Debate: On the critique of the theory of the "weakest link"

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Following the defeat and the repression suffered by the working class in Poland in December 81, a discussion began in the ICC with the aim of drawing the maximum number of lessons from this experience. The main questions were:

-- why and how had the world bourgeoisie managed to isolate the workers in Poland from their class brothers in other countries?

-- why, in Poland itself, had the workers - who in August 80 had shown such combativity, such a capacity for self-organization, who had shown such intelligence in using the weapon of the mass strike against the bourgeoisie - then fallen so easily into the traps laid by Solidarnosc, which delivered them bound and gagged to the forces of repression?

-- for the world proletariat, what was the true extent of the defeat suffered in Poland? Was it a partial defeat with a relatively lim­ited impact, or a decisive defeat which meant that the bourgeoisie now had a free hand to im­pose its own response to the inexorable of the economic crisis: generalized imperialist war?

The ICC's International Review no 29 put for­ward answers to these questions in the article ‘After the repression in Poland: perspectives for the world-wide class struggle.' However, the ICC's thinking didn't restrict itself to the elements contained in this text. It led it to make a more precise critique of the thesis, sketched out by Lenin and developed by his epi­gones, that the communist revolution would begin, not in the main bastions of the bourgeois world, but in the less developed countries: the ‘capit­alist chain' would have to be broken at its ‘weakest link'. This approach led to the public­ation in IR 31 of a text whose title was a good summary of the thesis defended in it: "The prol­etariat of western Europe at the centre of the generalization of the class struggle: critique of the theory of the ‘weakest link'".

It also led in January ‘83 to the adoption by the central organ of the ICC of a ‘Resolution on the critique of the theory of the weak link,' and, in July 83 to the adoption by the 5th Congress of the ICC of a ‘Resolution on the International Situation' which affirms that:

"The other major lesson of these battles (in Poland 1980-81) and their defeat is that this world-wide generalization of struggles can only begin from the countries that constitute the economic heart of capitalism. That is, the advanced countries of the west and, among these, those in which the working class has the oldest and most complete experience: Western Europe...If the decisive act of the revolution will be played out when the working class has dealt with the two military giants of east and west, its first act will necessarily be played out in the historic heart of capitalism and of the prolet­ariat: western Europe." (IR 35)

The whole ICC agreed on the necessity to criticize the thesis of the ‘weakest link', which the degenerating Communist International turned into a dogma and which served to justify the worst bourgeois aberrations, notably that of ‘social­ism in one country'.

However, a minority of comrades rejected the idea that "the proletariat of western Europe would be at the centre of the world wide generalization of the class struggle," that "the epicenter of the coming revolutionary earthquake would be in this region of the world."

"To the extent that the debates going on in the organization generally concern the whole prolet­ariat they should be expressed publicly" (‘Report on the Structure and Functioning of the Revolut­ionary Organization', IR 33). We are therefore publishing here a discussion text written by a comrade of the minority and which to some degree synthesizes the disagreements which arose during the course of the debates on this particular question.

Since this text refers to the resolution of Jan­uary ‘83, we felt that it would be useful to precede it with this resolution even though it was not written for external publication but in order to take a position on the internal debate. This is why the language may be somewhat diffi­cult to follow for the reader who is not familiar with our analyses, and we recommend a prior reading of the texts from IR 29 and 31 already mentioned.

Finally, apart from the resolution and the dis­cussion text, we publish the ICC's response to the arguments contained in the latter.


Resolution of the ICC

1. The ICC reaffirms the unity of the condi­tions for the proletarian revolution on a world scale. The unification of the capitalist world in the period of decadence implies that it is the entire world - whatever the degree of devel­opment of the countries that compose it - which is ripe for the communist revolution, the cond­itions for which have existed since 1914 on a world scale. It rejects the Bordigist theory of bourgeois revolutions in certain geographical areas of the Third World, which are presented as a necessary stage towards the proletarian revol­ution. The latter is not only necessary but possible for each sector of the world proletariat, for whom it is the only perspective faced with the general crisis of the system.

2. Just as the unity of the conditions for the revolution is not the sum of particular national conditions, so the world proletariat is not the sum of its parts. The marxist conception of the revolution is not a vulgar materialist one. The revolution is a dynamic process, not a static one; its forward movement implies going beyond particular geo-historic conditions. This is why the ICC rejects both the ‘theory of the weakest link of capitalism' and the theory of the ‘west European revolution'.

The first, elaborated by the Communist Inter­national in its phase of decline, implicitly affirmed that the proletariat of the backward countries could play a more revolutionary role than that of the developed countries (because of the absence of a ‘workers' aristocracy', the non-existence of the poison of ‘democracy', the weakness of the national bourgeoisie). The sec­ond, developed in Gorter's Reply to Lenin, put forward the idea that only the proletariat of Western Europe and North America were capable of realizing the world revolution, which was in fact restricted to Western Europe, which had the most favorable objective conditions (strong concentrations of workers, traditions of struggle).

The symmetrical error of these two conceptions had its origins both in the conditions of the time (the 1917 revolution was born out of a war in the periphery of industrial Europe, in a capitalist world still divided into a constell­ation of imperialisms and of private capitals) and in a confusion between the field of exten­sion and the dynamic of the revolution. In seek­ing to determine the most favorable objective conditions for the outbreak of the revolution, the revolutionaries of the time had a tendency to confuse the point of departure with the point of arrival of the whole dynamic process of the extension of the revolution.

Although both theories were not bourgeois con­ceptions and expressed the life of the revolutionary movement of the time as it searched for a coherent view, they have led to the worst kinds of aberrations: the theory of the weak link has ended up in third worldism; the theory of the west European revolution in neo-Mensh­evism.

3. The mass strike of August ‘80, limited to Poland, does not challenge the classic schema of the international generalization of the class struggle as the qualitative leap needed for the opening-up of a revolutionary period.

Poland posed very sharply the question of the objective conditions most favorable to the development of the international dynamic of the mass strike:

-- in contrast to 1917-18, the bourgeoisie is much better prepared and more united internationally to stifle any threat of generalization beyond the borders of one country;

-- a revolutionary process cannot begin in one country in the absence of a dynamic towards breaking out of the national framework; within national confines, the mass strike can only be smothered.

