Some answers from the ICC

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As the text of the ex-CWO comrades points out, the fact that the CWO is feeling the need to ‘open’ itself to the outside world (which involves not only discussion with the ICC but a willingness to participate in international conferences, to open their pages to minority views and make an analysis of their own history) is a striking proof of the fact that in this period, it is impos­sible for revolutionaries to retreat into isolation and avoid the question of regroupment.

The Aberdeen/Edinburgh text goes more deeply into the contradictions in the CWO’s present orientation, and into an evaluation of its present and future perspectives, so we won’t dwell on this here. We will concentrate on the CWO’s general criticisms of the ICC. Although we cannot answer any of them in detail here, we can at least make a few observations which will define those areas which require further discussion and clari­fication. Taken in itself the CWO’s text demonstrates that the group still suffers from the same misconceptions and confusions which we examined in previous articles, that it still has a marked tendency to present an entirely distorted picture of the ICC’s positions; but the healthy aspect of this text is that it can and should serve as a stimulus to further public discussion between our organizations.

We will now deal with the specific areas of criticism the CWO puts forward.

1. Economics

The most significant point to be made here is that for the CWO, ‘economics’ is used as a cover for its sectarianism. This applies both to the way the CWO approaches the prob­lem of the economic foundations of capita­list decadence, and to the way they apply economics to their general political pers­pective. With regard to this first aspect, we can only reject the CWO’s assertion that our analysis of decadence, which draws a great deal from Rosa Luxemburg’s crisis theory, is “at variance with that presented by Marx in Capital”.

According to the CWO, Marx’s writings on the falling rate of profit are quite sufficient to explain the historic crisis of capitalism, and there is little further discussion to be had. As with many other questions, the CWO already holds the completed communist world-view. So anxious are they to avoid considering that there might be other sides to the problem, that they have begun to imply that the problem of saturated markets and overproduction has nothing to do with Marx but is an invention of Sismondi and Malthus, subsequently taken up by Luxemburg and the ICC (see the article on credit in Revolutionary Perspectives, no.8). Luxem­burg’s preoccupation with the problem of over-production is a variant of non-marxist ‘under-consumptionism’ (see RP, no.6). But if we go back to Marx and Engels we see that they considered the problem of over­production to be absolutely crucial in understanding capitalist crises. In Anti-­Duhring Engels insisted on the importance of seeing over-production as a fundamental, distinctive feature of the capitalist mode of production, at the same time castigating Duhring for confusing under-consumption with over-production:

Therefore, while under-consumption has been a constant feature in history for thousands of years, the general shrinkage of the market which breaks out in crises as the result of a surplus of production is a phenomenon only of the last fifty years; and so Herr Duhring’s whole superficial vulgar economics is necessary in order to explain the new collision not by the new phenomenon of over­production but by the thousand-year-old phenomenon of under-consumption.”

Similarly, in Theories of Surplus Value, Marx attacks Say and Ricardo precisely for asserting that while there can be over­production of capital, over-production of commodities and a general glut of the mar­ket are not inherent tendencies in the capitalist process of accumulation.

Over-production is specifically condi­tioned by the general law of the produc­tion of capital: to produce to the limit set by the productive forces, that is to say, to exploit the maximum amount of labor with the given amount of capital, without any consideration to the actual limits of the market or the needs backed by the ability to pay; and this is car­ried out through continuous expansion of reproduction and accumulation, and there­fore constant reconversion of revenue into capital, while on the other hand, the mass of producers remain tied to the average level of needs, and must remain tied to it according to the nature of capitalist production.” (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part 2)

To develop these points adequately, the ICC plans to contribute further texts, including a reply to the CWO’s critique of Luxemburg’s crisis theory, which the CWO have frater­nally offered to publish in Revolutionary Perspectives. But for the moment it suff­ices to say that the ICC does not think that the CWO can make a constructive contribution to the debate on decadence if they continue to make inflated claims to defending the totality of marxist orthodoxy on the subject, while at the same time closing their eyes to a vital strand in the thought of Marx and Engels themselves.

Because Marx located two fundamental contra­dictions in capitalist accumulation -- the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and the problem of realizing surplus value -- there are broadly speaking two theories of crisis that fall within the marxist frame­work: the one defended by Grossman, Mattick and the CWO which emphasizes the falling rate of profit; and the theory of Luxemburg which stresses the problem of the market. The ICC considers that the analysis elabora­ted by Luxemburg can more coherently explain the historical crisis of decadent capitalism and makes it possible to see how these two fundamental contradictions operate as aspects of a totality, although we don’t think that either Luxemburg or the ICC have provided any final answers. We think that this is a debate which must go on within the revolutionary movement today, and does not constitute a barrier to regroupment, parti­cularly because it is a problem for which there are no immediate answers.

