On the National Question: Reply to Solidarity

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The following text ‘Third Worldism and Cardanism’ was originally written for publi­cation in the Scandinavian revolutionary milieu. Comrades in Oslo had informed us of their intention to publish the Solidarity text ‘Third Worldism or Socialism’ and had asked us to write a critique of the text which would be published along with it. As far as we know, the Oslo comrades’ project has not reached fruition, but we still think that it is worthwhile to publish the text in our Review. The revolutionary elements in Scandinavia -- like other newly emerging currents in America, India, or Hong Kong -- have been strongly influenced by the coun­cilist and libertarian ideas which the British group Solidarity typifies. The issues dealt with in this critique -- the meaning of capitalist decadence, the func­tion of ‘national liberation struggles’, the class nature of the Russian Revolution -- are all questions which today’s young revo­lutionary tendencies find particularly hard to comprehend, cut off as they are from the theoretical advances already made by the communist fractions of the past. Again and again the same questions are posed, by com­rades who know nothing of the existence of others who have posed exactly the same questions. “True Cuba or China is capita­list -- but surely there is something progres­sive in the economic development that has taken place in these countries?” Or else “Russia is capitalist today -- surely this means that 1917 was a bourgeois revolution?” And although these questions often form part of a process leading towards clarifica­tion, this process often gets blocked by the intervention of more established political currents who eagerly seek to incorporate these confused questions into a more elabo­rate -- and even more confused -- theoretical framework. Such is the role of Solidarity with its theory of the ‘new bureaucratic capitalism’, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, of the Bordigists with their fantasies about the ‘young capitalisms’ of the third world, and the ‘double revolution’ (ie bourgeois and proletarian) of October 1917. In this text we are confronting these theoretical aberrations with the clear, historical, universal vision defended by Luxemburg at the time of World War I, or by Bilan during the 1930s: that in the epoch of capitalism’s decay there can be no more bourgeois revolutions anywhere in the world; that the proletarian revolution is on the historical agenda in all countries.

The text deals briefly with the origins of Solidarity and of Cardan’s ideas, which are typified in works like Modern Capitalism and Revolution and The Crisis of Modern Society. Beginning as a positive break from Trotskyism, both Solidarity and Cardan’s group Socialisme ou Barbarie, burdened still with many conceptions inherited from Trot­skyism, have been unable to withstand the test of time and events. Socialisme ou Barbarie had the good sense to disappear before the re-emergence of the world capita­list crisis could expose its theory of a ‘crisis-free’ capitalism for the empirical and impressionistic contrivance it always was, and before the group had completely abandoned any pretense of defending a class outlook on the world. But Solidarity’s continued existence in today’s period has simply highlighted the contradictions and absurdities of the group’s ideas. Written before Solidarity’s fusion with another libertarian group (Social Revolution, a split from the fossilized Socialist Party of Great Britain), our text already points out a tendency in Solidarity which seems to have accelerated since the fusion: the progressive abandonment of class politics and the adoption of the standpoint of the ‘autonomous individual’. And as our article ‘Solidarity/Social Revolution: A Marriage of Confusion’ (in World Revolution, no.19) explains, this move towards individualism and the politics of alternative life styles is accompanied by a rapid evolution towards the positions of leftism pure and simple on crucial questions like the unions and anti-fascism. Theoretical incoherence always leads towards opportunism in practice, towards the betrayal of fundamental principles.

In publishing this text we hope to make a contribution to the theoretical and politi­cal evolution of the revolutionary currents which are now springing up from California to Bombay, from Oslo to Hong Kong. In contrast to Socialisme ou Barbarie and Solidarity, the majority of these currents has not come out of the counter-revolutio­nary swamp of Trotskyism and has arisen in period which is far more favorable to the development of communist groups than were the somber years of the 1950s and early 1960s. Thus there is every hope that they can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past -- and, in doing so, become part of the revolutionary future.

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A critique of Solidarity’s views on the ‘third world’ and the Russian revolution

The Solidarity pamphlet Ceylon: the JVP Uprising of Apri 1971, contains an appendix entitled ‘Third Worldism or Socialism?’, which has also appeared in Solidarity’s Vietnam: Whose Victory? pamphlet. Solidar­ity’s views on so-called national liberation struggles appear in that appendix in what is perhaps their most coherent treatment. The appendix also contains some brief comments on the Russian Revolution. We will attempt to deal here with Solidarity’s opinions on these two vitally important issues in the hope that this will stimulate further discus­sion in the revolutionary movement today.