4. Determining the point of departure for this dynamic, and thus the best conditions for the beginning of the revolutionary earthquake does not mean denying the unity of the world prolet­ariat. It is the very process by which this pot­ential unity becomes a real one.

However, unity does not mean the identity of parts which remain subjected to different material conditions. There is no natural equality between the various organs, the heart and the brain of a living body; they carry out vital, complementary functions.

5. The ICC rejects the naively egalitarian conception which holds that any country can be the point of departure for the revolutionary dyn­amic. This conception is based on the anarchist belief that, given the example of the revolu­tionary general strike, all countries could simultaneously initiate a revolutionary process.

In reality, the uneven development of capitalism, by creating an ever-widening gulf between the big industrial countries concentrating the majority of the modern industrial proletariat, and the Third World countries, has the conse­quence that the most favorable conditions for the birth of the revolutionary framework are strictly determined by the historic and social framework.

6. The point of departure for the world revol­ution is necessarily to be found in Western Europe, where the force of numbers is supplemented by a revolutionary tradition that goes from 1848 to the first revolutionary wave, where the work­ing class has most directly confronted the counter-revolution and which constitutes the final battlefield for a generalized imperialist war.

Because Western Europe is:

-- the first economic power and the biggest con­centration of workers, where the existence of a number of nations next to each other poses the immediate question of going beyond national boundaries;

-- at the heart of the contradictions of capit­alism in crisis, contradictions that are push­ing it towards world war;

-- the Gordian knot of the most powerful bourgeois mystifications (democracy, parliament, trade unions) , mystifications that the prolet­ariat will have to settle scores with in order to make a liberating leap for the whole world working class.

It is at the very heart of the course towards revolution. The fact that the period of counter­revolution came to an end with May ‘68, the maturation of proletarian consciousness in Europe in the 1970s, the existence of a devel­oped proletarian political milieu: all these factors confirm this point.

7. Neither the countries of the Third World, nor of the eastern bloc, nor North America, nor Japan can be the point of departure for the process that leads to revolution:

-- the countries of the Third World because of the numerical weakness of the proletariat and the weight of nationalist illusions;

-- Japan and especially the US because they have not so directly been through the counter-revol­ution and world war, and because of the absence of a deep revolutionary tradition;

-- the eastern bloc countries because of their relative economic backwardness and the spec­ific form that the world crisis takes there (scarcity) obstructing the development of a dir­ect and global consciousness of the cause of the crisis (ie overproduction), and because of the Stalinist counter-revolution which has, in the minds of workers, transformed the idea of socialism into its opposite and has allowed dem­ocratic, trade unionist and nationalist illus­ions to have a new impact.

8. However, while the point of departure for the world revolution is necessarily to be found in western Europe, the triumph of the world rev­olution in the last instance depends on its rapid and victorious extension to the USA and the USSR, the heads of the two imperialist blocs, where the last great act of the revolu­tion will be played out.

During the first revolutionary wave, the countries which had the most advanced and concentrated proletariat were at the same time the most powerful and decisive military countries, ie the countries of Western Europe. Although the most advanced and concentrated battalions of the proletariat are in Western Europe, the centers of world capital's military power have shifted to the USA and the USSR, which has consequences for the development of a revolutionary prolet­arian movement.

Today, a new anti-working class Holy Alliance between Russian and American capital, going over and above their imperialist rivalries, would lead to a direct military intervention against revolutionary Europe, ie to a world-wide civil war; and the outcome of this would depend on the capacity of the proletariat in the two bloc leaders, especially the USA, to paralyze and overthrow the bourgeois state.

9. The ICC warns against a certain number of dangerous confusions:

-- the idea that ‘anything is possible at any moment, in any place', as soon as sharp class confrontations arise at the peripheries of cap­italism; this idea is based on an identifica­tion between combativity and the maturation of class consciousness;

-- the unconscious assimilation between the international mass strike and the revolution; whereas international generalization is a quali­tative step which announces the revolution; it is the beginning of a revolutionary period but cannot be mixed up with the revolution itself. The latter will necessarily take the form of a situation of dual power which will pose the alternative: dictatorship of the workers' councils or bloody counter-revolution, opening the course towards war;

-- the conception of a linear development of the internationalization of the mass strike, whereas the latter will necessarily follow a winding course, with advances and retreats, as in the example of Poland.

It is up to revolutionaries to keep a cool head and not to give in to immediatist exal­tation, which leads to adventurism, or to become depressed and demoralized with each retreat.

Although history has been accelerating since August 1980 and is providing revolutionaries with an exalted perspective, they must under­stand that their work remains a long-term one.


Critique of some positions of the ICC on the theory of the "weak link"

The last two years have put the capacities of revolutionary minorities to the test. The sudden deepening of the crisis in the entire world, the brutality of the austerity measures the bourgeoisie has taken, the clarity of the massive war preparations, all this seemed to demand a thundering answer from the world proletariat. And yet the working class has suffered an important defeat in Poland while elsewhere on the globe the struggle has stagnated. Revolutionary organizations have remained tiny and without much of an echo. This situation has exposed the many weaknesses which existed in the revol­utionary milieu. The confusion is considerable and understandable. Revolutionaries can no longer limit themselves to the reaffirmation of lessons from the past. They have to assess and explain the defeat in Poland and the pre­sent difficulties. They have to clarify the perspectives for the workers' struggle, explain how we can get from here to there. In this context, the ICC has formulated its ‘critique of the theory of the weak link'. (‘The Proletariat of Western Europe at the Centre of the Generalization of the Class Struggle', IR 31, ‘Resolution on the Critique of the Theory of the Weak Link', in this issue). Those texts justly reject Lenin's position about a breakdown of the capitalist system starting in the weakest countries and spread­ing from there to the rest of the system. This theory has been an instrument for those who look for capitalism's gravedigger outside the proletariat. The problem with the ‘Leninists' who defend this position today is not that they have illusions about the strength of the workers in the weak countries, they just have illusions about those weak countries them­selves. For them, the proletariat is no more than cannon-fodder for the ‘anti-imperialist movement'.