The present class struggle also does not shed any direct light onto this problem, which is still one of the most complex theoretical questions facing revolutionaries. Confronting the reality of the crisis, the proletarian movement is forced to understand the inner dynamics of crisis-ridden capita­lism. But a firm political orientation based on the decadence of the system is the pre-condition for deepening this question in the practice of the workers’ movement. And it is here where the movement can stray from its path into either academicism and sectarianism or a crude immediatist activism, which treats theoretical questions as gospel affirmations, useless for ‘practice’. The ICC firmly believes that the question of economics is a crucial one for the proleta­riat, but that this question can only gain its relevance within the context of a cohe­rent international intervention, based on the regroupment of revolutionary forces.

At the same time, we have never said that there are no political consequences to be drawn from the different theories. In June 1974 when we debated this question with Revolutionary Perspectives (the precursor of the CWO) we presented what we felt to be the weaknesses of the Grossman/Mattick theory as an explanation for decadence, and the political implications of those weaknes­ses. At the same time we encouraged RP to try to demonstrate that the concept of deca­dence and the political conclusions which flow from it were not incompatible with the Grossman/Mattick theory.

There was no contradiction in what we said then, because while we think that different approaches to explaining the crisis do have political consequences, these consequences are rarely direct and never mechanical. Since marxism is a critique of political economy from the partisan standpoint of the working class, political clarity derives first and foremost from an ability to assimilate the lessons of working class experience. In the final analysis, an understanding of ‘economics’ comes from evolving a proletarian perspective and not the other way round. Marx was able to write Capital not because he was a clever man but because he was a communist, a pro­duct of the proletarian movement, of prole­tarian class consciousness which is alone able to grasp the historical finiteness of the capitalist mode of production. Unques­tionably a clearer understanding of the eco­nomic processes of capital is vital to an overall political clarity, but we reject the CWO’s sterile attempt to derive virtually all political positions from whether or not one holds the ‘falling rate of profit’ anal­ysis of the crisis. Thus in their text presented to the recent Milan conference and this most recent text, we find that everything from the ICC's ‘voluntarism’ and ‘organizational fetishism’, an alleged preoccupation with intervening at leftist meetings, our mistakes on the period of transition, etc, etc, can be directly traced to our ‘Luxemburgism’. This way of critici­zing political positions is based on a com­pletely false conception of where political understanding derives from which is the experience of the class and not the abstract contemplation of economics. It does not explain how groups (for example, the ICC and the PIC (Pour Une Intervention Communiste)) have similar economic analyses and widely differing political perspectives, and vice versa. It is ironic that the CWO should try to use a similar methodology as that of Bukharin in 1924-5, who attacked Luxemburg’s economic theories in order to liquidate the ‘virus of Luxemburgism’ from the Communist International, and to show how Luxemburg’s economic views led to ‘erroneous’ political positions, such as the rejection of national liberation struggles, the under-estimation of the peasantry, and by, implication, the denial of the possibility of ‘socialism in one country’ defended by Stalin!

2. The degeneration of the Russian Revolution

The CWO has failed to grasp the point of the ICC’s discussion on how to evaluate the degeneration of proletarian political groups. According to them, the ICC has evolved a ‘new line’, which is really noth­ing more than an attempt to strengthen our recruiting drive in the swamps of leftism. In fact the discussion that culminated in the ‘Resolution on Proletarian Political Groups’ at our Second Congress (see Inter­national Review, no.11) did not give rise to a new line, but to the clarification of a practice which was only implicit before­hand. The CWO has misunderstood the motive behind the debate and the methodology applied in it. Because we say that only crucial events like wars and revolutions can finally resolve the question of the class nature of former proletarian bodies, the CWO accuses us of ‘excusing’ Kronstadt and entertaining the idea that perhaps the Russian state had something proletarian about it until World War II. A cursory read­ing of any of the ICC texts can dispel these assertions. What we have been trying to get at is the complex and often painful way in which the workers’ movement has assimilated new lessons, like how the revolution in Russia was lost. The inevit­able lag between reality and consciousness meant that revolutionaries only became fully aware of the capitalist nature of the Rus­sian state and economy well after the prole­tariat had lost political power and the bourgeois counter-revolution had completely triumphed. This is why we insist that only major events in history -- even when ‘symbo­lic’ like voting for war credits or decla­ring for ‘socialism in one country’ -- can make it clear to revolutionaries at the time that former proletarian organs have definitely passed over to the enemy camp. It is important to see the difference bet­ween what can be understood from hindsight and what could be understood by revolutio­naries in the past. For example, Russia didn’t suddenly become an imperialist power in 1940; today it is possible to trace the imperialist tendencies of the Russian state back to 1921-2. The point is however that for revolutionaries of the thirties and forties, what had been a matter for polemic and debate within the workers’ movement, was decisively settled by events like Russia’s entry into World War II. These events showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Russia was integrated into the imper­ialist world system, and that any defense of Russia meant participation in imperialist war, the abandonment of internationalism. With the Trotskyists and their defense of the ‘degenerated workers' state’, what had been a grave theoretical confusion culminated in the final crossing of class lines.

