60 Years ago: a conference of internationalist revolutionaries

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In 2007 the ICC held its 17th International Congress. For the first time since 1979, the Congress was able to welcome delegates of other internationalist groups coming literally from the four corners of the earth (from Brazil to Korea). As we have pointed out in the article on the work of the Congress,[1] this was no innovation on our part: the ICC did nothing other than adopt the same approach that had led to its own creation in 1975, and which it had itself inherited - as we will see - from the Communist Left and particularly from the French Communist Left (Gauche Communiste de France, GCF). Whence the interest of the article which we are publishing below, and which is the report originally published in Internationalisme n°23, of a conference of internationalists held in May 1947, just 60 years before our own 17th Congress.[2]

The 1947 conference was called by the Dutch Communistenbond "Spartacus", a "council communist" group which had survived the 1939-45 war despite ferocious repression, especially following its participation in the workers' struggles under the occupation.[3] The conference itself was held at a dark moment for those rare revolutionaries who had remained true to the principles of proletarian internationalism and refused to fight for the defence of bourgeois democracy and Stalin's "socialist fatherland". In 1943 a wave of strikes in Northern Italy had revived hopes that the Second World War II would end in the same way as the First, with a workers' uprising which this time would not only bring the war to an end, but open the way to a new proletarian revolution which would sweep away capitalism and its train of horror for ever. But the ruling class had drawn the lessons of 1917 and World War II ended with the proletariat systematically crushed before it even had the chance to rise: the Italian workers' districts bloodily put down by the German occupiers; the Warsaw rising destroyed by the German army under the benevolent gaze of its soviet adversary;[4] the massive aerial bombardment of the German working class districts by US and British aviation; these are only a few examples. The GCF realised that in this period, the road to revolution was no longer open in the short term: as they wrote in reply to the Communistenbond in preparation for the conference:

"It was in some sense natural that the monstrosity of the war should open eyes and cause new revolutionary militants to appear. As a result in 1945 there began to appear here and there small groups which, notwithstanding their inevitable confusion and political immaturity, nonetheless were sincere in their efforts to rebuild the proletariat's revolutionary movement.

"Unlike the First, the Second World War did not end in a wave of revolutionary class struggle. Quite the contrary. After a few feeble attempts, the proletariat suffered a disastrous defeat which opened a worldwide reactionary course. In such conditions, the weak groups which emerged at the end of the war risked being swept away or broken. We have already seen this process begin, some groups weakening while others have disappeared altogether, such as the 'Communist revolutionaries' in France".[5]

The GCF had no illusions as to the conference's potential: "In a period such as ours' of reaction and retreat, there can be no question of forming new parties or a new International - as the Trotskyists & Co. are doing - for the bluff of such artificial constructions has never achieved anything other than to leave the workers even more confused than before".[6] This did not mean that the GCF thought the conference a waste of time, on the contrary they considered it vital for the very survival of the internationalist groups: "No group has exclusive possession of 'the absolute and eternal truth' and no group alone will be able to resist the pressure of today's terrible historic course. The groups' very existence and their ideological development are directly dependent on the links that they will be able to establish and the exchange of views, the confrontation of ideas, the debate that they are able to establish and develop internationally.

"This task seems to us of primary importance for militants at the present time, and this is why we have pronounced ourselves in favour and are determined to do everything we can to encourage any effort to make contact and to develop meetings and wider correspondence".[7]

The historical context

If for no other reason, this conference was important in that it was the first international meeting of revolutionaries after six terrible years of war, repression and isolation. But in the end, the historical context - the "period of reaction and retreat" - got the better of the initiative of 1947. The results of the conference were meagre in the extreme. In October 1947 the GCF wrote to the Communistenbond to ask them to organise a new conference with a preparatory discussion bulletin, only one issue of which was ever published; the second conference never took place. In the years that followed most of the participating groups disappeared, including the GCF which was reduced to a few isolated comrades who maintained their ties as best they could through correspondence.[8]

