International Correspondence: The ICC’s “left in opposition” perspective, empirio-criticism and the role of revolutionaries
The immaturity of the proletarian political milieu today as shown by its sectarianism and immediatism, especially since the failure of the International Conferences has stood in the way of serious public debate on the main issues of our time. The ICC’s analyses on the perspectives for class struggle in the light of the left moving into opposition and on the role of revolutionaries have not -- side from a few rare exceptions -- encountered much of an echo. Sarcasm and “the silent treatment” have taken the place of a serious and responsible attitude towards the confrontation of political positions. The fact that questions raised in debate have an importance going beyond the existence of any one particular group or organization, that the ideas put forward are not the personal property or the trademark of any one political group but the result of a common effort -- all this is far from being understood. The idea that there is only one political group, “one’s own”, has led to the most frantic and destructive immediatism and has lowered the level of debate and weighed heavily on the development of the whole revolutionary milieu.
However, it is encouraging to see that despite this state of affairs, there are some revolutionaries developing today who realize the need to take positions on major political issues and who consider these positions as “everyone’s business” in the milieu. It is worth noting that the text we are publishing – “The ICC’s Perspectives on the Left in Opposition: Empirio-Criticism and the Role of Revolutionaries” -- was written by a comrade from Hong Kong who left the anarchist group “Minus”; a person geographically isolated from the political milieu in Europe. His contribution to the debate on the left in opposition is concrete proof that this question is not just a hobby-horse of the ICC nor a question limited to only the “western” revolutionary milieu. All fundamental political positions concern the entire proletarian milieu on all 5 continents. These positions express the world proletariat’s effort to arrive at a theoretical and political coherence and thus a unity, going beyond the geographical and political dispersion of revolutionary groups. As the comrade has written, “if the present weak milieu is to move forward it must be equal to the immense tasks facing it in the coming years”.
In this brief introduction we cannot go into all the points raised in this text, for example the criticism directed at the ICC for “a wrong analysis of the course of history”. While agreeing that the bourgeoisie is united against the proletariat (the author of the text calls it a “conspiracy”), he makes a distinction between a bourgeoisie 1 (the managers and “captains of industry”) and a bourgeoisie 11 (the “ideologists”). We do not think this distinction helps clarify things very much.
1. On the historical level, capitalist production relations have created 2 antagonistic classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The rallying of hesitant elements of the petit-bourgeoisie is a function of the social dynamic set up by class struggle. But experience shows that at decisive moments all factions of the bourgeoisie from left to right join together against the proletariat. The comrade seems somewhat in doubt about this; he maintains that political parties today exist to struggle for political power within the state. But in fact historical experience leads us to the opposite conclusion: divisions between the right and left today are only a facade.
2. The division of labor within the bourgeoisie (the various functions carried out in the economic political and ideological apparatus of the bourgeoisie) must not be mistaken for real, fundamental differences in the nature of the bourgeoisie. The existence of complementary factions within the bourgeoisie is not contradictory with its basic unity as a class. These factions have complementary functions which allow them to fulfill all the better their task of mystification in relation to the proletariat.
3. The role of the right is not specifically to prepare for war; the entire bourgeoisie does this including the left whose participation is mainly through pacifist campaigns. The role of the left in the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie is clear to see throughout the sixty year period since the First World War. Its anti-working class role is not for “later on” but for right now in the context of the bourgeoisie’s tactic of putting the left in opposition.
Aside from these few brief remarks, we think this text shows that the comrade is committed to really debating the question of the left in opposition and the machiavellianism of the bourgeoisie “not for the purpose of discrediting other organizations of the milieu but for the purpose of clarification for the whole milieu”. Such a commitment is particularly encouraging.
Letter from L.L.M. (Hong Kong)
Over the past three years or so, the ICC has systematically put forward its ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective which has been severely criticized by many. This short article neither attempts to defend nor to reject it, it merely wishes to discuss some of the questions thrown up by the debate, which seem to have been largely neglected by the revolutionary milieu.