Why is it important to make the distinction between a grave confusion that can lead to the desertion of the proletarian camp, and the actual and definitive crossing of the class frontier? Why is it important to use extremely strict criteria for declaring the death of a proletarian organization? It is because any precipitous judgments mitigate against the possibility of convincing con­fused revolutionaries of the error of their ways; it means abandoning them to the bour­geoisie without a fight. This is a lesson which the CWO badly needs to learn. Accord­ing to them, the ICC is counter-revolutionary today because its confusions on the period of transition will lead it to act against the class tomorrow. Assuming for the sake of argument that the ICC does have serious confusions on this question, surely the task of any communist group would not be to write us off as hopeless counter-revolutionaries, but to try to fight against our errors in the hope that they won’t lead us into the capitalist camp in the future. Or does the CWO possess the foreknowledge which would make this effort a waste of time? In any case we hope that the CWO’s present resump­tion of discussion indicates a re-evaluation of its sense of responsibilities in this sphere.

3. The state

We will not take up the CWO’s assertions that “the ICC is guilty of a-historical moralizing on the issue of the state”. This accusation has been dealt with in the article ‘State and Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ in the International Review, no.11. We simply want to point out a glaring inconsistency in the CWO’s approach to this question. On the one hand they say that “the idea of a ‘state’ outside the workers’ councils is a reactionary anathema”, that is, that the state is the workers’ councils and nothing but. On the other hand they boldly affirm that “Sovnarkom, Vesenkha, the Red Army and the Cheka were class organs of the Russian workers’ state”. Either one thing or the other. The council communists were at least consistent on this. For them, the only proletarian organs in the Russian Revolution were the workers’ councils, the factory committees and the Red Guards; the Red Army, the Cheka, etc, were bourgeois institutions of the Bolshevik bureaucrats. The CWO, on the other hand, wants to advo­cate a state that is nothing but the workers’ councils, yet is quite prepared to call the Soviet State of 1917-21 a workers’ state.

But the Soviet State was emphatically made up not only of the workers’ councils, but also of non-proletarian assemblies like pea­sants and soldiers soviets, as well as administrative organs (Vesenkha, etc) and repressive organs (the Cheka, the Red Army) which were manifestly distinct from the workers’ councils. In fact the whole drama of the Russian Revolution and its inner demise was expressed by the progressive absorption of the workers’ councils by these state bodies. Here the CWO is still silent on the question posed in IR no.10: should the workers in their factory commit­tees and workers’ councils accept labor discipline from the various ‘necessarily evil’ state institutions set up to preserve social order in the post-revolutionary phase, or must the workers’ councils ensure a vigilant control over all these bodies?

The fundamental contribution of the Italian Left to deepening the marxist analysis of the state was to show how Marx and Engels’ intu­itions about the state being a ‘scourge’ were confirmed by the practical experience of the Russian Revolution. Thus Octobre wrote in 1938 that:

... the state, even with the adjective ‘proletarian’ attached to it, remains an organ of coercion, and in sharp and perm­anent opposition to the realization of the communist programme. In this sense it is an expression of the capitalist danger throughout the development of the transition period ... the state, far from being an expression of the proletariat, is a permanent antithesis of the class ... there is an opposition between the dictatorship of the proletarian state and the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

As can be seen from the texts in IR, no.11, there is a discussion within the ICC today on questions such as whether the state in the transition period should indeed be cal­led a proletarian state, but it is clear that both the Resolutions presented to the Second Congress of the ICC have assimilated this crucial understanding, developed by the Italian Left, about the negative feat­ures of the transitional state. This is something which will prove to be a life or death question in the revolutionary period ahead, but it has not even been glimpsed by the CWO. Before declaiming about the ‘errors’ of the Italian Left on this ques­tion, we would ask the CWO to seriously reflect on the contribution made by frac­tions like Bilan, Octobre, and Internation­alisme, to the movement’s present under­standing of the state.