Today the historical context is very different. After years of counterrevolution, the wave of struggles that followed May 1968 in France marked the revolutionary class' return to the historical stage. These struggles were unable to rise to the level demanded by the extent of capitalism's attacks during the 1980s, and came to an abrupt halt with the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989. The 1990s were a very difficult period of discouragement and confusion for both the working class and its revolutionary minorities. But with the new millennium, things began to move again: on the one hand, the last few years have seen a development of workers' struggles increasingly on the basis of the fundamental question of solidarity. At the same time, the presence of the groups invited to the ICC's Congress bears witness to the growing development of a truly world wide political reflection among the small minorities which uphold an internationalist vision and which are trying to develop contacts amongst each other.

In this situation, the experience of 1947 is alive and up to date. Like a seed that has remained hidden in the winter soil, it bears a potential for today's internationalists. In this short introduction, we want to highlight the main lessons which we think should be drawn from the conference and from the GCF's participation in it.

The need for political criteria for participation

Ever since 1914 and the betrayal of the socialist parties and the unions, even more since the 1930s when the communist parties went the same way, followed by the Trotskyist groups in the 1940s, there has been a proliferation of groups and parties which claim to be working class, but whose reason for existence is in reality nothing other than to support the domination of the capitalist class and its state. This is why the GCF wrote in 1947: "It is not a matter of discussions in general, but of meetings which will make it possible for revolutionary proletarian groups to discuss together. This necessarily implies a discrimination on the basis of political ideological criteria. To avoid any ambiguity and to avoid as much as possible remaining vague on the matter, it is absolutely necessary to make these criteria as clear as possible".[9] The GCF identified four key criteria:

  1. The exclusion of the Trotskyist current because of its support for the Russian state and its participation in the imperialist war of 1939-45 on the same side as the democratic and Stalinist imperialist powers.
  2. The exclusion of those anarchists (in particular the French Anarchist Federation) who had taken part in the "Frente Popular" and the capitalist republican government in Spain during 1936-38, as well as the Resistance during 1939-45 under the banner of anti-fascism.
  3. The exclusion of all those groups who, under whatever pretext, had taken part in World War II.
  4. Recognition of the necessity of the "violent destruction of the capitalist state", and so of the historic importance of the 1917 October revolution.

Following the conference, the criteria proposed by the GCF in its letter of October 1947 are reduced to two:

  1. "The determination to struggle for the proletarian revolution, through the violent destruction of the capitalist state for the establishment of socialism.
  2. "The condemnation of any acceptance of or participation in the second imperialist war, with all that this implies of ideological corruption of the working class, such as the ideologies of fascism or anti-fascism along with both their national derivatives (the maquis, national and colonial liberation) and their political aspect (defence of the USSR, the democracies, or of European national socialism)".

As we can see, these criteria are focused on the two questions of war and revolution: in our opinion they remain wholly valid today.[10] What has changed, however, is the historical context in which they are posed. For the generations who are coming to political activity today, World War II and the Russian revolution are far-off events known only from history books. They remain critical for the revolutionary future of the working class and determining for a profound commitment to the revolutionary cause. But for today's generation, in the immediate the question of revolution is posed through the necessary denunciation of wars throughout the world: Iraq, the Israeli-Arab conflict, Chechnya, nuclear tests in North Korea, etc.; in the immediate, the question of revolution is posed more through the denunciation of fraudulent imitations of the Chavez variety than directly in relation to the Russian revolution of 1917.

In the same way, there is no danger today of fascism being used to enrol the mass of the working class for imperialist war, even though some countries (notably those of the ex-Eastern bloc) still suffer from the presence of fascist gangs which terrorise the population and pose a real problem for revolutionaries. As a result anti-fascism cannot in present conditions be a major means of controlling the proletariat ideologically, as it was during the 1939-45 war when it was used to draw workers in behind the defence of the democratic state, even if it can still be used to distract the workers from the defence of their own class interests.