I. The question of ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in the backward areas of world capitalism

The appendix states that “any bureaucracy, given favorable conditions can ‘solve’ the bourgeois tasks in the Third World.” It also points to the “new ruling classes in the process of formation” in the Third World which have set in motion the drive towards the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital within their own national frontiers. These “belated bourgeois revolutions” Soli­darity also contends, allow for “higher consumption levels and welfare programs” for the masses.

In 1919 the Communist International asserted that capitalism had entered into its epoch of decadence, the era of world proletarian revolution or inter-imperialist war. But for Solidarity this is the epoch of ‘modern capitalism’ where everything is possible including “belated bourgeois revolutions” and endless economic progress for capitalism as a whole. The International Communist Current upholds the orientation of the IIIrd International today1. In the light of the last fifty years of counter-revolution and inter-imperialist war, it should be plain that internationally the capitalist class became a completely reactionary class as the period of capitalist decadence came into being with World War I. The epoch of bourgeois revolutions, the epoch of the ascendancy of capitalism as a progressive system of human reproduction, ends with the first imperialist war. Wars of ‘national liberation’ in this century have therefore become the arenas of world imperialist confrontation, testing-grounds for further global imperialist war, and the open grave for countless workers and peasants. Today, bourgeois revolutions are impossible. Only the communist revolution can lift humanity to an era of new progress and development.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the bourgeois revolution was an historical possibility. Such revolutions, as Marx was able to see, were progressive political movements helping to unleash the enormous productive forces of ascendant capitalism. These revolutions irresistibly tore asunder old pre-capitalist and feudal fetters on social progress. From local, regional, and national markets, the bourgeoisie expanded its system in leaps and bounds to create the world market and the world proletariat. Indeed, the most progressive function fulfilled by the young bourgeois order was its creation and consolidation of the world market. But by 1914 this market had become saturated in relation to the growing produc­tive capacity of the global system. From then on the system entered its age of decline, a period of permanent crisis and cyclical imperialist war, a period characterized by the unceasing growth of waste production and preparations for further war.

It is also wrong to talk of ‘primitive accumulation’ in the backward areas of capi­talism today. Such a stage in the develop­ment of capitalism was a progressive moment in the destruction of feudalism and the creation of the proletariat on a world scale. Primitive accumulation is thus a historical component of ascendant capitalism. It can­not take place again during the epoch of capitalism’s decadence. It is nonsense to speak of imperialism and primitive accumu­lation taking place at one and the same time in a system which has created a global capi­talist market. The objective conditions for socialism not only exist already on a world scale, but they have been in existence for over fifty years. Only the defeat of the proletarian wave of struggle of 1917-23 allowed for the bestial counter-revolution of Stalinism and its many other state capi­talist variants such as Maoism and Castroism. These counter-revolutionary movements did not unleash the productive forces nationally or internationally. They did not open up new horizons for humanity as the American and French Revolutions of 1776 and 1789, or even the European Revolutions of 1848 did. Rather they have appeared as expressions of the victory of the counter-revolution over the proletariat. Stalin’s Five-Year Plans and Mao’s collectivizations were not historically progressive; they were inevit­able once the proletarian alternative to decadent capitalism -- world revolution -- was crushed by the bourgeoisie including its left-wing forces, the Stalinists. Only the proletarian revolution is progressive for humanity today. Any other ‘revolution’ is basically the convulsion of a faction of the bourgeoisie reacting to the crisis, imperia­list war, and the reed to statify the economy. And since the entire world economy is bound today within completely putrid relations of production, any statification of the national economy (or what Solidarity calls ‘primitive accumulation’) is simply the strengthening of such outmoded relations of production at a national level. For all these reasons, the Weimar Republic, for example, was not the ‘belated’ German bourgeois revolution. On the contrary, it represented the destruc­tion of the proletarian revolution in Germany, the massacre of more than 20,000 proletarian militants in the period between 1918 and 1919. The victory of the world counter­revolution can never be confused by revolu­tionaries with a period, gone forever, in the ascendancy of capitalism.

