Internal debate: The ICC and the politics of the "lesser evil"
In IR 40 we printed an article called ‘The Danger of Councilism' which defends the position the ICC has reached after more than a year of debate. In this debate, the ICC on the one hand reaffirmed that the perspectives of the proletarian struggle demand a clear rejection of the erroneous conceptions of ‘substitutionism' (the conception that the party is the unique repository of consciousness, leading to the conception of the dictatorship of the party) and ‘councilism' (the conception of consciousness as a simple reflection of immediate struggles, leading to the minimization of the function of the party and the negation of its necessity). On the other hand, the ICC was led to state precisely why, under the conditions of our period, the weaknesses and errors of a ‘councilist' type constitute a greater obstacle, a ‘greater danger', than the errors and conceptions of ‘substitutionism'. The ICC has not hesitated to systematize and refine its positions on consciousness, councilism, centrism, intervention, etc, by freeing them from any imprecisions and confused interpretations. But while the ICC sees this orientation as a way to place its positions on a terrain more firmly attached to the basis of marxism and at the same time to make them more able to deal with the questions raised by the acceleration of history, the article we are printing below sees this as a "new orientation", the acceptance of a theory of the "Lesser of two evils". It expresses the position of' minority comrades who have formed a tendency within the ICC. We can only regret that the article poses many questions without, in our opinion, trying to respond to the arrumentation of the article criticized. From our point of view, it expresses a centrist tendency in relation to councilism, because although it platonically asserts the danger of ‘councilism', it basically attenuates councilism's danger and only offers as a ‘perspective' that ... all errors are dangerous for the proletariat. We shall answer the different points raised in this article in the next issue of the Review.
In IR 40 is an article called ‘The Danger of Councilism' defending the new orientation of the ICC. According to this new theory, councilism is today, and will be in the future, the greatest danger for the working class and its revolutionary minorities, a greater danger than substitutionism. In this article we wish to express the position of a minority of comrades in the ICC who do not agree with this new orientation.
There is no question that councilist positions are a danger; they have been in the past and will be in the future. Councilism - the rejection of the need for the organization of revolutionaries, the party and its active and decisive role in the working class' coming to consciousness - is, as the ICC has always said, a danger, particularly for the revolutionary political milieu including the ICC, because the end result of such a theorization is to deprive the working class of its indispensable instrument.
The divergence is not on whether councilism represents a danger but:
a) over the new unilateral theory of councilism, the greatest danger;
- because it is accompanied by a dismissal of substitutionism as "a lesser danger";
- because it turns its back on the essential danger for the proletariat coming from the capitalist state and its extensions in the working class (the left parties, leftists, rank and file unionism etc, the mechanism of capitalist recuperation in the era of state capitalism) and focuses instead on a so-called inherent councilist defect of the "proletariat of the advanced countries";
- because it can only lead and is already leading to serious regressions on the meaning of the lessons drawn from the first revolutionary wave and from the workers' movement in general in the period of decadence;
b) on the implications of this theory on the understanding of the development of class consciousness: tending to reduce class consciousness to "theory and program" (IR 40) and the role of the class to assimilation of the program;
c) on a theory of "centrism/opportunism" which claims that "hesitation" and "lack of will" are the permanent ills of the working class movement; in the name of this theory, political parties and elements which definitively betrayed the proletariat are now put back into it, blurring class lines.
In this article, we shall only deal with the first aspect: the theory of councilism, the greatest danger. Discussion will continue on centrism and class consciousness in other articles to appear soon in our press.
Councilism, the greatest danger?
The article in IR 40 develops the following argumentation:
- the danger of substitutionism exists only in periods of reflux in a revolutionary wave;
- the danger of councilism is, on the contrary, "a much greater danger, especially in periods of a rising revolutionary wave";
- substitutionism can only find a fertile field in underdeveloped countries; councilist-type reactions are more characteristic of the workers in advanced like the workers in Germany during the first revolutionary wave;
- substitutionism is an "error", a "unique phenomenon ... of the geographic isolation of a revolution in only one country, an objective factor of substitutionism which is no longer possible." (IR 40)
What are these so-called "councilist reflexes" of rising class struggle, how can they be identified? According to the article they are everything from ouvrierism, localism, tail-ending, modernism, any apolitical reactions of workers, the petty-bourgeoisie, immediatism, activism and .... indecision. In short, the ills of creation. If every time the class hesitates, or falls into immediatism, if every time revolutionaries fall victim to tail-ending or fail to understand the way to form the party, it is interpreted as a manifestation of councilism, then ‘councilism' is indeed the new leviathan.
Through this trick of 'definitions', all the subjective weaknesses of the working class become councilist reflexes and the remedy is ... the party. In other words, the ICC, the proletarian political milieu and the entire working class will be protecting itself from any immediatism, petty-bourgeois influence, hesitation and so on by recognizing that the number one enemy is "underestimating", "minimizing" the party.