4. The Party

In IR, no.10 we asserted that the CWO had not grasped the lessons on state or party afforded by the Russian experience. The latest CWO text has the merit of stating very clearly what before had only been implicit in their writings: that the role of the communist party is to take and hold state power. While we profoundly disagree with this idea, we welcome the fact that the debate can now proceed on an unambiguous basis. In numerous texts we have tried to show why the assumption of state power by the Bolshevik Party was a determining factor in the degeneration of the party and the revolution as a whole, and why it is not the task of the political organization of the class to take power. The CWO, unable to understand any of this, thinks that for the ICC “the revolution could succeed when the majority of the class is not conscious of the need for communism”. Their position on the party reveals a deep misunderstanding of the way consciousness develops in the class. Not only do they hold to a parlia­mentary conception that communist conscious­ness can be measured by the willingness of the workers to vote for a party to run the state; they are also moving very close to the classical Leninist position that the workers’ councils are mere ‘forms’ in which the amorphous mass of the class is organized, and into which the party -- which is the communist consciousness of the class -- has the task of injecting a communist content. The CWO doesn’t see that class consciousness -- and thus communist consciousness -- deve­lops in the whole class and that the coun­cils are also an aspect of the development of communist consciousness. The party is the most conscious fraction of the class, it is an indispensable weapon in the gene­ralization of revolutionary consciousness, but it, clarity is always relative and it can never represent the totality of class consciousness. Once again the CWO emit have it both ways. On the one hand they correctly assert that a minority cannot substitute for the class in the taking of power, on the other hand they call on the workers to delegate state power to the party. But as the Russian Revolution showed, from the conception that the party repre­sents the class in power, to the party actually substituting itself for the class, there is only a thin line. And one sure sign of revolutionary consciousness develop­ing in the class tomorrow will be its refusal to invest political power, which it alone can wield, in the hands of a minority.

The CWO’s movement towards the idea that the party ‘holds’ or ‘represents’ the tota­lity of communist consciousness is also consistent with the idea that they themselves represent the entire communist movement today, that they possess the only communist platform in the world. The tragic conse­quences of this sectarian theory are well documented in the Aberdeen/Edinburgh text.

5. Theory

We have often pointed out that, given the slow and uneven development of the crisis and the class struggle today, the twin dan­gers facing revolutionary groups in this period are immediatism -- a tendency to over­estimate every partial struggle of the class -- and academicism -- a tendency to respond to inevitable lulls in the class struggle by retreating into ‘research’ for its own sake. The latter seems to be the danger confronting the CWO today. The CWO’s claim that the ICC is sliding towards a “journal­istic” approach to theoretical questions, towards “a running down of the need for historical and theoretical reflection” (Revolutionary Perspectives, no.8) is com­pletely false. We do not claim to have exhausted all areas of research -- in fact many have hardly begun, which is not very surprising given the extreme youth of the ICC and the revolutionary movement as a whole. But the CWO’s claim that we have lost interest in theoretical clarification simply does not stand up to an examination of the effort expressed by our publications over the last two years. Rather it is the reflection of the CWO’s own retreat into a self-appointed role as the sole guardians of communist theory, and in particular, as the ‘political economists’ of the revolutionary movement. The CWO has begun to jus­tify this stance -- and to explain its own inner decomposition -- by over-reaction to the relative slowness of the crisis and the lull in the class struggle after 1974 (a lull which has been limited mainly to the advanced countries). For them this means that both regroupment and intervention in the class struggle are extremely distant prospects for revolutionaries. But by ma­king a rigid separation between today and tomorrow -- almost as if we were living in a period of counter-revolution right now -- the CWO is ensuring that it will be organi­zationally and politically unprepared for the massive shocks and class conflicts which are maturing everywhere today. The need to achieve an active continuity between theoretical reflection, organizational consolidation and intervention in the class movement, is more than ever the task of the hour. This is the task the ICC has set itself, and a task that the CWO shows itself more and more incapable of achieving.

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The CWO claims that the ICC is “caught in a cleft stick” by saying on the one hand that the ICC and the CWO share the same class positions and should work towards regroup­ment, while on the other hand pointing out their confusions. For us there is no contradiction here. We insist on the need for all communist groups to discuss with each other and work towards regroupment. But this does not mean hiding differences and engaging in premature fusions (in the manner of Revolutionary Perspectives and Workers’ Voice, as the Aberdeen/Edinburgh text explains). It means debating all differences to the full, in order to see which ones can be accommodated within a sin­gle organization, and which are more serious obstacles to regroupment. At the same time, regroupment can’t be based only on agree­ment on class positions. It also demands a common perspective for activity, a fraternal will to clarify and work together, a pro­found conviction of the need for unity in the revolutionary movement. The ICC directs its discussions on regroupment with the Aberdeen/Edinburgh comrades with this point clearly in mind. And, we hope, the time will come when we can again embark upon a similar process with the comrades of the CWO. Our only future is a common future.

ICC