Despite the banalities of economic ‘experts’, material progress is not measured by increa­ses in output, by the creation of more fac­tories, full employment nor even by an apparent growth in the size or education of the working class. Today, such technocratic myths serve only to hide the gangrenous bloating of the waste-production sector. In other words, the development of the means of destruction doesn’t increase the amount of use values which can be productively consumed in the process of capitalist accumulation. For global capital, including the backward sectors of the world economy, waste production and military expenditure constitutes a sterilization of surplus value. A brief examination of the ‘economic pro­gress’ achieved by Solidarity’s ‘belated bourgeois revolutions’ will show that there has been no such material progress in those countries. Economic decay has continued in such places and if anything the contradic­tions in their societies have become more brutal, more intolerable. China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc have huge state expenditures geared towards waste production and a war economy; China spends more than 30 per cent of its national produce in armaments. These countries cannot escape the laws of the sys­tem anymore than a European country or Russia and America can. Everywhere the proletariat faces austerity, hidden or open unemployment, increased exploitation, greater police repres­sion, inflation and savage wage cuts. Every­where the proletariat is being forced to obey the dictates of a system veering more and more towards imperialist war, towards full-blown barbarism. So much for Solida­rity’s ‘higher consumption levels’ and ‘welfare programs’.

The Ist International could support Lincoln in the North’s struggle against the slave-holding South during the American Civil War; similarly the workers’ movement of the last century supported Elements of the ‘Jacobin’ petty bourgeoisie in Italy, Poland and Ireland in their struggles against feudalism and absolutist reaction. Why was this the case? The reason is completely overlooked by Solidarity in its appendix. At that time, the proletariat was still struggling within the social context of an economically progressive system. As such the working class could support specific capitalist tendencies without losing its own class autonomy. Capital as a whole was not pitted solely against the proletariat. The struggle against feudalism waged by the bourgeoisie and supported by the proletariat liberated capitalist relations of production and in so doing strengthened the proletariat in preparation for its own revolution in the future when capitalism had outlived its historically progressive role. In present-day conditions, this strategy only leads the working class to massacre, since the bourgeoisie everywhere is pitted foremost against the proletariat. Capitalism is a world system today. Feudalism was vanqui­shed by the rise of capitalism in its ascen­dant period. In an epoch of world imperia­lism there can be no bourgeois revolution against feudalism. National liberation in the Third World today does not signify the struggle of rising capitalism against pre-capitalist or feudal modes of production, but inter-imperialist struggle waged at the level of a particular national capital. To claim, as Solidarity does, that ‘bourgeois revolution’ can happen today but that the proletariat should not support the bourgeoi­sie in its ‘struggle’ is totally absurd. When bourgeois revolutions against feudalism were possible, the proletariat could and did support them. Today, the reason why the proletariat cannot support any faction of the bourgeoisie is because capitalism has completed its historic mission. What’s on the historic agenda now is the communist revolution.

However, since Solidarity argues that ‘bourgeois revolutions’ are possible today in underdeveloped countries, what is the basis of its opposition to the regimes which emerge from such ‘revolutions’? After all Solidarity agrees with the claims made by these governments that economic development has taken place as a result of the ‘revolu­tion’. Solidarity is even willing to flatter such governments by calling them ‘Jacobin’ or bourgeois revolutionaries. But by forsaking a materialist analysis of the develop­ment historically of capitalism, Solidarity is left only with moralism when it sets about to oppose such regimes. Its opposition is purely idealist and utopian. Hence Solidarity pours scorn on the ‘belated bour­geois revolutionaries’ when it writes about Ceylon or Vietnam or China, while at the same time admitting that they are fulfilling a progressive and inevitable historical task in developing further the productive forces of capitalism. But if this were true, then there would be nothing ‘belated’ about the rise of Mao, Castro, or Allende. In fact their rise would be quite timely for capital. Furthermore, this whole epoch could justi­fiably be characterized as one of the ‘per­manent bourgeois revolution’, promising an eternal development of capitalist society until such time as the last Patagonian vill­age engages in ‘expanded reproduction’, having finished its ‘own’ primitive accumulation.

