Polemic with the IBRP - marxist method and the ICC's appeal on the war in ex-Yugoslavia

In the series War

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After some promising indications of a mutual recognition and debate among the groups of the communist left over the past few years, and even a common public meeting on the Russian Revolution between the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party and the ICC in Britain, the recent Nato war in the Balkans came as a sort of test of the capacity of these groups to strengthen their influence through some kind of common defence of internationalism. Unfortunately the groups refused an appeal by the ICC for a common declaration against the imperialist carnage in Kosovo. An article in International Review 97 gave a preliminary balance sheet of the reactions to this appeal.

Here, in this article, we will reply briefly to the idea put forward by the IBRP that the ICC's supposed ‘idealist' political method justified such a refusal.

In their reply to our appeal they say:

"...When you write in your leaflet "Because the world working class, ever since the massive strikes of May '68  in France has developed its struggle and refused to submit to the logic of capitalism, it has been able to prevent a third World War from being unleashed", you show that you've remained tied to your schemas that we've already characterised as idealist and which are today particularly inapt to the need for clarity and theoretic-political solidarity required fro intervention towards the class".

Now, idealism would be a profound defect for a revolutionary organisation. Idealism is one important, if not the only, philosophical rampart of bourgeois ideology. Finding the ultimate  driving force of history in the ideas, morals, and truths that are produced by human consciousness, idealism is one of the fundamental bases for the various ideologies of the ruling class that obscure their exploitation of the working classes and deny it any real capacity for its liberation. The division of the world into classes and the possibility and necessity of the communist revolution to overturn this world can only be understood by the materialist conception of history. The history of thinking is explained by the history of being and not the other way around.

Idealism and the historic course

But why is the conception of the "historic course" that takes a view on the balance of class forces over a given historical period and draws the conclusion that the perspective is not open to a generalised imperialist war today, but is still open to immense class confrontations.... idealist'?

The Communist Workers' Organisation's (the IBRP in Britain) letter to the ICC refusing a joint public meeting in Britain on the war tries to explain:

"For you it seems a small point but for us it only underlines how far you are not relating to reality. We are absolutely aghast at the turn events are taking with so little proletarian response. ‘Socialism or barbarism' is a slogan which has absolute meaning in this crisis. But how can you maintain that the working class is holding back war when the evidence of all that has happened in Yugoslavia shows how free a hand the imperialists (big and little) have got?...The war is now only 800 miles from London (as the crow flies). Does it have to get to Brighton before you readjust your perspectives? The war is a serious step towards general barbarism. We cannot stand together to fight for a communist alternative if you are suggesting that the working class is a force to be reckoned with in the present situation".

This is hardly a sufficient justification for the serious charge of ‘idealism' since it reduces an entire historical question to a problem of ‘sound common sense'. All we can do is reply by questioning the consistency of the IBRP's own interpretation of events in their short and allegedly sober exposition of reality.  At the beginning of the paragraph two fundamental historical tendencies are at  work: socialism and barbarism apply ‘absolutely' to the situation. But by the end of it only one tendency - capitalist barbarism is taken into account. Socialism, and its historical vehicle, the proletariat, has disappeared from the reckoning. Only the IBRP are left in the world holding the torch for the communist alternative.

While the ICC has attempted at least to understand the historic weight of the proletariat in the Balkans War without in the least minimising the seriousness of the situation, the IBRP (appropriately speaking from the empiricist homeland of Bacon and Locke[1]), would rather judge events by their geographic proximity to London or Brighton. The proletariat is supposedly not a "force to be reckoned with in the present situation" because there are no immediate tangible facts to prove it, it cannot be empirically verified. The IBRP can't see it, smell it, taste it, or hear it - therefore it doesn't exist. And anybody who says it does is an idealist. This is the limit of the IBRP's critique.

The counter-tendencies to the apparent absence of the proletariat - particularly the lack of adhesion by Western European and North American working classes to the war - are consequently ignored as factors. The latent tendencies in events that may only give a negative imprint on the situation, like footprints in the sand must, however, be taken into account in order to be consistent with the wider historical reality.

The method which sees events as simple facts without all their historical interconnections is only materialist in the metaphysical sense:

"And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century.

To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. ‘His communication is ‘yea, yea, nay, nay'; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil'. For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis one to the other.

At first sight this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound common sense. Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. The metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and even necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the object, invariably bumps into a limit sooner or later, beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions because in the presence of individual things it forgets their connections, because in the presence of their existence it forgets their coming into being and passing away; because in their state of rest it forgets their motion. It cannot see the wood for the trees" (Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific).