But the ICC texts go beyond the rejection of this disastrous theory. They explain the defeat in Poland precisely as a result of the fact that Poland is a weaker country and state that "only in Western Europe ... can there be a full development of the political consciousness which is indispen­sible for (the proletariat's) struggle for revolution". (IR 31, p.7). There it will not be feasible for the bourgeoisie to isolate a mass strike because it will be "no longer possible to set up an economic cord­on sanitaire and a political cordon sanitaire will have no more effect." (idem, p 6-7)

This vision certainly gives a way to digest the defeat in Poland and to see more clearly a way ahead. But at the same time:

-- It obscures some of the lessons of Poland and other struggles that occurred and will occur outside Western Europe. It sees their relevance necessarily as limited, since they take place outside the area where the main capitalist mystifications - in the ICC's view - can be overcome;

-- It creates the false impression that the ability of the bourgeoisie to isolate a mass strike depends on the place where it occurs, so that a mass strike in Western Europe would not encounter the same problems as in Poland or would overcome them more easily;

-- It gives the false hope that revolutionary consciousness can come to fruition in West­ern Europe alone and then break down the cap­italist mystifications in other industrialized areas through the power of example ("When the proletariat of these countries detaches itself from the most sophisticated traps laid by the bourgeoisie...the chimes will ring for the world-wide generalization of proletarian struggle, for the revolutionary confrontation" idem, p.8).

Class forces and class consciousness

The proletarian struggle begins out of necessity, not out of consciousness. Mystifications can only be overcome because of and in the struggle. It is the potential of the struggle to grow which enables the working class to break through capitalist mystifications, rather than the other way around. Struggles develop despite the weight of many illusions which all have in common the belief that an improvement in living conditions, a victory, can only be gained within this framework of capitalism. This framework has many names and is colored by local specificities, but it is always the framework of the nation-state.

This illusion still handicaps the workers' struggle in all countries. But it has a very different effect in countries where the proletariat is only a tiny minority dwarfed by other classes as opposed to those countries where the proletariat has the potential power to paralyze the entire economy and smash the bourgeois-state, provided that it only had to confront its ‘own' bourgeoisie.

In the first case, this illusion tends to lure the workers away from their class terrain and into a front with a faction of the bourgeoisie (the Church, the left, the guerillas, ‘progre­ssive' military, etc) because their own poten­tial power within the nation-framework is so small. That's why the workers in those coun­tries need the demonstration of power of the class in the industrialized countries to find the path of autonomous struggle, to follow it in a way that goes beyond mere desperation.

It is only in the second case that this ill­usion of change within the nation, foundation of all capitalist mystifications, cannot pre­vent the development of working class struggle on its own terrain. Here, the workers are strong enough to count on themselves, even if they still see themselves only as a social category exerting pressure within the nation and not yet as the world class that has hum­anity's fate in its hands. Thus it is the key development of the workers' struggle in these countries which is the key to the growing awareness of the entire working class of its own power. And it is this growing awareness of the entire working class which makes it possible for the proletariat to break through the network of capitalist mystifications. Therefore, the major concentrations of the proletariat in the industrial heartlands of both blocs play the decisive role in the development of revolutionary class consciousness. Only there can the struggle grow despite the weight of bourgeois ideology and become the lever by which proletarian consciousness is freed from the weight of the ideology of the dominant class.

But the existence of struggle is in itself not enough. As Marx said, just as a man doesn't throw away the tool that keeps him alive before it has become totally useless and he has found something else to replace it with, in the same way, the proletariat will not destroy the existing social system before the necessity and the possibility of this historical task becomes embedded in its con­sciousness. And this process is not possible within the limits of Western Europe alone.

Becoming conscious of the necessity of generalization

In order to understand the necessity of revol­ution, the working class must be able to perceive the destruction of the objective basis of capitalist mystifications. All these mystifications are based on the belief that a prosperous economy within the framework of the nation is possible. In order to destroy this hope for all workers, its falseness must be clearly demonstrated for the whole world, not in the weakest economies, but in the strongest capitalist nations. As long as in these stronger economies a strong illusion in substantial recovery is kept alive, the belief that the capitalist nation can be a framework for survival will be kept alive among the workers in all countries, weak or strong. That implies that the revolution is not for next year. Talking about a revolutionary assault in the short-term, as some people did during the mass strike in Poland, can only lead to demoralization. But it means also that for the first time in history, this essential condition for worldwide revolution will really be fulfilled. All previous revolutionary attempts of the proletariat have broken their backs on this problem. The mobilization of the workers for the First World War and later the defeat of the first revolutionary wave, were to a large extent made possible by the limits of the capitalist crisis, by the promise of recovery in the stronger countries. The mobilization of workers for the Second World War, their defeat in countries like Spain, was made possible not only by the weight of the defeat of the first revolution­ary wave but also by the ability of capitalism to offer new hope for recovery through the launching of state-capitalism on an unpreced­ented scale (in Germany, for example, indust­rial production rose 90% between 1933-38, while unemployment declined from 3.7 million to 200,000).

Today capitalism is for the first time approach­ing the point where it will no longer have any objective economic means to keep alive any hope for recovery, to create a temporary improve­ment in the situation of ‘its' workers, even in a limited part of the globe. State capitalism has already been developed, not to its theoret­ical maximum, but to its maximum efficiency. The extension of state capitalism on an inter­national scale, and the redistribution of surplus value it allows through government aid the IMF, world bank, etc, still could be developed some more, but not by much because the foundations of the system - competition - puts an iron limit on this development. This extension has already been fully used during the post-war period to create the markets required by the high development of productive forces in the strongest countries, forging an unpre­cedented interdependency of all units of the capitalist machine.

As a result, none of them still has the means to shield itself from the crisis. Even attempting to do so would only aggra­vate its situation. For the first time, a steep decline without a creditable hope for recovery becomes unavoidable for all countries. That doesn't mean that the situation of each country becomes the same, that workers everywhere will be thrown into famine. It means some will be thrown into famine and others into barbaric exploit­ation, militarization, terror, competition between them and finally into war and global destruction, unless they can prevent it. The specific situations of all workers will not become the same; a myriad of differences will continue to exist. What will be the same everywhere is the all out attack of the bourgeoisie, the interests of the workers, the perspectives they have.