In Solidarity’s view there is therefore a strange separation between economic reality and class struggle. For Marxists, capita­lism must become a decadent social system before the world proletariat can struggle directly for communism. If capitalism can continue to develop economically, if ‘bela­ted bourgeois revolutions’ can occur today, then the communist revolution is not only objectively impossible but subjectively impossible in the minds of the whole prole­tariat, until such time as capital ended this progressive evolution. But for Solidarity it is quite irrelevant whether or not capitalism is or is not decadent as a system of economic reproduction. The sub­jective awareness of the ‘order-takers’ is all that is important. If the ‘order-takers’ want revolution, then revolution there will be even if that means that the proletarian revolution is taking place simultaneously with the bourgeois revolution in some other part of the globe! If they were logical, then Solidarity should take up the position that proletarian revolution was possible anytime, even in the nineteenth century. If the objective conditions of capitalist decadence today do not matter then why should the objective conditions of capitalist development in its ascendant phase matter either?

In the eyes of the Marxist movement, however, the proletarian revolution obeys historical necessity. The proletarian revolution is on the historical agenda only when capita­lism world-wide has entered into its era of decline and decay.

In Solidarity’s view, capitalism has a comp­letely autonomous political superstructure independent of its economic foundations. Cuba, China, Russia, have all developed ‘economically’ but ‘politically’ the reper­cussions of these ‘belated bourgeois revo­lutions’ are considered negative and reactionary. But the truth is that there’s a real interconnection between the economic decay of the world capitalist system and its political decay. The ‘economic progress’ of the many ‘liberated’ backward countries like China, North Korea or Vietnam impresses scribes like Myrdal and Cajo Brendel, but revolutionaries must understand the real content of such ‘progress’. We have already mentioned the chronic waste production of these economies, and the fact that they are police states. The need of the bourgeoisie in this epoch, especially in these regimes, to brutally repress the proletariat expres­ses the deep weaknesses of such regimes, both on the economic and political level. Such regimes have to compete militarily in order to survive on the world market. With the exception of Russia (itself a dominant imperialist power, if weaker than the US), such regimes can have only a fragile and precarious existence, bandied from one imperialist bloc to the other. It is com­pletely impossible for these regimes to gain any national independence. Whenever such areas have been used as arenas of inter-imperialist struggle (as in ‘heroic’ Vietnam), they have only served to strengthen the imperialist might of one or other of the two imperialist blocs. National liberation struggles (sic) never ‘weaken’ imperialism as the leftists (and Solidarity in its Vietnam pamphlet) claim. The American bourgeoisie is as secure an imperialist power today as it was prior to the Vietnam War. It is equally absurd to talk about the ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in the Third World developing the productive forces pro­gressively in such countries. None of these ‘liberated’ national capitals have reached even near the level of labor productivity of the advanced countries. Instead of the arbitrary and local comparisons that the apologists for such regimes go in for, a real comparison would be between the economic productivity of the advanced countries in relation to that achieved by the ‘national liberation’ regimes today. Rather than mea­suring Mao’s China up against the Kuomin­tang’s, a real comparison would be to mea­sure it up against the economic levels of the advanced sectors of capitalism. The constrictions of the capitalist relations of production on the advanced western econo­mies (with their 22 million unemployed, idle plant and raging inflation) is the same restriction which is strangling the Chinese economy today. It is the very fetter which will keep the productivity of labor extremely low in China in comparison to the developed countries, just as Stali­nist Russia has never managed in the last fifty years to reach the level of labor productivity of the advanced capitalist countries in the west. From this concrete standpoint, one sees that the gap between the more developed sectors and the backward ones of world capital increases inexorably every year, on a geometric scale. And the advanced countries faced with the decadence of the whole system, head toward another global imperialist war, and drag all the ‘liberated’ nations with them, towards barbarism.