Empiricism - sound common sense - despite all these bumps, always equates historical materialism and its dialectical method with idealism because Marxism doesn't, or shouldn't, take facts at their face value.

The IBRP is bumping into the history of the revolutionary movement when it terms the ‘schema' of the historical course idealist. Was the left fraction of the Italian CP, which published Bilan during the 1930s, guilty of idealism when it developed this concept to determine whether history was marching toward war or revolution?[2] It's a question the IBRP should answer since Bilan was intrinsic part of the history of the Italian Left within which the IBRP situates itself.

But if the IBRP thinks itself able to use historical materialism to put forward a supposedly obvious factual truth, it is also capable of using mechanical schemas to invent facts which don't exist. According to its internationalist leaflet against the war, NATO's main aim was to "ensure the control of the oil of the Caucasus". How has the IBRP arrived at such a fantasy? By applying the schema which says that the motive power behind imperialism today is the search of economic profit "to ensure the control and management of oil, of oil revenue, and ot the financial and commercial markets".

This may be a materialist schema, but it is mechanical materialism. Although the main factor behind modern imperialism remains the basic economic contradictions of capitalism, this schema ignores the political and strategic factors which have become predominant in the conflicts between nation-states.

The Marxist method and revolutionary intervention on the war

If the IBRP adopts an empiricist approach when confronted with the weight of the working class on the scales of history at any conjuncture, on the broader and more decisive questions it shows that it is perfectly capable to see in a Marxist way what sound common sense cannot. Their leaflet on the war - like the leaflets of other groups of the communist left - revealed that behind the apparently united humanitarian aims of the great powers in Kosovo a wider and unavoidable imperialist confrontation was taking place. They showed that the pacificists and leftists, despite their loud declamations against violence were in reality stoking the fires of war. Finally, although they couldn't see the proletariat as a force in the present situation, they nevertheless asserted that the working class struggle leading to the communist revolution was the only means of escaping the worsening barbarism. 

The common internationalist proletarian positions of the different left communist groups on the imperialist war, shared by both the ICC and the IBRP, were eminently Marxist and thus faithful to the method of historical materialism.

So here at least the accusation of idealism against the ICC completely collapses.

The problem of unity in the  history of the revolutionary movement

In his letter to Wilhelm Bracke in 1875 that introduced his Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx says that "Every step of a real movement is more important than a dozen programmes". And this famous sentence constitutes a reference point for the united action of revolutionaries. It is a restatement of the equally famous Theses On Feuerbach of 1845 demonstrating that historical materialism is not another contemplative philosophy but a weapon of proletarian action.

"The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood as revolutionary practice" and "The philosophers have only interpreted the world the point is to change it".

In his introductory letter and critique Marx sharply criticises the unity programme of the Social Democratic Party to be and the concessions made to the Lassalleans.[3] He deems an "agreement for action against the common enemy" to be of the highest importance and suggests it would have been better to postpone the writing of the programme "until such time as it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity" (The First International and After, p340, Penguin 1974). Extreme differences were thus no barrier to united action, but on the contrary were to be confronted within this context.

As we have already put forward in our appeal, Lenin and other representatives of the Marxist left applied this same method to the Zimmerwald Conference of 1915 where they signed its ringing manifesto against the first imperialist war. And yet they had expressed criticisms and sharp disagreements with its insufficiencies and submitted their own statement to a vote, where it was rejected by the majority.[4]

The IBRP has already been to work to learnedly demonstrate that such a historical example of the unity of revolutionaries in the past took place in different circumstances and therefore doesn't apply to the present situation. In other words the IBRP don't want to see the threads of the past in the present but as a finished episode that is only relevant for its own time for historians to ponder over. The different circumstances in which revolutionary unity took place in the past instead of proving their inapplicability to the present revolutionary movement, actually emphasise their contemporary relevance all the more.

The most striking thing about Marx and Lenin's advocation of common work between revolutionaries in the two examples given is that differences between the Eisenachers and the Lassalleans on the one hand, and between the Bolsheviks and the socialists at Zimmerwald on the other were far more severe than the differences between the groups of today's communist left.