This whole idea of having to choose between 'under' or 'over'-estimating the party, this new variation of the politics of the lesser evil that the ICC had always rejected on a theoretical level, is being re-introduced on a practical level under the pretext of wanting to present a more "concrete" perspective to the class: we have to now agree to say to the workers that the danger of councilism is greater than that of substitutionism - otherwise the workers won't have any "perspective"!
Make your choice, comrades: if substitutionism is a danger for you, you are yourselves just councilists. If you refuse to choose sides, you are the carriers of "centrist oscillations in relation to councilism", "councilists who dare not speak their names." (IR 40)
It is claimed that "history" has proven this theory of councilism, the greatest danger. What history exactly? The ICC has always criticized in the German revolution the errors of Luxemburg and the Spartakists, the positions of the Essen tendency, of the anti-party tendency of Ruhle expelled from the KAPD in 1920 and the split of the AAUD(E) and in general, the disastrous consequences of the hesitation of the proletariat and the lack of confidence of revolutionaries in their role. Yet we have never before pretended to find the cause of this in a latent ‘councilism' of the proletariat of advanced countries. We have never tried to fit history into any cyclical theory of councilism as the greatest danger before a revolution and substitutionism only after a revolution.
Other than gratuitous assertions, the only ‘proof' offered in the article in the last issue is that "just as Luxemburg was in 1918, non-worker militants of the party will be in danger of being excluded from any possibility of speaking before the councils." And again in World Revolution 78 (December 1984): "the real danger facing the class is not that it will place ‘too much' confidence in its revolutionary minorities, but that it will deny them a hearing altogether." Here we are supposed to recognize the German proletariat's ‘councilism' against Luxemburg.
All this is a gross distortion of history. In December 1918 at the National Council of the Workers' Councils in Germany, none of the Spartakus League, workers or not, could defend their positions - not because the working class didn't allow them to but because Spartakus was a faction within the USPD.
"...to consider the fate of the Congress, we must first of all establish the relationship between the Spartacus League and the Independents. For when you read the Congress report you must certainly have wondered what had happened to the Spartakus group. You knew that some of us were there and you may have asked where were they? Or if you listened to any speeches you might have asked what were the fundamental differences between the Spartakus group and the Independents?...we were tied to the Independent faction, which hung around our necks like a millstone... which succeeded in interfering with the list of speakers and paralyzed our activities at every turn." (Levine's ‘Report on the First All-German Soviet Congress', in The Life of a Revolutionary, pp.190-192).
The revolutionary positions of Spartakus (that the councils declare themselves the supreme power, that they appeal to the world proletariat, that they support the Russian soviets, that they hear Luxemburg and Liebknecht speak on this) were presented and defended by the USPD ... which wanted to dissolve the councils in the Constituent Assembly. Spartakus (like the majority of the Communist International later on) wanted to "influence the masses" by trying to co-opt the USPD, "by seeing it as the right wing of the workers movement and not as a faction of the bourgeoisie." (IR. 2) But the ICC today, with its theory of ‘centrism', now sees the USPD, the party of Kautsky, Bernstein and Hilferding, as proletarian instead of recognizing it for what it was: an expression of the radicalization of the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie, a first expression of the phenomenon of leftism, the extreme barrier of the capitalist state against the revolutionary threat. Already in the past, it was Spartakus that got co-opted by seeing itself as an opposition within the USPD, the left- wing of social democracy, still clinging to the outmoded notion of a ‘right', ‘left' and ‘centre' in the working class. Failing to draw this lesson today is an open door to leftist recuperation.
All this has nothing to do with the myth about workers refusing to listen to revolutionaries because workers were or are councilists.
The errors of revolutionaries in the German revolution cannot be explained by an "underestimation of the role of the party." It isn't that they weren't ‘active enough' or didn't realize they had to intervene in struggle. The will to assume their role was definitely there. The tragedy was that they didn't know what to do, how to do it and with whom - in other words, what the new period of decadence meant for the communist program.
The difficulties revolutionaries faced in Germany are not attributable to a councilism of the German proletariat or its advance guard. They were fundamentally due to the general difficulty in all countries in getting free of social democracy, of its conception of the mass party and of substitutionism. At the time of the revolution, the predominant conception among revolutionaries and in the proletariat in Germany was not that the workers' councils were going to solve everything in and of themselves but that a party had to assume the power delegated by the councils. In actual fact, the councils were led to give their power to the social democracy.
How can anyone deny this obvious truth?
For the defenders of substitutionism, it's easy: when the class gave its power to the social democracy it was wrong; when it gave it to the Bolsheviks it was right. The whole thing is for the class to ‘trust' the ‘right' party. The ICC hasn't fallen into this of course. But for the ICC, turning power over to the social democracy is apparently no proof that substitutionism is a danger in the upsurge. No, according to IR 40 it was just an example of the "naivety" of the workers!
Bourgeois parties and leftists, you see, cannot be called substitutionist because they "want to deviate the struggle." It's when those who don't want to destroy the workers make a mistake that substitutionism comes into play. Thus, the same position, depending whose lips say it, can be a bourgeois position or not.