The question of the backward areas of capi­talism can only be posed on the global scale. Solidarity, like the Mensheviks and similar Social Democratic tendencies before it, bases its whole perspective on the iso­lated example of a national economy. Accor­ding to Luxemburg’s analysis made at the beginnings of this epoch, the future of the backward areas of capitalism was insolubly linked to the decadence of the whole system. Today, after two world wars, after the establishment of a permanent war economy, after more than fifty years of protracted economic and social decay in the wake of a defeated international revolution, it is impossible to take seriously the bizarre fantasies of Paul Cardan and his ‘Modern Capitalism’, the proclamation of the eternal development of capitalism. For the prole­tariat the question of whether the system is ascendant or decadent has been forever answered by the barbaric cycles of crises-wars and reconstructions of this century. And as the international proletariat re­emerges into the political arena, after having suffered the worst counter-revolutio­nary period in its history, only the blind will continue to speak of the ‘belated bourgeois revolution’ when faced with the first stirrings of the second revolutionary wave of this century.

II. The Russian Revolution

The other main confusion within the appendix published by Solidarity lies in the remarks the group makes about the Russian Revolution. These remarks reveal Solidarity’s profound confusions about this vital episode in the history of the workers’ movement. We read: “ ... the ‘permanent revolution’ in Russia ... both began and ended as a bourgeois revolution (in spite of the proletariat’s alleged ‘leading role’ in the unfolding of the process).” Amazingly, this old Menshe­vik confusion is presented by Solidarity as a great discovery. But unfortunately for Solidarity, this great ‘innovation’ had no basis in reality when the Mensheviks first said it, and neither has it today.

Many anarchist tendencies, along with the Social Democrats, have rejected the Russian Revolution. This is not surprising in view of their rejection of Marxism. Indeed, in the case of Solidarity, although it never had defended Marxism, it felt nevertheless obliged to reject the experience of the proletariat’s October Revolution in order to join in the libertarian chorus. The main litany in this chorus has been the assertion that Stalinism equaled Leninism which equaled Marxism. By means of this formula, the libertarians start with the counter-revolution and equate it with the thought and action of the working class. By looking at the counter-revolution and rejecting what they understand of it, Soli­darity then goes on to reject both the practical experience and theoretical weapon of the class struggle. They reject not only the workers’ experiences in the Russian Revolution, but also the entire revolutio­nary period of struggle between 1917 and 1923: workers’ uprisings, the movement of the workers’ councils, the regroupment of revolutionaries in the IIIrd International and the clarification which came out of its first Congresses, and the understanding which flowed from the struggles waged by the left-wing of the Communist International against its degeneration when the world revolution entered into reflux. Was all this so much adventurism, merely the conse­quence of the Russian ‘bourgeois revolution’ as the Mensheviks proclaimed? Was the Russian ‘bourgeois revolution’ on the hist­orical agenda during this epoch of imperia­list decay, during the epoch of wars and revolutions, during the epoch of the deadly struggle between world capitalism and the international proletariat? Had the revolu­tionaries who regrouped around the cry “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war against capitalism” been misguided utopians or even cunning Machiavellians out to gain power for themselves at the expense of the imper­ialist war effort? Was the entire Russian experiment in the dictatorship of the proletariat -- tentative as it was -- of workers’ councils, and autonomous proletarian activity, simply a delusion, something best forgotten by today’s working class?

Is the final failure of the Russian Revolu­tion identical to the evolution of the proletariat’s consciousness in 1917, when it became conscious of the need to destroy the bourgeois state of Kerensky, an event which made the dictatorship of the proleta­riat a living reality in a revolutionary epoch? That the working class was not able to extend its power internationally is evi­dent. And it is equally evident from any reading of the documents of the early years of the Communist International and the writings of the Russian revolutionaries of that period that it was recognized in the workers’ camp that continued isolation of the Russian Revolution would end in defeat for the proletarian bastion. In a subjec­tive sense, the confusions of the proletariat, reflected in its political minorities inclu­ding the Bolshevik Party, ultimately doomed the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave as a whole to failure. But it seems a sterile hindsight and a curious fatalism to say that both February and October 1917 very concretely doomed the proletarian revolution (in Russia and internationally) from the beginning. And this is what Soli­darity claims in its appendix on the Russian Revolution. One can see death already in a newborn baby, and perhaps on this Kierkegaard is more appealing than Marx. But historical processes depend upon the active and conscious intervention of class forces which cannot be understood like a medieval mystery play. What the proleta­riat lacked in 1917-23 was sufficient exper­ience and clarity as to the needs thrust upon it by the advent of the new epoch. It was being catapulted onto a new historical plane just as it emerged from the carnage of the first imperialist war. It attempted to destroy capitalism, but it failed on that occasion. But no revolutionaries would have asserted at the time that all was lost from the start! Those who claimed then that only a ‘bourgeois revolution’ was on the agenda, like Plekhanov did in Russia and Ebert and Noske did in Germany, either sought to excuse the execution of the revolutionary proletariat or became its butchers themselves.