Becoming conscious of the possibility

But to become the conscious goal of their struggle, the workers must not only see the revolution as necessary, but also as possible - within the limits of their forces. The level of political conscious­ness is necessarily limited by the forces they have at their disposal. A struggle beginning on a platform of limited, economic demands can only expand its goal; can only become political, to the degree that the class forces at the workers' dispos­al grow accordingly - through extension and self-organization. But what is possible de­pends also upon the opposition the workers have to overcome. And here again we see important differences between the situation in 1917 and today. In 1917, the bourgeoisie was divided and disorganized by the war, dis­orientated by its lack of experience. Under these circumstances, there were indeed ‘weak links' in its defense which the proletariat could exploit. According to the logic of the ICC resolution, the workers in Russia should have dreamed about bourgeois democracy, since they had not directly confronted the more sophisticated mystifications of the bourgeoisie in the West. But despite the pleadings of the Mensheviks, they didn't waste their time with that. The degree of self-organization achieved; the extension of the struggle throughout Russia; the workers' unrest in neighboring countries; and the weakness of the bourgeoisie they had to confront: these made possible a goal far beyond that, it made possible the goal of a revolutionary victory in Russia with a reas­onable hope that other countries would rapidly follow.

Today, however, any fraction of the proletariat in struggle is facing a united world bourgeoisie. There are no more weak links in capitalism's defense. What was possible then isn't any long­er and since class consciousness is bound to what is objectively possible, revolutionary consciousness will require more time to mature, to allow class forces to grow much larger than was required in 1917. If class forces are not developed on an international scale beyond a limited area like western Europe, and if capit­alist mystifications succeed in keeping the struggles isolated from each other and prevent the proletariat from becoming conscious of its common interests and perspectives, then no mass strike, regardless of where it happened, could lead to "the full development of the political consciousness indispensable for revolution", because it would be impossible for the workers to see the forces required for the task of de­feating a united world bourgeoisie. Under such circumstances a mass strike would be bound to stagnate, which means to go rapidly downhill. Because the possibility of a further prolet­arian goal could not be perceived and thus be absorbed by the proletariat's consciousness, the degree of self-organization could not be maintained and would have to wither away, and a false perspective based on bourgeois mystifi­cations would inevitably take hold. The ICC didn't realize this when it wrote, more than three months after the dismantling of the auto­nomous class organization in Poland, "The move­ment, far from dying down, has become stronger" (IR 24, p 4) and when later, in the framework of its ‘weak link critique', it attributed the success of capitalist mystifications in Poland to the "specificities" of the eastern bloc and Poland in particular.

The weight of specificities

As the ICC wrote, "the idea that there are nat­ional or bloc ‘specificities' ... will be pulverized more and more by the leveling down of the economic conditions in all countries and of the living conditions of all workers." (IR 29, p 4) That does not mean that revolutionaries have to deny that there are all kinds of differences between workers of different countries, sectors and regions, which capital uses to divide them. But the power to divide does not stem from the ‘specificities' themselves but from capitalism's global ability to maintain illusions in its system. Without the progressive demystification of these illusions by the crisis and the class str­uggle, workers will remain isolated in their ‘specific' situations in the strong countries as well as the weaker ones. The powerful position of the church in Poland might be specific for that country, but there is nothing specific about the mystifications this institution uses against the workers' struggle - nationalism, pacifism, legalism, etc. In other words, those mystifications are not powerful because the church is powerful but it is the other way around: the church fulfils that left in oppos­ition role because the lack of depth of the crisis (not in Poland but on an international scale) and the immaturity of the development of the workers' struggle (again on the internation­al level) permits capital to use these mystifi­cations with success. This means that revol­utionaries have to stress again and again the worldwide unity of the proletariat's struggle and unmask the mystifications behind the spec­ificities. That means struggling against the fear that extension of the struggle and generalization are not possible because of the spec­ific differences, and its corollary - the ill­usion that a victory, a full development of rev­olutionary consciousness is possible within one country or one part of a continent alone.

Now let's take a closer look at the main spec­ificities which the ICC sees as responsible for the western European workers' lack of company on the road to revolutionary consciousness.

The ‘scarcity' in the eastern bloc

"The specific form that the world crisis takes there (scarcity), obstructing the development of a direct and global consciousness of the causes of the crisis (overproduction) ..." (‘Resolution of the critique of the theory of the weak link')

For the workers in the East as well as those in the West, overproduction and scarcity can only be understood when they leave the ‘specific' point of view and see the capitalist system as a whole. Without this global view, the manifest­ations of overproduction in the West appear as unfair distribution, lack of protection against foreign competition, etc. Overproduction cannot be located in the West alone. Indeed, the weaker countries are feeling it first, because their lower organic compositions push them earlier against the limits of the world market. Even Luxemburg, on whose economics the ICC bases it­self, was clear on the fact that overproduction is not a problem facing certain capitalist coun­tries while others merely feel the consequences, but a result of a growing disproportion built into the productive process and thus present in every country. Even in the weakest countries, workers can see how overproduction on the world market makes the prices of the commodities they produce plunge and creates hunger and unemploy­ment, while at the same time pushing ‘its' bourgeoisie to divert more and more surplus value into means of destruction. Even in a typical underdeveloped country like Ghana, industry is running at less than 15% of its capacity (New York Times, 4 February, 1983). In the same way, scarcity can only be grasped from a global point of view.

If one looks at the problem from the standpoint of a specific country, scarcity exists in every country (in different degrees but everywhere increasing):

-- scarcity of consumption goods for workers and unemployed, for whom austerity and inflation push the goods they need more and more out of reach while they remain in abundance for the ruling class;

-- scarcity of capital for the ruling class which desperately tries to squeeze more surplus value out of the workers to protect its competitive position on the shrinking world market.

This global point of view, needed to see the roots of the system and the potential of social­ist revolution, the proletariat in the western countries doesn't get as a birthright. It can only be the result of the tendency of the class struggle to become global itself and internat­ional in scope.

Lack of revolutionary tradition, culture, age

The view that there never was a strong workers' movement outside western Europe is biased, colored by the influence of bourgeois historians who had reasons to minimize the revolutionary movement. But more importantly, we must realize that these lessons from the past are dormant in the memory of the proletariat and can only be reappropriated through the struggle, with the help of the communist minority which itself is generated by the struggle. The long counter-rev­olution separated the western European workers from the traditions of the past as effectively as elsewhere. It makes no sense to say, as the ICC resolution does, that the workers in the US and Japan have not been directly enough through the counter-revolution, while those in the east­ern bloc have been confronted by it too much with the result that in their minds ‘the idea' of socialism has been transformed into its opp­osite. Everywhere on the globe, the vast major­ity of workers identify the word ‘communism' with Stalinism or its ‘Eurocommunist' or ‘Trot­skyist' variants. Not through bourgeois educa­tion and culture but through the development of the struggle, the minds of the workers are opening to the lessons of the experiences of their class brothers in other parts of the world and the lessons of the past. All the arguments about tradition, culture and age fly in the face of the historical fact that the countries where the proletariat was most successful in homogenizing its revolutionary consciousness were Russia and Hungary - where the working class was relat­ively young, without long-standing traditions and with a rather low level of bourgeois educa­tion. That doesn't mean that experience is not important, that all lessons are forgotten when there is no open struggle going on. Experience was very important for the workers in Russia but it was directly linked to the struggle. Not their geographical position, not their dir­ect confrontation with democracy, etc, but only their autonomous struggle enabled them to assim­ilate the experiences of workers elsewhere and their own, to incorporate them in the next phase of their struggle.