The attitude towards anarchism

An important discussion, both before and during the conference itself, was the attitude to adopt towards anarchism. For the GCF it was clear that "like the Trotskyists or any other movement which has participated (or participates) in imperialist war under the pretext of defending a country (Russia) or defending one form of bourgeois rule against another (defence of the Republic and democracy against fascism), the anarchist movement had no place in a conference of revolutionary groups". The exclusion of anarchist groups was thus determined not by the fact that they were anarchist, but by their attitude towards imperialist war. The distinction is an important one and is illustrated by the fact that the conference was in fact presided by an anarchist (as we can read in a "correction" to the report published in Internationalisme n°24).

The heterogeneity of the anarchist current is such that today the question can no longer be posed in such simple terms. Under the same denomination of "anarchist" we can find groups which differ from the Trotskyists on the sole question of the "party" while at the same time supporting the whole range of Trotskyist demands (right down to the demand for a Palestinian state!), and truly internationalist groups with which communists can perfectly well not only discuss but undertake a common activity on the basis of internationalism.[11] In our opinion, there can be no question today of rejecting discussion with groups or individuals simply because they describe themselves as "anarchists".

Some further points

In conclusion, we want to emphasise three other significant aspects of the conference:

  • The first is the absence of any grandiose and empty declarations: the conference remained modest as to both its importance and its capacities. This does not mean that the GCF at the time rejected any possibility of adopting common positions, quite the contrary. But after six years of war, the conference could be no more than a first contact where inevitably, "the discussions were not advanced enough to justify any kind of vote or resolution". Revolutionaries today must be able both to keep in mind a clear vision of their enormous responsibilities, and at the same time remain extremely modest as to their means and their capacities given the tasks that lie before them.
  • The second is the importance accorded to the union question. Although from our standpoint, the union question has been settled long since, this was not yet the case for the GCF, which in 1947 had only just taken on board the positions of the Dutch and German lefts on this question. But in 1947 as today, behind the union question lies the much wider problem of "how to struggle?". This problem of "how to struggle" and the attitude to adopt towards the unions remains a burning one for workers and militants throughout the world today.[12]
  • Thirdly, we want to repeat the passage that we quoted at the beginning of this article: "No group has exclusive possession of 'the absolute and eternal truth' (...) The groups' very existence and their ideological development are directly dependent on the links that they will be able to establish and the exchange of views, the confrontation of ideas, the debate that they are able to establish and develop internationally". This is our watchword for the years to come, and this is one of the reasons that the ICC's 17th Congress gave such importance to the question of the culture of debate.[13]

ICC, 6th January 2008

(Note: in the text below, the footnotes at the end of the text are from the original, the notes included immediately after the article were added to clarify certain historical points)


An international conference of revolutionary groups

On 25th and 26th May an International Conference took place to develop contacts between revolutionary groups. It was not just for security reasons that this Conference was not announced with great fanfare, as are the Stalinist and Socialist meetings. The participants at the Conference were very much aware that the proletariat is living through a terrible period of reaction and that they themselves are very isolated, as is inevitable in a period of social reaction. Nor are they given to the spectacular bluffs that are so much to the taste - to the very bad taste - of all the Trotskyist groups.

This Conference did not try to set itself immediate concrete aims which it would have been impossible to realise in the present situation. Nor did it try to set up some artificial structure in the guise of an International or to make inflammatory proclamations to the proletariat. Its sole aim was to make initial contact between dispersed revolutionary groups, to allow a confrontation of their respective ideas on the present situation and on the perspectives for the proletariat's struggle for its emancipation.

By calling this Conference, the Communistenbund "Spartacus" of Holland (better known as the Council Communists) [i] have broken the harmful isolation in which most revolutionary groups find themselves and have made it possible to clarify a certain number of questions.