Before going into these questions, I wish to make two general points:
1. In the past, with few exceptions, debates between organizations have rarely been addressed by third parties, ‘it’s their business’ seems to be the general attitude. It is my firm conviction that debates on important issues is not only the business of the parties directly involved, but are the business of the whole milieu. Third parties must be prepared to and should take up positions publicly. This is not a matter of throwing one’s weight behind the party one agrees with (if one does agree with one of the protagonists), nor is it a matter of acting as an arbiter, but a matter of clarification for the whole milieu. If the present weak milieu is to move forward to be equal to the immense tasks facing it in the years ahead, this is one prerequisite. The long-running disputes between the CWO and the ICC, the KPL’s rejection of the concept of decadence, etc, are, for example, issues on which third parties should have spoken extensively. The ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective is another example. Privately I have heard a lot of criticisms of it, but have not read one single detailed critique of it in print (as my only foreign language is English, I may have missed published criticisms in other languages, and there may be some in English that I am unaware of).
2. It has more than once been remarked that the ICC has been degenerating over the past few years, one of the signs of which is whereas previously it offered intelligent analyses, today it more often than not merely regurgitates empty journalistic assertions. I agree there is some justification for the latter accusation. As to the first, if it is meant that the ICC is increasingly compromising on class positions, then I do not agree. If on the other hand, it is meant that the ICC has organizationally degenerated, then I am not in the position to judge. Returning to the latter accusation, I think if it is partly justified, it also misses a very important point. It is easy to write a discourse on, say, Marx’s crisis theory or how and why the Communist International degenerated after its 3rd Congress. But it is extremely difficult and an entirely different matter when it comes to analyzing, say, the current state of the crisis or the current balance of class forces. In the latter type of analyses, because events are only in the process of emerging, because a lot of things are at best only half-known, because we lack the benefit of hindsight,…their very nature is that they can only be based upon scanty evidence, and thus inevitably have a ring of mere assertion about them. If we look at, for example, the International Review, the tasks of its early issues were mainly to reappropriate the lessons of the proletarian struggle since World War 1. In this type of analysis, one is able to amass considerable documentary evidence to support one’s perspective, and even more importantly, one possesses the wisdom of hindsight. But revolutionaries are not intellectuals/academicians. They do not only analyze the past, but must also analyze the present and forecast the future. They do not engage in theoretical elaboration for its own sake, but for the sake of using the theory to analyze the current balance of class forces, the current state of capital’s development; to map out the future of the class struggle; to devise strategy and tactics for the proletariat. Thus, when we criticize the ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective, or the ICC’s analysis of the historic course, we must not fall into the empiricist trap of rejecting them for lack of evidential support (of which more below) but must consider whether they are consistent with the Marxist method; nor must we remain, as does the intellectual/academician, on the ‘pure’ theoretical level (for example, the materialist theory of history versus a ‘conspiratorial’ theory), but must address the questions that they are addressing. This is how I propose to consider the ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective below.
The perspective is basically criticized for being a machiavellian view of the bourgeoisie and a conspiratorial view of history, held on to by the ICC to justify its (wrong) analysis of the historic course, against all evidence to the contrary. At one time I also held a similar view, as evidenced in the following remarks I made to the ICC sometime late last year:
“...this question involves the question of ideology... What is ideology? ... Is it created by ‘professional’ hacks in a conscious deliberate, machiavellian way? ... If Marx himself never made an exposition of the ‘nature’ of ideology, it is nevertheless implicit in at least his mature works. One of the most illustrative is his discourse in Capital III on the ideology of (bourgeois) political economy. To go straight to the point: on the basis that being determines consciousness, it is ‘natural’ that the bourgeoisie, occupying a particular position in the relations of production, thinks such relations from the vantage point of that position. The result is it thinks such relations in particular categories (rent, interest, virtue of abstinence, etc). If we recall Marx in Capital III, it’s obvious that for him, such categories are ‘natural’ for the bourgeois political economist, and there is nothing at all machiavellian about them. On the other hand, it is just as ‘natural’ for the proletariat to be unable to think in (or appropriate) such categories because they occupy a different (in fact, opposing) position in the relations of production. It was ‘natural’ for Marx to think in categories such as surplus value. If we accept the above formulation, then it’s obvious that as far as (bourgeois) ideology