The lack of direct confrontation with capital­ism's most powerful mystifications

When the workers in Western Europe break through the mystifications of democracy and trade unions it will not be the result of their daily expos­ure to these traps. Only in and through the str­uggle this can happen, because the generalization of the crisis and the simultaneous struggle of the workers elsewhere create the conditions to reject the isolation that these mystifica­tions try to impose. It's the same for the wor­kers in the East. Outside the struggle, ‘free' unions and a democratic state can be seen as ex­otic and desirable products to be imported from the West. But inside the struggle they become "the institutionalization of the movement", to use the words of Andrzej Koladziej, the MKS del­egate from Gdynia who refused to be a candidate in the Solidarnosc elections. Outside the str­uggle another perspective could have been created for the Polish workers, it could have made Koladziej's position the majority one, or it could have made the numerous confrontations between the union and the workers, after the death of the MKS, more successful for the latter. The fact that it didn't happen was not a result of a lack of direct exposures to these mystifications. If this were the case, the prol­etariat's struggle would become hopeless. Capit­alism can always find new packages for its old lies unless the material basis of all mystifica­tions is destroyed by the international crisis and class struggle. If the unions in western Europe, through their daily practice, lose all credibility, there are still the rank-and-fil­ists to advance the mystification of a new unit­ary union; there is still the possibility for institutionalizing ‘workers' councils' and self-management within the state; the possibility for radical-left governments to prepare for repress­ion, etc. Revolutionary class consciousness can only develop by assimilating the experience of the class in the whole world. This is true for the workers in the East as well as in the West. Despite their lack of direct experience with ‘free' unions over an extended period, "concern­ing the need to denounce the unions, the Polish workers have travelled further in a few weeks than the proletariat in other countries has done over a period of several generations." (IR 24, p 3) But the consciousness they obtained is not a permanent acquisition that remains there outside the struggle. It will have to be reappropriated in the coming struggle, as much outside as in Poland.

We call the defeat in Poland "limited". That is correct, not because Poland is only a secondary country, but because the gains that were made for the whole proletariat, the lessons of Poland, weigh in the long run much heavier than the de­feat. Of course, it was not an orderly ‘retreat'. But then the proletariat is not an army, with a general staff and stronger and weaker battalions, engaged in tactical warfare. Its struggle is not a military one but a struggle for its own con­sciousness and organization. Never was there an ‘army' with such a continuous flow of advances and retreats, all according to the spread of class consciousness. In this battle, there are no orderly retreats. Every halt, every step backwards is a result of bourgeois control. The experience of the MKS will have to be repeated and improved in several countries before the shift in the balance of forces between the classes on an international scale (the process of internationalization) paralyses the hand of the ruling class. But the coming struggles will be able to build upon the lessons of Poland. It is crucial that these lessons - not only those of the ascendant phase of the struggle but as much those of its declining phase - are not ob­scured by attributing its strength (as the bourg­eoisie does) or its weakness (as the ICC does) to Polish ‘specificities'. The proletariat, in its next battles, must remember the power of self-organization that was demonstrated in Pol­and. It must remember how the bourgeoisie of the entire world closes ranks when faced with the proletarian danger. It must remember how the bourgeoisie, when it cannot prevent self-organization, tries to control the central organs, making them instruments to prevent the spont­aneous actions of the proletariat and to spread nationalism and legalism and other poison, and finally transforming them into bourgeois instit­utions. It must remember the confrontations bet­ween Solidarnosc and the workers, showing how every trade union, even one freshly founded, immediately becomes the mortal enemy of the struggle. It must remember how the isolation of the most radical struggle in decades has shown the necessity to break through all divisions, frontiers of sectors and countries.

To smash the main capitalist mystifications, they will have to be attacked from both sides. From within, by a struggle that, because of its self-organization and radicalization, is actively looking for the solidarity of workers of other countries; and, dialectically linked, from out­side by the explosive unrest in the rest of the class which, through the assimilation of the experiences of struggles all over the world, is becoming conscious of its commonality of inter­ests and thus capable to offer this solidarity.

To make the revolution, the proletariat has no other weapons than its revolutionary and thus international consciousness. Consequently, this consciousness must develop in the struggles be­fore the revolution. Generalization will not start with the revolutionary assault in Western Europe and spread through a ‘domino-effect', toppling country after country because the ‘strongest link' of the capitalist chain is broken or, as the ICC would put it, because its "heart and head" are smashed.

Generalization is a process, part of the ripen­ing of the proletariat's consciousness, develop­ing internationally in the struggles that pre­cede the revolutionary assault and making this assault possible precisely because it occurs. Capitalism's only (future) weak link is the worldwide unity of the proletariat.


5 April 1983


Answer to the critique

One of the main features of comrade Sander's text is that, side by side with excellent passages in which he develops very clearly the analyses of the ICC, there are a number of assertions which are equally clear but which are unfortunately in contradiction with the views underpinning the preceding passages.

Thus, comrade Sander recognizes that it is neces­sary both firmly to reject the theory of the ‘weakest link' and to establish a very clear dis­tinction between the proletariat of the developed countries and that of the Third World as re­gards their respective capacity to constitute the decisive battalions of the future revolut­ionary confrontation. He considers that in the backward countries "the workers...need the demo­nstration of power of the class in the industrialized countries to find the path of autonomous struggle, to follow it in a non-disparate way".