Marx advocated common work with a tendency that advocated a "free state", "equal rights", "the just distribution of the proceeds of labour" and talked about the "iron law of wages", and other bourgeois prejudices. Zimmerwald was a common stand against the imperialist war between the real internationalists who advocated a civil war against the imperialist war and called for a new International, and pacifists, centrists and other waverers who advocated a reconciliation with the social patriots and questioned the revolutionary slogans of the left. In today's communist milieu on the other hand there are no concessions to democracy or humanitarian illusions, there is a common denunciation of the war as imperialist, a common denunciation of the pacifism and chauvinism of the left, and a common commitment to the "civil war", in other words to opposing to imperialist war the perspective and necessity of the proletarian revolution.

Lenin signed the Zimmerwald Manifesto, with all its inadequacies and inconsistencies, in order to advance the real movement. In an article written immediately after the first Zimmerwald conference, he said: "It is a fact that the [Zimmerwald Manifesto] is a step forward towards an effective struggle against opportunism, towards a break and a split with it. It would be sectarianism to refuse to take this step forward with the minority of Germans, Swedes, French, Norwegians and Swiss, when we keep our full liberty and possiblity to criticise its inconsistency and to try to go further. It would be poor military tactics to refuse to march with the growing international movement of protest against social-chauvinism, on the pretext that the movement is too slow, that it has taken ‘only' one step forward, that it is ready and inclined to take a step backward and look for a conciliation with the old International Socialist Bureau" (Lenin, A first step, October 1915)

Karl Radek arrived at the same conclusion in another article on the conference: "... the left decided to vote the Manifesto for the following reasons. It would be doctrinaire and sectarian to separate ourselves from those forces which have begun, to a certain extent, to struggle against social-patriotism in their own countries when they have to confront the furious attacks of the social-patriots" (from The Zimmerwald Left).

There is no doubt that revolutionaries today should act against the development of imperialist war with the same method as Lenin and the Zimmerwald left against World War I. The central priority is the advance of the revolutionary movement as a whole. The main difference between conditions then and today, is that today there is a far greater convergence of positions between the internationalist groups than there was between the left and the centre at Zimmerwald,[5] and so a much greater justification and necessity for common action.

A common internationalist declaration and other expressions of united activity against the Nato war would of course have increased enormously the political presence of left communism by comparison with the impact of the different groups taken separately. It would have been a material antidote to the nationalist divisions imposed by the bourgeoisie. The common intention to advance the real movement would have created a stronger pole of attraction to elements in search of communist positions who are at present disappointed by the confusing dispersion of the different groups. And the pooling of resources would have had a wider impact on the working class as a whole. Above all, it would have marked a historical reference point of revolutionaries in the future, as of course did the Zimmerwald Manifesto that sent a beacon of hope to future revolutionaries in the trenches. How are we to describe the political method which refuses such common action? The answer is given by Lenin and Radek: doctrinaire sectarianism.[6]

If we have restricted ourselves to two examples, it is for reasons of space not any shortage of examples of common action by revolutionaries in the past. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Internationals were all formed with the participation of elements who did not even accept the main premises of Marxism, such as the anarchists of the 1st, or the French and Spanish anarcho-syndicalists who defended internationalism and the Russian revolution and so were welcomed into the 3rd.

Nor should we forget that the Spartacist Karl Liebnecht, recognised by the whole Marxist left as the most heroic defender of the proletariat in the first world war, was an idealist in the real sense of the term, since he rejected the dialectical materialist method in favour of Kantianism.

The method of confronting disagreements in the revolutionary movement

Most of today's groups imagine that by uniting even for a minimum of activity they will be obscuring or diluting the important differences they have with the other groups. Nothing could be further from the truth.

After the formation of the German Social Democratic Party and after Zimmerwald, there was not an opportunist diluting of the differences of its separate constituents but conversely a sharpening of them and a confirmation in practice of the positions of the clearest tendencies. The Marxists came to predominate completely in the German party and then in the second International over the Lassalleans after 1875.

After Zimmerwald, the intransigent positions of the left, which was in a minority, prevailed completely in the subsequent years as the revolutionary wave beginning in Russia 1917 confirmed their policy in the heat of events, while the centrists eventually fell back into the arms of the social patriots.

Yet without testing their positions in the framework, however limited, of a common action, their future success would not have been possible. The Communist International was indebted to the Zimmerwald left.[7]

These examples from the history of the revolutionary movement only confirm another well known second thesis on Feuerbach:

"The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth , i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of think ing that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question".

The groups of the communist left that deny a practical framework of their common movement within which its differences can be confronted are tending to reduce their disputes on Marxist theory to a scholastic level. Although these groups have the idea of proving their positions through practice in the wider class struggle this objective will remain a vain hope if they cannot put their own house in order - and verify their positions in practical association with other internationalist tendencies.