is concerned, it does not know the number 1 enemy of the bourgeoisie is the proletariat, for such a knowledge is impossible for it...But for the bourgeoisie who are directly engaged in the ‘management’ of the relations of production (the capitalists the high echelons state bureaucrats, top unionists, etc -- for the sake of presentation, I shall call them bourgeoisie 1), their immediate exposure to the class struggle gives them this knowledge. While they obviously (to various degrees) subscribe to the categories of bourgeois ideology, they know damn well that the existence of what these categories signify depends on the exploitation and suppression of the proletariat. On the other hand, for the sundry ideological hacks of the bourgeoisie (intellectuals, academics, mass media people, Trotskyists, rank and file unionists, etc – let’s call them bourgeoisie 11), this knowledge is absent. There is no doubt in my mind that bourgeoisie 1 are capable of uniting in a subjective conspiratorial way while bourgeoisie 11 only unite with bourgeoisie 1 in the sense that all factions of the bourgeoisie are always united against the proletariat. Personally, I don’t think, for example, that the Trotskyists, rank and file unionists etc ever co-operate with bourgeoisie 1 in a subjective conspiratorial way. It will therefore be fatally incorrect to assert that such conspiracies between bourgeoisies 1 and 11 exist for it flies in the face of the ‘nature’ of ideology. Even with the bourgeoisie 1 we must be very careful not to overexert their capability to subjectively unite against the workers in conspiracies, in case we forget that the fundamental contradictions within bourgeoisie 1 are also insolvable. (... ) One of these fundamental inner contradictions is that between seekers of' political power... As far as I can see, there is no possibility at all that the Left and Right political parties can sit together and work out which faction should form the Government. The grabbing of political power is the raison d’être of' political parties and even if politicians knew that the coming of revolution is going to sound the death knell for all of them, they don’t come together in such negotiations -- to say they are capable of doing so is to give them wisdom they are incapable of having. Of course, political parties often make tactical decisions as when to ‘go to the country’, to provoke crises for the government, etc. But these are of an entirely different nature. Such decisions are made for the purpose of grabbing power. The kind of negotiations that we are talking about here entails the decision on the part of some parties to relinquish power when it already has it or give up the search for it when it has the chance to get hold of it -- both occasions being antithetical to their raison d’être. My own interpretation of the Left (being) in opposition is as follows (...): it is not that the Left must stay in opposition today because to go in power, they will lose all credibility. This view represents a half-truth for it doesn’t follow through to the logical conclusion. Even if the left loses credibility.... by going into power, it doesn’t mean that the bourgeoisie will be at their wits’ end in terms of' political ideology. For to the left of the ‘established’ left, they still have the Trotskyists, etc. If the ‘established’ left does lose credibility by going into power, their ultra-lefts will surely take their place today. There will then not be a rightward split of Labor, but instead a leftward split (...). The Left is forced into opposition because the economic policies that they traditionally embody (Keynesianism) have now been proved to be ineffective...Ask the man in the street today what’s preventing the economic recovery, he’ll tell you it’s the high interest rates. For quite some time now, because of the failure of Keynesian economics, the ideological hacks of the bourgeoisie have been vigorously propagandizing the ideology that a return to (Adam) Smithian economics will do the job. With the sophistication of the mass media… the climate has been created that suddenly everybody is turned into an economist and ‘believes’ that lower interest rates will bring recovery”.
What I was saying, basically, was that in putting forward the ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective, the ICC was in danger of ignoring the ‘nature’ of ideology and unconsciously assuming that the bourgeoisie is capable of solving some of its fundamental inner contradictions.
As I see it now, the distinction between bourgeoisie I and II is still basically correct, but the point about being the raison d’être of political parties as well as that about the Right coming to power for reasons of their economic philosophy are too simplistic. I shall discuss why in more detail below. As the ICC said in reply: “The raison d’être of (the bourgeoisie’s) factions is not a simple lust for power....an over-emphasis on the idea of ‘power’ being held by a party ‘in parliament’ can tend to divert attention away from the framework of state capitalism and totalitarianism. We must not fall for the false antagonisms the bourgeoisie would have us believe”. More importantly, nowhere in my comments did I make any assessment of the present state of the crisis or that of the present balance of class forces. We can certainly dispute the ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective, but to do so we need to base our critique on an analysis of these two critical aspects of the class struggle, which, regardless of the perspective’s validity, is exactly what the ICC is doing, and is precisely what is lacking in most of the criticisms of the perspective that I am aware of, which are heavily intellectualist in their approach.