The Participants

The following groups were represented at the Conference and participated in the debates:

  • Holland: the Communistenbund "Spartacus";
  • Belgium: the groups in Brussels and Ghent related to "Spartacus";
  • France: the French Communist Left (GCF) and the "Prolétaire" group;
  • Switzerland: the "Class Struggle" group.[14]

Moreover there were comrades belonging to various revolutionary groupings who participated in the debates of the Conference either in person present or through written interventions.

We draw attention to a long letter from the "Socialist Party of Great Britain", addressed to the Conference, in which it explains at length its specific political positions.

The FFGC[15] also sent a short letter in which it wished the Conference "good work" but said that it was unable to participate for lack of time, and because of urgent work.[ii]

The work of the Conference

The following agenda was adopted as a framework for discussion at the Conference.

  1. The present period.
  2. New forms of the proletarian struggle (from the old forms to the new ones).
  3. The tasks and organisation of the revolutionary vanguard.
  4. State dictatorship of the proletariat - workers' democracy.
  5. Concrete questions and conclusions (agreement for international solidarity - contacts - information to be shared internationally, etc).

This first Conference was not well enough prepared, had too little time, and the agenda proved to be much too ambitious to be completed. Only the first three points of the agenda were taken up adequately. Each point gave rise to interesting debates.

Obviously it would be presumptuous to expect this exchange of views to reach a unanimous position and the participants at the Conference never had such pretensions. However we can say that the debates, which were passionate at times, revealed a greater agreement than we might have expected.

On the first point of the agenda concerning the general analysis of the present period of capitalism, the majority of the interventions rejected Burnham's theories concerning the immediate possibility of revolution and the need to lead it, they also rejected the idea that capitalist society is able to continue by means of an eventual development of production. The present period was characterised culturally and politically as that of state capitalism.

The question of whether organisational forms like the unions and activity such as participation in electoral campaigns can still be used by the proletariat in the present period gave rise to a lively and very interesting debate. It is to be regretted that the tendencies who still advocate these forms of class struggle and who do not realise that these outworn and outdated forms can only be anti-proletarian today - the PCI of Italy specifically - were not present at the Conference to defend their position. The Belgian Fraction and the autonomous Federation of Turin were there but the conviction of these groups in these positions, that they defended until recently, is now so shaken and unsure that they preferred not to speak on these points.

Therefore the debate did not take up whether it is possible to use unionism and electoral participation as forms of proletarian struggle, it discussed exclusively around the question of the historical reasons, the explanation of why it is impossible to use these forms of struggle in the present period. On the question of the unions the debate broadened out; the discussion was not specifically on the organisational form as such, which is only a secondary aspect. It investigated rather the goals that determine the struggle for corporatist and partial economic demands in the present conditions of decadent capitalism, in which they cannot be realised and can still less serve as a platform to mobilise the class.

The question of Workers' Councils or Committees as a new form of unitary organisation of the workers, reveals its full significance and becomes meaningful when linked tightly and inseparably with the goals presented to the proletariat today. This goal is not economic reform within the framework of the capitalist system but social transformation against the capitalist system.

The third point - tasks and organisation of the revolutionary vanguard - raised the problems of whether or not it is necessary to form a political class party, of what the role of such a party would be in the struggle for the emancipation of the class and of the relationship between the class and such a party, but unfortunately could not be deepened to the extent we would have wished.

A brief discussion was only able to allow the different tendencies to give a general outline of their positions on this point. However everyone felt that this was a decisive question both in order to make it possible to close the gap between the various revolutionary groups, as well as for the future and the success of the proletariat in its struggle for the destruction of capitalist society and the creation of socialism. This question, which we consider fundamental, was barely touched on and requires further discussion in order to deepen it and elaborate the issues more precisely. However it is important to note that at this Conference, although there were divergences on the importance of the role of an organisation of conscious revolutionary militants, it did emerge that the Council Communists, as well as the others present, do not deny the need for such an organisation to exist - whether it is called Party or not - if socialism is to triumph in the end. This is a point held in common, whose importance cannot be over-estimated.