We fully agree with these assertions. However, disagreements arise when he

-- considers that the workers of countries other than those of the Third World (ie North America, Japan, Western Europe and Eastern Europe) have an equal capacity to unmask bourgeois mystifications and constitute a vanguard of the world proletariat in its revolutionary struggles;

-- considers it false to say that "the bour­geoisie's capacity to isolate a mass strike de­pends on the place where it occurs";

-- rejects the idea that the world-wide generalization of struggles will follow a "domino effect" (to use his own terms), that there will be a process which gets underway in a given part of the planet and then spreads to the rest of the world;

-- fights the idea that there is a sort of "head and heart" of the world proletariat where the class is most concentrated, most developed and richest in experience.

In the final analysis, the main fault of Sander's text, and one which lies at the basis of all his other mistakes, is that it uses a method which wants to be marxist but which at certain moments moves right away from a real marxist vision.

Moving away from Marxism

The basic reasoning of comrade Sander is as follows:

1. "The proletarian struggle begins out of neces­sity, not out of consciousness"

2. "it is the development of the workers' strug­gles in these countries which is the key to the growing awareness of the entire working class of its own power"

3. " is this growing awareness which makes it possible for the proletariat to break through the network of capitalist mystifications"

4. "Mystifications can only be overcome because of and in the struggle. It is the potential of the struggle to grow which enables the working class to break through capitalist mystifications, rather than the other way round."

5. Capitalism is in a complete economic impasse. Everywhere in the world it is revealing its bank­ruptcy and launching a total attack on the workers' interests.

6. Everywhere in the world, therefore, there is a development of the "necessity" which is at the basis of the workers' struggle.

Conclusion: Everywhere that the proletariat is not a "tiny minority dwarfed by other classes" (countries of the Third World) the conditions for the development of revolutionary conscious­ness are arising in an equal manner.

The reasoning has the apparent rigor of a syll­ogism. Unfortunately, it's false. Certainly it's based on some general truths recognized by marx­ism but, in this particular case, they are put forward outside their real field of application. They become half-truths and end up in untruths.

If we can agree with stage 5 of the reasoning and (with some reservations) stage 6, taken by them­selves, we have to criticize and challenge the other stages, which puts the whole of his reason­ing into question.

1. "The proletarian struggle begins out of necess­ity, not out of consciousness"

Yes, if we're saying that "being precedes consc­iousness" (Marx), that in the last instance it is material interests which make classes move. But Marxism is not a vulgar materialism. It is dialectical. This is why Marx could write that "theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses."

It's because the ICC is faithful to this dialect­ical view that it was able to understand that today we are in a course towards class confrontat­ions and not towards war. Already in 1968 we were saying (Revolution Internationale, old series, no 2)

"Capitalism has at its disposal less and less mystifications capable of mobilizing the masses and leading them into a massacre. The Russian myth is collapsing; the false dilemma of bourg­eois democracy against totalitarianism is getting worn out. In these conditions, the crisis can from the beginning be seen for what it is. Its first symptoms are going to provoke increasingly violent reactions from the masses in all coun­tries."

Thus, if the ICC affirms that, in the present period, the aggravation of the crisis is going to provoke a development of the class struggle and not a growing demoralization opening the way to the imperialist holocaust as in the 1930s, it is because we are taking into account the subjective factors acting on the situation: the fact that the proletariat has not recently emerged from a profound defeat (as in the ‘20s), and the wearing out of mystifications used in the past. It was because it had this approach which we lay claim to, that the Italian Comm­unist Left was able to analyze correctly the nature of the war in Spain and did not fall into the absurdities of a Trotsky who - be­cause the objective conditions were ripe -founded a new International one year before ... the war.

Comrade Sander knows all this and he affirms it in another part of his text. The problem is that he forgets it in his argumentation.

2. " ... it is the development of the workers' struggle ... which is the key to the growing  awareness of the entire working class of its own  power": we refer again to what's just been said.

3. "... it is this growing awareness which makes it possible for the  proletariat to break through the network of capitalist mystifications."

Here again, Sander puts forward a correct idea but in a partial, unilateral way. The consciousness of the proletariat is above all a con­sciousness ‘of itself'. It includes the awareness of its own power. But it can't be reduced to this. If the feeling of being strong "makes it possible for the proletariat to break through the network of capitalist mystifications" it would be absolutely impossible to understand what happened in 1914, when a proletariat felt itself to be stronger than ever before was sudd­enly thrown into the imperialist massacre. Be­fore 1914 the working class seemed to be going from success to success. In reality, it was cap­itulating step by step to bourgeois ideology. Moreover, this is a method abundantly employed by the bourgeoisie against the proletariat throughout the 20th century: presenting its worst defeats (‘socialism in one country', the popular fronts, the ‘Liberation' of 1945) as victories, as expressions of its power. Sander's phrase needs to be completed by another: "it is in its capacity to break through the network of capitalist mystifications that the proletariat demonstrates its power, increases its power and its awareness of its power." Forgetting this point allows Sander to continue serenely with his arguments - but unfortunately they lead off the track towards a dead-end.

4. "Mystifications can only be overcome because of and in the struggle. It is the pot­ential of the struggle to grow which enables the working class to break through capitalist mystifications, rather than the other way round."

For the first time, Sander makes a small con­cession to tie dialectical method ("rather than the other way round"). However, it doesn't take him away from his unilateral and partial method, and this leads him to put forward an idea that is in contradiction with the whole experience of the workers' movement. For example, during the course of the First World War it wasn't the struggle in itself which was the only, or the main, factor in demystifying the workers in Russia or Germany. In 1914, mobilized behind bourgeois flags by the Socialist parties, the workers of the main European countries went off with ‘flowers on their rifles' to massacre each other in the name of the ‘defense of civilization' and of the ‘struggle against militarism' or ‘Tsarism'. As Rosa Luxemburg put it:

"War is a gigantic, methodical, organized form of' murder. In order to get normal men to systematically murder each other, you first have to find a suitable way of intoxicating them." (Junius Pamphlet)

As long as this intoxication lasted, the wor­kers adhered to the stupid slogans of social democracy (especially in Germany) which expl­ained that ‘the class struggle is only valid in times of peace'. It wasn't struggle which sob­ered the proletariat: it was several years of the barbarity of imperialist war that made it understand that it wasn't in the trenches fight­ing for ‘civilization'. It was only by becoming aware that it was getting massacred and mass­acring its class brothers for interests which were not its own that it began to develop the struggles that led to revolution in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918.