The more I come to consider it, the less can I understand why to say the bourgeoisie is capable of conspiring against the proletariat is scandalous. Today, we all revere Bilan’s analysis of the Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War in the 30s. But if we read its articles carefully, there can be no mistake that it suggested a conspiracy between the fascist wing of the bourgeoisie and the anti-fascist wing of the popular front to drag the workers to World War II. Bilan clearly stated that due to the proletariat’s resistance in Spain, the bourgeoisie found that to crush it head on was a worse strategy that to derail it by means of the Spanish Republic and that the anti-fascist popular fronts all over Europe were the means by which the bourgeoisie of the ‘democracies’ mobilized their proletariat in order to turn it into its cannon fodder. Today we all take as a fact that Bilan’s analyses were correct, as they indeed were. But why is it that a conspiratorial theory which has been proven to be correct is so much revered, but a similar theory today be regarded as scandalous?
All Left Communist groups today regard as a self-evident fact which it is, that trade unions are the state’s police inside the ranks of the workers. Trade unions do not betray the workers because in decadent capitalism, no durable gains can be made by the latter within capitalism, but are in fact consciously playing their policing role. A cursory examination of any Left Communist publication today will convey this attitude/position. Why, then, is it so hard to imagine the bourgeoisie’s left and right political parties to be in a conspiracy while the conspiracy between the trade unions and the bosses be taken without the slightest hesitation?
I am sure no one will deny that different states are capable of conspiring to achieve some common goals. For all who have eyes to see, the conspiracy between the US and the UK in the Falklands/Malvinas War, that between the US and Israel in the latter’s invasion of Lebanon, etc are clear as daylight. Or if we go back into history a bit, are not the lessons of the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution enough to drive home the lesson that, threatened by the proletariat, the bourgeoisie is capable of setting aside even its most powerful antagonists to unite against it, as the ICC has correctly pointed out? Why, then, is it that when it comes to a conspiracy between the right and left of the bourgeoisie within national frontiers, it becomes so unimaginable? Did Noske murder the German proletariat unconsciously or consciously? Wouldn’t we all laugh were someone to tell us that the left of bourgeoisie 1, blood on their hands, in actual fact subjectively have the interests of the workers at heart, though objectively they can only betray the workers in decadent capitalism?
To say that the bourgeoisie is constantly engaged in conspiracy is not the same as holding a bad guys’ conspiratorial view of history. The bourgeoisie conspires not because they are bad guys, but because capitalism compels it to conspire. If the bourgeoisie is capable of conspiring, then for a faction of it to conspire against it to conspire itself out of power isn’t so extraordinary either. The examples of the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution have already been mentioned while recently we have seen several military dictators in South America voluntarily relinquishing power in unfavorable circumstances.
The validity of the ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective is certainly open to question, but just as certainly, its method is valid. It is obvious that the crisis is biting deeper everyday, it is obvious that the bourgeoisie is preparing for war, it is obvious that to do so it must mobilize the proletariat and other sectors of the population. The perspective starts from these premises, and if we are to offer a genuine critique, we must also start from these premises, and not worry, as does the empiricist, about whether evidence exists to catch the bourgeoisie red-handed in conspiracy. Bilan did not worry about such things, neither should we. This does not, of course, mean that we do not concretely analyze the bourgeoisie’s maneuvers, but it does mean that our analysis must be of the dynamic of the system’s underlying relations, the hallmark of the Marxist methodology. To ‘fall for the false antagonisms the bourgeoisie would have us believe’ is to return to the phenomenological pseudo-science of the bourgeoisie.
In IR 31, the ICC says that the bourgeoisie’s maneuvers are “confined within and determined by a framework set by:
* the historic period (decadence);
* the conjunctural crisis (whether it has opened or not);
* the historic course (towards war or revolution);
* the momentary weight of class struggle (in upsurge or reflux).
According to the evolution of the actual period, the hand of particular key factions of the bourgeoisie is strengthened inside the state apparatus, as the importance of their role and orientation becomes clear for the bourgeoisie”. (p. 15).
