These consist in often small and hardly perceptible confusions and misconceptions in the everyday life and discussions, but which can pave the way for more serious difficulties under certain circumstances. One of these is a tendency to pose each debate in terms of a confrontation between Marxism and opportunism, of the direct struggle against bourgeois ideology. One of the consequences of this is to inhibit debate, giving comrades the feeling that they no longer have the right to be mistaken or to express confusions. Another consequence is the "banalisation" of opportunism. If we see it everywhere, (crying "wolf" at the appearance of the least divergence) we will probably fail to recognise it when it really appears. Another is the problem of impatience in the debates, resulting in an inability to listen to other arguments and a tendency to want to monopolise discussions, to crush ones "opponents", to convince the others "at all costs".
What all of these approaches have in common is the weight of petty bourgeois impatience, the lack of confidence in the living practise of collective clarification inside the proletariat. They express difficulties to accept that discussion and clarification is a process. Like all fundamental processes of social life, it has an inner rhythm and law of development of its own. Its unfolding corresponds to the movement from confusion towards clarity, involves mistakes and wrong turns and their correction. Such processes require time if they are to be really profound. They can be accelerated, but not short-circuited. The wider the participation in this process, the more participation from the whole class is encouraged and welcomed, the richer it will become.
In her polemic against Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out the fundamental contradiction of the workers struggle as a movement within capitalism, but striving towards a goal which lies beyond it. From this contradictory nature flow the two main dangers to this movement. The first of these is opportunism, that is the openness towards the fatal influence of the class enemy. The motto of this deviation from the path of the class struggle is: "the
movement is everything, the final goal is nothing". The second main danger is sectarianism, that is the lack of openness towards the influence of the life of one's own class, the proletariat. The motto of this deviation is: "the goal is everything, but the movement is nothing".
In the wake of the terrible counter-revolution, which followed the defeat of the World Revolution at the end of World War I, there developed within what remained of the revolutionary camp, the fatal misconception that it would be possible to combat opportunism by means of sectarianism. This approach, which leads only to sterility and fossilisation, fails to recognise that opportunism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin, since both separate goal and movement. Without the full participation of revolutionary minorities in the real life and movement of their class, the goal of communism cannot be achieved.
ICC, September 2007.
. Even such mature and theoretically clear young revolutionaries as Marx and Engels believed - at the time of the convulsions of 1848 - that the realisation of communism was more or less on the immediate agenda. A supposition which they soon had to correct.
. Within the proletarian camp this notion was theorised by "Bordigism".
. The biographies and reminiscences of past revolutionaries are full of examples of their ability to discuss, and in particular to listen. Lenin was legendary in this respect, but he was not the only one. Just one example here, the memoirs of Fritz Sternberg about his "Conversations with Trotsky" (written in 1963). "In his conversations with me, Trotsky was extraordinarily polite. He almost never interrupted me, mostly only to ask me to explain or develop on a word or concept."
. Read the article in nº 110 and 114 of the International Review: "Extraordinary conference of the ICC: The fight for the defence of organisational principles " and "15th Congress of the ICC: reinforce the organisation faced with the stakes of the period ".
. Consult our books on the Italian and the Dutch Communist Left.
. The GCF was later to uphold this understanding after the dissolution of the Italian Fraction. See for instance its critique of the concept of the "brilliant leader" republished in International Review nº. 33 and that of the idea that discipline means militants of the organisation are simple order takers who don't have to discuss the political orientations of the organisation in International Review nº34
. Engels: The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
. Engels: Ludwig Feuerbach. Beginning of Chapter Two.
. Engels: Dialectics of Nature. Beginning of the Chapter: "Natural research in the spiritual world".
. Marx: Capital. Volume 3. Chapter 48, "The Trinitary Formula", beginning of part 3.
. Engels: Dialectic of Nature.
. On developments in Asia around 500 BC, see the lectures of August Thalheimer held at the Sun-Yat-Sen university in Moscow in 1927: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism: www.marxists.org/archive/thalheimer/works/diamat/index.htm
. August Bebel: Die Mohamedanisch-Arabische Kulturepoche (1889). Chapter VI. Scientific Development, Poetry.
. Engels, Dialectics of Nature.
. Capital Vol. 1. Chapter 12: "Division of Labour and Manufacture". Section 5: "The Capitalistic character of Manufacture".
. Engels: Anti-Dühring. Part III : "Socialism" . Chapter II: "Theoretical".
. Lenin: What Is To Be Done. Part II: "Spontaneity of the Masses and Consciousness of Social Democracy". End of Part b) "The Worship of Spontaneity". Rabotschaja Mysl.
. See for instance Trotsky: History of the Russian Revolution, or John Reed: Ten Days that Shook the World.
. Rosa Luxemburg: Social Reform or Revolution?