Sander's method, based on the juxtaposition of partial truths, leads him to put forward another complete untruth: "the consciousness they (the Polish workers) obtained is not a permanent acquisition that remains there outside the struggle."

First of all we have to say that this statement contradicts what Sander himself says:

" ... the coming struggles will be able to build upon the lessons of Poland ... (The proletariat) must remember the confrontations between Solid­arnosc and the workers, showing how every trade union, even one freshly founded, immediately be­comes the mortal enemy of the struggle."

Does Sander then deny that the direct protagon­ists of the combats in Poland have a ‘memory' of their experience which the workers of other countries can conserve, despite all the deformations of the bourgeois media? Would that be be­cause in Poland (and thus in the rest of the eastern bloc) the specific conditions in which the proletariat is struggling are less favorable to the development of consciousness than in other countries (those of western Europe, perhaps)? But this is precisely the thesis that Sander is fighting against.

We thus discover another element in comrade San­der's method: the rejection of coherence.

But let's return to this idea that ‘conscious­ness is not a permanent acquisition.' We shall spare Sander and the reader a discourse on the way the proletariat comes to consciousness: this is a question which has already been dealt with in this Review and will be again. Here we shall restrict ourselves to posing the following questions:

-- why, in Poland itself, did the struggles of 1980 go further than those of 1970 and ‘76?

-- does this not prove that an acquisition of the struggle does persist?

-- this higher level of the struggle in 1980, was it solely due to the aggravation of the economic crisis?

-- should we not also see it as the product of a whole process of maturation in the consciousness of the proletariat which carried on after the struggles of 1970 and ‘76?

-- more generally, what is the significance of the basic marxist idea that the proletariat draws the lessons from its past experiences, that it draws benefit from the accumulation of its experiences?

-- finally, what is the function of revolutionary organizations themselves, if not precisely to systematize these lessons, to use them to develop revolutionary theory so that it can fertilize the future struggles of the class? Doesn't the struggle itself secrete these organizations for this very reason?

Comrade Sander knows the right answers to all these questions. He knows has marxism as well as the positions of the ICC but, all of a sudden, he ‘forgets' them. Are we to conclude that he tends to attribute to the development of the consciousness of the proletariat the same fre­quent bouts of amnesia which appear in his own approach?

Wanting to be ‘materialist', Sander's view fin­ally falls into positivism, it tends to reject marxism and fall into the grossest sophistries of councilism, the ones which deny that the organization of revolutionaries has any func­tion in the class struggle.

"Horizontal" councilism

The distinguishing feature of the councilist conception (we're talking about the degenerated councilist conceptions, notably as developed by Otto Ruhle, and not Pannekoek's conception which doesn't fall into the same aberrations) is that it denies that there is any heterogen­eity in the way the class comes to conscious­ness. It refuses to admit that certain elements of the class can, before the others "understand the conditions, the line of march and the gen­eral goals of the movement" (Communist Mani­festo). This is why, for councilism, the only organization that can exist for the proletariat is its unitary organization, the workers' coun­cils, within which all the workers advance at the same pace along the path of consciousness. Obviously we shall not insult Sander by attrib­uting such a conception to him. In any case his text proves that it isn't his view - if it was he wouldn't be in the ICC in the first place.

However, the same unilateral, non-dialectical approach which led Sander to open the door involuntarily to classical councilism leads him this time to enter with both feet, and voluntarily, into another variety of councilism. If we can use the term ‘vertical' to describe Otto Ruhle's councilism which denies that, on the road to revolution, certain elements of the class can raise themselves to a higher level of consciousness than others, we can say than San­der's councilism is ‘horizontal' since it puts an equals sign between the levels of conscious­ness of the proletariats of different countries or regions of the world (except for the Third World). Alongside the whole ICC, Sander admits that, even at the moment of revolution, there will still be a great heterogeneity in the consciousness of the proletariat - this will be expressed in particular by the fact that, when the class takes power, communists will still be in a minority. But why then shouldn't this heterogeneity exist between various sectors of the proletariat who have different histories and experiences - who are subject to the same crisis, of course, but in different forms and to a different degree.

Sander tends to throw aside the elements cited by the ICC to explain the central role of the west European proletariat in the future generalization of struggles, in tomorrow's revolu­tion. Actually, he doesn't take the trouble to examine each of these elements one by one be­cause he poses the unity and homogeneity of the proletariat a priori. Significant of this is the way he refutes the idea that the workers of the West can understand more easily than those of the East that the crisis of capitalism is a crisis of overproduction:

"For the workers in the East as well as those in the West, overproduction and scarcity can only be understood when they leave the ‘specific' point of view and see the capitalist system as a whole ... This global point of view needed to see the roots of the system and the potential of socialist revolution, the proletariat in the western countries doesn't get as a birthright. It can only be the result of the tendency of the class struggle, to become global itself and international in scope."

Comrade Sander's "global point of view" is with­out doubt the analysis made by revolutionaries of the nature of capitalism and its contradic­tions. Revolutionaries can acquire this "global point of view" whether they find themselves in advanced countries like Britain, where Marx and Engels lived, or whether they come from backward countries, as did Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. This derives from the fact that the political posi­tions and analyses of revolutionary organizations are not the expression of the immediate conditions their militants find themselves in, nor of the particular circumstances of the class struggle in this or that country, but are the secretion, the manifestation of the emergence of consciousness in the proletariat as a historic being, as a world class with a revolutionary future.

Since they have at their disposal a theoretical framework which makes them much more capable than the rest of their class of going rapidly beyond appearances and seeing the essence of phenomena, they are far better placed to see in each and every manifestation of capitalism's life the operation of the underlying laws which govern the system.

On the other hand, what is true for the revolu­tionary minority of the class is not generally true for the broad masses. In this society "the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class." The great majority of workers are subjected to the influence of bourgeois ideology. And though this influence will gradually weaken, it will last up until the revolution. However, the bourgeoisie finds it more and more difficult to maintain this influence as the reality of the system increasingly contradicts the images which the bourgeoisie drapes over it. This is why the open crisis of capitalism is the condition for the revolution. Not only because it compels the proletariat to develop its struggles, but also because it makes plain to see what a total impasse has the system reached. The same goes for the idea that communism is possible, that capitalism can be replaced by a society based on abundance, allowing the full satisfaction of human needs, a society "in which the free dev­elopment of each is the condition for the free development of all." Such an idea can be grasped more easily by those workers to whom the cause of the crisis - generalized over­production - is revealed more clearly. In the East as in the West, the workers are being thrown into a growing poverty and are being forced to engage in more and more powerful struggles. But becoming conscious that this poverty is the absurd result of an over­production of commodities will be much easier in countries where there are millions of un­employed alongside shops filled to bursting point than in countries where there are queues in front of empty shops - a situation which can be presented as the result of insufficient pro­duction or of bad management by irresponsible bureaucrats.