There was not enough time at the Conference to take up the other points on the agenda. A short but very important discussion took place towards the end about the character and function of the anarchist movement. It was during the discussion about the groups to be invited to the next conferences that we were able to bring out the social-patriotic role of the anarchist movement during the 1939-45 war, in spite of its hollow revolutionary phraseology. We also pointed out that its participation in the partisan struggle for "national and democratic liberation" in France, in Italy and even today in Spain is a logical continuation of its participation in the bourgeois "republican and anti-fascist" government and in the imperialist war in Spain in 1936-38.

Our position that the anarchist movement, as well as the Trotskyists and any other tendency that participated in the imperialist war in the name of the defence of a nation state (the defence of Russia) or of one form of bourgeois domination against another (the defence of the Republic or of democracy against fascism) has no place in a conference of revolutionary groups, was supported by the majority of the participants. Only the representative of the "Prolétaire" advocated the invitation of certain non-official tendencies within anarchism or Trotskyism.

Conclusion

As we have already said, the conference ended without having got through the whole agenda, without having taken any practical decisions and without having voted any resolutions. It could not have been otherwise. This was not so much to avoid the religious ceremonial, as some comrades called it, at the end of every Conference which consists of an obligatory final vote on resolutions that do not mean much. In our view it was rather because the discussions were not sufficiently developed to make a vote possible on any resolution or to justify it.

The sceptical or those of ill-will may think: "So the Conference was no more than a meeting taking up the same old discussions and is of no further interest". Nothing could be further from the truth. We think, on the contrary, that the conference was indeed of interest and that its importance will emerge in the future in terms of the relationship between the various revolutionary groups.  We must bear in mind that for the last 20 years these groups have lived in isolation, cloistered and closed in on themselves. This has inevitably produced in all of the tendencies a spirit of the chapel or sect; so many years of isolation means that each group has developed its own way of thinking, of reasoning and of expressing itself, which often makes it incomprehensible to the other groups. Half the time this is the reason why there are so many misunderstandings and such incomprehension between groups. There is above all a need to open oneself up to the ideas and arguments of others and to submit one's own ideas to the criticism of others. This is an essential condition for the existence of living revolutionary thought and it is this that makes this kind of conference so very interesting.

The first step, the least dramatic but the most difficult, has been made. All the participants at the conference, including the Belgian Fraction which agreed to participate only after a great deal of hesitation and a lot of scepticism, expressed their satisfaction and were pleased with the fraternal atmosphere and the seriousness of the discussion. Everyone said that they wanted to convoke another Conference soon, one that would be broader and better prepared, and that they wanted to continue the work of clarification and mutual confrontation.

This is a positive outcome which raises the hope that, by continuing along this path, revolutionary militants and groups will be able to go beyond the present phase of dispersal and so manage to work more effectively for the emancipation of their class. This is the class that has the mission to save the whole of humanity from the terrible and bloody destruction that is in the making and towards which decadent capitalism is dragging us.

Marco

Notes

[i] In the newspaper Libertaire of 29th May there is an article full of fantasy about this conference. The author, who signs himself AP and who passes for the Libertaire's expert on the history of the workers' movement, really does take too many liberties with history. He presents this Conference - which he did not attend and about which he knows absolutely nothing - as a Conference of Council Communists. In fact the latter, who indeed called the Conference, participated with the same status as all the other tendencies.

AP is not content to take liberties with past history, he also feels authorised to write in the past tense about history that is to come. Just like those journalists who recounted in advance and in detail Goering's execution, little dreaming that he might have the bad taste to commit suicide at the last moment, the Libertaire's historian, AP announces the participation of anarchist groups in the conference, although there were none.