I think this is basically correct, though the way it is phrased can surely be improved by linking it less to the ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective; but I also hasten to add that the perspective does not necessarily follow from it. Utilizing the same framework, it is possible to come to a very different perspective such as the following. The crisis has for a while reached a stage at which there will be a period of stagnation fluctuating around the level of the current trough. This has made the bourgeoisie realize that war will break out and thus has started to prepare for it with a view to really fight it. But just as in the ‘30s, the bourgeoisie needs an ideology to mobilize the proletariat and other laboring masses, and this ideology may well be a ‘moral’ crusade against Soviet aggression. That is, the peace (sic) movement is playing the role anti-fascism played in the ‘30s. In other words, when the crunch comes the Western proletariat will have to be led to war by today’s ‘champions’ of peace, that is the bourgeoisie’s left (the same old ‘to fight a war to end (sic) all wars’ in a new guise). This means that the groundwork of building up the war machine has to be undertaken by the right. The left, therefore, is in the oppositional role today not to derail the workers from their combatvity (which many dispute), but to prepare itself for its real role later. As WR 25 said some time ago: “Generally speaking, the left’s participation tin power is only absolutely necessary in two extreme situations: in a ‘Union Sacree’ to dragoon workers into national defense in … direct preparation for war, and in a revolutionary situation when the rest of the bourgeoisie willingly or otherwise hands over power to the left (cf my earlier erroneous point about the raison d’être of political parties) whose coming to power is presented as the ultimate goal of the revolution itself.” (p. 6, emphasis mine).
The above is only an off-the-cuff perspective stricken with many holes, implicit in it is an assessment that the historic course is towards war. But it does go to show that the ICC’s ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective does not necessarily follow from its own framework.
To summarize this short contribution, I am essentially making two points:
1. To suggest that the bourgeoisie (class l) is capable of conspiring against the proletariat is entirely consistent with the Marxist method. Concerning bourgeoisie 11, I agree with the ICC when it says: “It is therefore possible to talk, say, about the ‘plans of the bourgeoisie’ while in fact it is only a small proportion of the class actually making them”. (IR 31, p. 14).
2. In putting forward the ‘Left in Opposition’ perspective, with which I obviously have a lot of differences, the ICC displays a remarkable understanding of the role of revolutionaries and a willingness to assume the role, both still rare in the milieu today. We definitely need to put more effort to definitively supercede the still prevalent intellectualist attitude in our theoretical practice.
Finally, I wish to make one more point about the empiricist attitude that I sense to be existing to some degree in the milieu. When the ICC says the historic course today is towards revolution, many raise their arms in despair protesting that all evidence is against such a view. But how is the ICC supposed to be able to produce the evidence in support of its view? By carrying out a consciousness survey with the working class?! Given the very nature of revolutionary consciousness, can safely say that whatever evidence there is, it does not suggest revolution is on the cards until its very eve. There definitely will be more violent sporadic clashes between workers and the state, but until the revolution’s very eve these struggles will inevitably be engulfed more or less rapidly by trade unionism. Thus all analysis of the historic course can only be highly abstract, based upon general frameworks such as a longitudinal view of capitalism’s development (eg, decadence), what that development means in terms of the bourgeoisie’s ideological hold over the proletariat (see Marx’s preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’), etc. Evidence has no place in this type of analysis.
P.S. To expand somewhat on the point I made at the very beginning, while the spirit of open critique and self-critique in the present milieu is not lacking, it still leaves much to be desired. Not only is the ‘it’s their business’ attitude prevalent, even with the parties directly involved, they often maintain silences/half-silences on arguments they have lost; worse still, on many occasions they continue to stick to their fallen positions, and in some cases, even resort to what can only be regarded as slanders, which are based either upon positions not held by their victim, or upon sweeping denigratory remarks which, when unsubstantiated, are bound to be misleading (such as ‘unlike XYZ which erroneously says... we say....’). This, to varying degrees, exists in all groups, and I can cite at least half a dozen of examples off-hand (but to do so here, without going into some details, would be unfair to the parties involved). We are no leftists, we engage in debates not for the purpose of discrediting other organizations of the milieu, but for the purpose of clarification for the whole milieu. To these familiar with the positions of the slandered parties, slanders have nowhere to hide, but for the newly-initiated they create prejudices. If even an ex-Maoist as Sweezy was capable of admitting publicly that he had been convinced by another ex-Maoist Bettelheim of the falsity of his position (see their debate ‘Between Capitalism and Socialism (sic)’, Modern Reader) , I think we are justified to expect a more open milieu than there is today.
L.L.M. February 1983.