A recognition of a minimum of common activity is the basis on which the differences can develop be confronted, tested and clarified to those militants who are emerging from the ranks of the proletariat particularly in countries where the Communist left has no organised presence yet. One of the most frustrating proofs of this view, a contrario, is in Internationalist Communist n°17, the review of the IBRP, which is more or less dedicated to expressing its differences with the ICC for the benefit of searching elements in Russia and elsewhere who are unclear on this question. But in its rush on the one hand to minimise or deny the common positions of our two tendencies, and on the other tits refusal to take our mutual differences seriously enough, the reader probably ends up more confused than ever. When we read: "We criticise the ICC (...) for expecting what they call the ‘proletarian political milieu' to take up and debate their in­creasingly out­landish political concerns" (IC 17) then we can wonder whether the internationalist milieu has even reached the scholastic level of debate due to a fear of confronting opposing views. Today's movement needs to reappropriate the confidence of the Marxists of the past in their ideas.

The accusation that the ICC is idealist doesn't hold water. We await at least more developed critiques on this score. But it should be clear that the materialist method of the Marxist revolutionary movement demands a common response to the worsening international situation and the increasing demands it places on the working class. The communist left may not have been up to all of its responsibilities over Kosovo - but the coming events will force it to bring them into sharper focus.

Como 11/9/1999


[1] Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704) were two English materialist philosophers.

[2] In an article with the explicit title, "The course towards war", this is how Bilan n°29 of March 1936 posed the problem of the historic course: "Those in government today (...) have a right to the eternal gratitude of the capitalist regime for having taken to its ultimate conclusion the work of crushing the world proletariat. By disembowelling the only force capable of creating a new society, they have opened the door to inevitable war, the final expression of the internal contradictions of the capitalist regime (...) When will war break out? Nobody can say. What is certain is that everything is ready for it". Another article in the same issue returns to the question by clarifying the preconditions of the imperialist war: "We are perfectly convinced that the socialo-centrist policy of betrayal which has reduced the proletariat to class impotence in the ‘democratic' countries, and fascism which has achieved the same result by terror, have laid the vital foundations for the unleashing of a new world-wide carnage. The degeneration of the USSR and the CI is one of the most alarming symptoms of the course towards the abyss of war". In passing, it is worth reminding - or informing - the IBRP and the Bordigist groups what was the perspective for action that Bilan proposed to the different communist forces that had survived: "The only response that these communists can oppose to the events we have lived through, the only political expression which could serve as a milestone on the road to the victory of tomorrow, would be an International Conference which would tie together the few poor membranes that are left of the brain of the world working class". Our concern to determin what is the historic course today, and our appeal for a common defence of internationalism, are completely within the tradition of the Italian Left, whether the ignorant like it or not.

[3] The German Social Democratic Party was formed from the unification of two great currents: one petty-bourgeois, known as the Lassalleans from the name of their leader Lassalle, the other marxist and known as the Eisenachers from the name of the town where their tendency created the German Social Democratic Workers' Party in 1869.

[4] We insisted on the validity, for today's internationalist camp, of the Zimmerwald left's unity policy in International Review n°44 (1986).

[5] In fact, we could even say that the differences within the Zimmerwald left itself were greater than those within today's internationalist camp. In particular, there were at the time important differences on whether national liberation was still possible, and therefore whether the slogan of "nations' right to self-determination" was still part of marxist policy. The clear-cut and opposing positions of Lenin on the one hand, Trotsky and Radek on the other, over the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, sharply revealed the divisions within the Zimmerwald left. Within the Bolshevik Party itself, there were significant differences on national self-determination, with Bukharin and Piatakov defending its obsolescence, as well as on the slogans of "revolutionary defeatism" and the "United States of Europe".

[6] Lenin's policy of internationalist unity was not limited to the Zimmerwald movement. He also applied it within Russian social-democracy, encouraging common work with a non-Bolshevik group like Trotsky's Nache Slovo. And if these efforts were unsuccessful - until the Russian revolution - it was because of Trotsky's own hesitations and sectarianism at the time.

[7] "The Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences had their importance at a time when it was necessary to unite all the proletarian elements ready in one form or another to protest against the imperialist slaughter (...) The Zimmerwald grouping has had its day. Everything that was really revolutionary in the Zimmerwald grouping passes over to and joins the Communist International" (Declaration by the participants at the Zimmerwald conference to the Congress of the CI). The declaration was signed by Rakovsky, Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Platten.