It is true that the Libertaire was invited to attend but it refused and was right to do so in our opinion. The anarchist movement is now a current that is completely alien to the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. This is shown by the participation of the anarchists in the Republican government and in the imperialist war in Spain in 1936-38, the continuation of their policy of class collaboration with any Spanish bourgeois political formation abroad under the pretext of struggling against fascism and Franco, their ideological and physical participation in the "resistance" against "foreign" occupation. The anarchist movement therefore had no place at this conference and it was a mistake to invite it.

[ii] The "urgent work" of the FFGC expresses eloquently how it feels about having contact with other revolutionary groups. What exactly is the problem of the FFGC; "lack of time" or lack of interest and understanding of the importance of contact and discussion between revolutionary groups? Or could it be that it is too embarrassed to confront its positions with those of other groups because of its lack of political orientation (both for and against participation in elections; for and against working in the unions; for and against participation in anti-fascist committees, etc...).


[1] See International Review n°130

[2] The other texts quoted in this introduction are published in full in our pamphlet La Gauche communiste de France (available in French only).

[3] See our book The Dutch and German communist left, notably the penultimate chapter. The Communistenbond Spartacus originated in the "Marx-Lenin-Luxemburg Front" which participated energetically in the Dutch workers' struggle of 1941 against the persecution of Jews by the Nazi occupying forces, and distributed leaflets calling for fraternisation inside German army barracks during the war.

[4] It was Churchill's decision to "let the Italians stew in their own juice". Stalin stopped the Red Army's advance for several months on the other side of the Vistula river from Warsaw, until the German repression was complete.

[5] Published in Internationalisme n°23, emphasis in the original. The "Communistes révolutionnaires" originated in the RKD, a group of Austrian Trotskyist refugees in France. They were the only delegates to the 1938 Périgny congress to oppose the formation of the 4th International, which they considered "adventurist".

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This is not the place to write the post-war history of the Communistenbond Spartacus (see the last chapter of our book on The Dutch and German communist left). We will limit ourselves to a few major milestones: soon after the 1947 conference, the Communistenbond adopted a much more clearly "councilist" orientation, along the same lines as the old GIC (Groepen van internationale communisten) on the organisational level. In 1964 the group split to form the "Spartacusbond" and the group around the review Daad en Gedachte ("Deed and thought") inspired notably by Cajo Brendel. The Spartacusbond took an activist turn after 1968 and disappeared in 1980. Daad en Gedachte followed the logic of its councilist positions to their conclusion and disappeared in 1998 for lack of contributors to the review.

[9] Ibid.

[10] We adopted the same approach in 1976 when the Battaglia Comunista group launched an appeal for a conference of groups of the Communist Left, but without proposing any criteria for participation. We replied positively to the appeal, while at the same time insisting "For this initiative to be successful, for it to be a real step towards the rapprochement of revolutionaries, it is vital to clearly establish the fundamental political criteria which must serve as a basis and framework, so that discussion and confrontation of ideas are fruitful and constructive..." (see International Review n°40, "The constitution of the IBRP, an opportunist bluff").

[11] The ICC, for example, has engaged several times in discussions and even in common activity with the Moscow-based KRAS-AIT.

[12] See for example the article on our web site on the struggles in the MEPZA in the Philippines.

[13] See in particular our articles on the 17th Congress of the ICC and on the culture of debate in International Review n°130 and n°131.

[14] A "Correction" published in Internationalisme n°24 points out the presence of the "Autonomous section of Turin" of the PCI (ie. the "Partito Comunista Internazionalista" not the Stalinist CP). The section wrote in particular to correct the impression given in the report of certain of its positions: the Section "has declared itself autonomous precisely because of its disagreements on the electoral question and on the key issue of the unity of revolutionary forces".

[15] The so-called "French fraction of the Communist left" had broken with the GCF on an unclear political basis which had much more to do with personal animosities and resentments. See our pamphlet for more details.

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