It is from the experience of the working class in that period with all its negative as well as positive lessons, that revolutio­naries are able to draw fundamental lessons for our class today. For example, the lessons about the reactionary role of the trade unions, of reformism, of parliamenta­rism, frontism, anti-fascism, national liberation struggles etc. Therefore, the Russian Revolution constitutes for revolu­tionaries and for the whole revolutionary class, the most important event of that enormous revolutionary wave which engulfed the capitalist world from 1917 to 1927. To dismiss this experience of the proletariat, as Solidarity so naively does, is indeed to cut oneself off from the history of the proletariat. For us, this would be to deny our very substance as a historic part of the struggle of the working class. For Solida­rity, which more and more claims to repre­sent the viewpoint of the ‘individual’, this heavy historical responsibility towards understanding the experience of the prole­tariat is of less and less interest.

Solidarity will sooner or later reach the end of its long negative evolution and dis­appear as many similar confused groups have. Solidarity’s incoherent positions are a result of their incapacity to break fully with their leftist past. Like the French group Socialisme ou Barbarie, which held similar ideas and dissolved in 1967, Soli­darity came from a split in post-war Trotskyism. Believing themselves to be ‘innova­tors’, these tendencies never attempted to establish a continuity with the traditions and lessons defended by the left communist fractions (Italian, German and Dutch Lefts). Thus they never completely broke with the counter-revolution. They could not see, for example, that their ‘innovations’ were out­worn conceptions or misunderstandings long since refuted by the revolutionary movement. Their whole arrogant outlook was based on a fragmentary, individualist critique of the counter-revolution. Hence Socialisme ou Barbarie could still defend the idea of a Leninist party, and defend national libera­tion struggles and ‘union work’. Gradually anarchist conceptions akin to those of Stirner, of Proudhon, began to permeate their activities. Solidarity and similar groups began to defend what they called ‘self-management’, and more and more it was unclear whether the proletariat was the communist class in our epoch. These confu­sions were rationalized by the strong influ­ence of bourgeois sociology, and soon the ‘innovators’ of Socialisme ou Barbarie and Solidarity began to defend the ideas of renegades like Burnham, Rizzi and other bourgeois academics like Marcuse and Bell who proclaimed that the proletariat was dead, and that the ‘bureaucracy’ was a new social class which disproved Marxism.

Although Solidarity’s initial break with Trotskyism revealed a healthy effort of clarification, it showed also the near impossibility of a healthy development of a whole tendency arising from the capitalist political apparatus. Today, when the prole­tariat is re-emerging on a world-wide scale, the ideas of Solidarity will appear more and more cynical and anachronistic. Side by side with that re-emergence, the present, revolutionary movement will also contribute to the demise of Solidarity’s ideas. Indeed, the present movement is forced to mercilessly criticize all confusions which stem from the counter-revolution. And it is forced to do so by the very demands of the communist revolution, which require the greatest clarity and coherence as a precondition for revolutionary practice. The incapacity to say what is and what is not, the inability to learn lessons from the past, a political spinelessness and impotence, all these are characteristics of a dying political tendency. Solidarity shares all these crippling defects. If the present revolu­tionary movement were to benefit from any lasting contribution by Solidarity, that would be the fast cessation of Solidarity’s sterile existence.

J.McIver

1 See the recent ICC pamphlet Nation or Class? for a comprehensive Marxist analysis of ‘national liberation struggles’.

The author of this critique was a participant to the drafting of Solidarity’s ‘Thirdworldism or Socialism’ many years ago. Today, in the ranks of the International Communist Current, this comrade can appreciate the attraction that Solidarity’s ideas can have in the present revolutionary movement. The hope is therefore not only that a further discussion continues on these topics, but that the new revolutionaries acquire the necessary clarity to confront outworn concepts which can only be obstacles to revolutionary activity. Without that necessary clarity the goal that they defend will never become ‘hard as steel, clear as glass’ (Gorter).