Just as he refuses to recognize the weight of economic specificities on the process whereby the class becomes conscious, comrade Sander is very shocked by what we say about the importance of a whole series of social and historical fac­tors in this process:

"All the argument is about tradition, culture and age fly in the face of the historical fact that the countries where the proletariat most succ­eeded in homogenizing its revolutionary consciousness were Russia and Hungary, where the working class was relatively young, without long-standing traditions and with a rather low level of bourgeois education."

However, in his apparent rage against coherence, he has already given us the answer to this: "But what is possible (in terms of struggle and the development of political consciousness) depends also upon the opposition the workers have to overcome. And here again we see important differences between the situation in 1917 and today. In 1917 the bourgeoisie was divided and disorganized by the war, disorientated by its lack of experience. Under these circumstances, there were indeed ‘weak links' in its defense which the proletariat could exploit."

This is precisely one of the great differences between the present situation and the one which existed in 1917. Today, educated by its exper­ience, the bourgeoisie is able, despite its imperialist rivalries, to constitute a united front against the class struggle. It has shown this on numerous occasions, especially at the time of the great struggles in Poland 1980-81 when East and West had a remarkable division of labor against the proletariat, a fact that we have often-written about in our press.

Faced with the struggles in Poland, the specific task of the West was to cultivate, via its propaganda in Polish-language radio and its trade unionist envoys, illusions about free trade unions and democracy. This propaganda could have an effect as long as the workers in the West, especially Western Europe, hadn't through their own struggles denounced trade unionism as an agent of the class enemy and dem­ocracy as the dictatorship of capital. On the other hand, the very fact that, in the eastern countries, and as an expression of the terrible counter-revolution which descended on this region (cf IR 34, ‘Eastern Europe: the weapons of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat'), the system cannot tolerate the long-term exist­ence of ‘free trade unions', regularly allows the latter to take on the martyr's halo and polish up their image in front of the workers. While the struggles of the workers in Poland dealt a decisive blow against surviving illus­ions in the West about ‘socialism' in the Russ­ian bloc, they left trade unionist and demo­cratic illusions virtually intact, both in the East and the West.

In the reciprocal aid that the bourgeoisies of both blocs gave each other in the face of the working class, it was the strongest bourgeoisie that was able to give the most. This is why the capacity of the world proletariat to generalize its struggles and embark upon a revolutionary struggle is fundamentally determined by the blows it can direct against the strongest sec­tors of the bourgeoisie.

This is also why, in the period to come, the elements which, for marxism, are at the basis of the proletariat's power, will have such a determining effect on its capacity to develop its consciousness:

-- its number, its concentration, the associated character of the proletariat's labor;

-- the culture which the bourgeoisie is obliged to dispense to it in order to raise the productivity of its labor[1];

-- its daily confrontation with the most elabor­ate forms of bourgeois traps;

-  its historical experience.

All these things exist to a greater or lesser extent wherever the proletariat labors, but they are most fully developed in the region where capitalism historically emerged: western Europe.

The unity of the proletariat

For comrade Sander, the key phrase is "the unity of the proletariat": "Capitalism's only (future) weak link is the worldwide unity of the proletariat." We fully agree. The problem is that he's not entirely convinced of this. Because we point to something that's obvious - the differences that exist between the diff­erent sectors of the working class - and be­cause we deduce from this some of the charact­eristics of the process towards the worldwide generalization of workers' struggles, he imag­ines that we are ignoring the unity of the world proletariat. As the resolution of January ‘83 says:

" ... unity does not mean the identity of parts, which remain subjected to different material conditions. There is no natural equality between the various organs and the heart and the brain of a living body; they carry out vital, comple­mentary functions ..."

"Determining the point of departure for this dynamic (the internationalization of the mass strike), and thus the best foundations for the beginning of the revolutionary earthquake does not mean denying the unity of the world prolet­ariat. It is the very process by which this potential unity becomes a real one."

This view is based on a dialectical and dynamic method which, to use Marx's terms, poses the abstract (the potential unity of the world prol­etariat) and then raises itself to the concrete (the real process whereby this unity develops). Sander starts with the first stage but, in line with his unilateral and partial approach, he forgets the second. Thus he remains locked in his abstractions and these prevent him from seeing the horizon, from grasping how the real process towards the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat will develop.


[1] For comrade Sander there's black and there's white and never the twain shall meet. For him, it seems there's no such thing as grey. He admits readily that there is a considerable difference between the strength of the proletariat in the advanced countries and that of the proletariat of the Third World, a difference connected to objective material factors. How­ever, the fact that intermediate situations can exist escapes him completely. Thus, when one takes into consideration a certain number of the elements that mark the degree of economic devel­opment of a country and the strength of the proletariat (see the table) , one is struck by the fact that the USSR and the countries of the eastern bloc display a considerable backwardness in comparison to the USA, Japan and western Europe.

If one takes factors such as:

-- Gross National Product per inhabitant, which allows one to see the average productivity of labor and its degree of association;

-- the proportion of the population living in the towns, which is one of the components of the level of concentration of the working class;

-- the proportion of the active population occup­ied in the agricultural sector, which illus­trates the weight of rural backwardness and is in inverse proportion to the level of agricult­ural labor's dependence on the industrial sector;

-- the proportion of the population which has kept up its studies to college level, which is an indication of the technical sophistication of the population;

-- infant mortality, which is a very clear expr­ession of economic and social backwardness; the USSR and the countries of eastern Europe are much nearer a country like Greece, which is a long way behind the situation of the most advan­ced countries.









Population (millions)








Number of inhabitants per sq. km.








Urban population (%)








Agricultural sector (% of the active population



















GNP per inhabitant (in dollar)








Students in tertiary education (% of population)








Infant mortality (%)








(a) Principal countries: West Germany, France, UK, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Spain

(b) except USSR: Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania.

(c) West Germany, France, UK, Italy

(d) Poland