The minimization of substitutionism
In fact, unlike the position on unions and electoralism in the ascendant period of capital, substitutionism was always a bourgeois position, applying the model of the bourgeois revolution to the proletarian one. But because revolution was not yet historically possible, revolutionaries did not realize all the implications of this position. As the proletarian revolution approached, they began to feel the need for a major clarification of the program but were unable to develop all the ramifications of a new coherence. The first revolutionary wave exposed the substitutionist position on the party and all it implied about the relation of party and class for what it really is: a bourgeois position whatever the subjective intentions of those who defend it.
But for this new theory of councilism, the greatest danger in the upsurge, substitutionism is only a danger when the reflux of struggles gives strength to the counter-revolution. In other words, the counter-revolution is the greatest danger when it is already under your nose. Seeing its roots, going to the root of the matter is not necessary. First things first! First, fight ‘councilism'. Then we'll see what the proletariat can do with its parties.
The meaning and danger of substitutionism shrinks down to almost nothing. In referring to the Russian revolution the IR 40 explicitly states that before 1920 substitutionism didn't influence the degeneration of the revolution: "Only with the isolation and degeneration of the revolution did Bolshevik substitutionism become a really active element in the defeat of the class." (WR 73)
"From the pretension of directing the class in a military manner (cf. the "military discipline" proclaimed at the Second Congress), it was only one step to the conception of a dictatorship of the party, emptying the workers' councils of their real substance." (IR 40)
But the workers' councils in Russia didn't begin to be emptied of their proletarian life in 1920. On the contrary, that was the time of the last convulsions against the suffocation of the councils. The roots of this go back right to the day after the insurrection by the councils. This has always been the ICC position on the Russian revolution: "Since the seizure of' power the Bolshevik Party had entered into conflict with the unitary organs of the proletariat and presented itself as a party of government." (ICC pamphlet, Communist Organizations and Class Consciousness)
And we've shown this in many articles right from the beginning of the ICC while defending the proletarian character of October.
To say that the Bolsheviks' conceptions on the party were the cause of the degeneration is absolutely false but to assert, as the ICC apparently wants to today, that the Bolsheviks' positions did not play an active role (when they were wrong just as when they were correct) is untenable as a marxist position.
By reducing substitutionism, the ideological expression of the division of labor in class society, to a negligible quantity, the new ICC theory ends up by minimizing the danger of state capitalism, the political apparatus of the state and the mechanism of its ideological functioning.
The example of 1905, or even 1917 in Russia, is not the most telling way to predict how the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries will protect itself against revolution. The German bourgeoisie, warned after the first shock in Russia, with a more sophisticated political arsenal, was able to penetrate the councils from within not only by the industrialists who ‘negotiated' with the councils but especially through the social democracy's sabotage. The social democracy (and the Independents) far from "forbidding all parties" as the IR seems to fear as the greatest danger, accepted all of them and demanded proportional representation in the government. It even asked Spartakus to join the SPD/USPD government. To recuperate the movement, the SPD played on all the siren songs (contrary to the ‘councilism/substitutionism' divisions of the new theory): in some regions only workers could vote, in others it was the whole "population", or more representation for small factories; for and against the soldiers' councils, depending on how they went. Anything to win: recognizing and praising the councils, ouvrierism, democratism, the phraseology of the Russian revolution; anything to turn the workers from a final assault on the state. And all the while they were preparing the massacre. Spartakus itself didn't understand the radicalization of the bourgeoisie. And not one voice, even of the left clearer than Spartakus, was raised in protest from the beginning against this bourgeois vision of the relation between class and party in general.
In the future, the bourgeoisie will use anything and everything. Do we really believe that the bourgeoisie will not penetrate the councils? Or that the capitalist class is going to count on some fancied "councilist reflexes" of the workers sparing its system? Or will it simply rely on "councilist organizations" of the "petty bourgeoisie" as the IR suggests? The scenario seems to be that in a councilist fever the workers risk forbidding all parties in the councils ... and what will the bourgeoisie be doing through all this? Saying "good, at least there won't be the proletarian party there either"? Grudgingly, the IR admits that there may be base unionists in the councils. But how? As individuals? Who is behind base unionism if it isn't leftists, Stalinists and other organized political expressions? The struggle of the future won't be around forbidding parties but around which program and the need for the final assault on the state with all its tentacles.
This new theory mistakes the way the real danger for the working class - the capitalist state and all its extensions - will operate and vitiates the denunciation of substitutionism by presenting it as this ‘lesser evil'.
Today and tomorrow
It is impossible to work towards the dictatorship of the proletariat, to accelerate the process of consciousness in the class, by presenting substitutionism and anti-partyism as separate notions, one of which it is essential to understand but the other not so important. The only way to contribute is to consistently denounce the shared theoretical foundation of both substitutionism and anti-partyism and to defend a non-bourgeois vision of the relation of party and councils without concessions to any so-called lesser evils/dangers.
It is not as though the working class has never found the way to overcome the contradiction of substitutionism/anti-partyism. In the course of the revolutionary wave, the proletariat - despite its tragic defeat - was able to give expression to the political positions of the KAPD which rejected substitutionism yet reaffirmed the need for a party, offering elements towards understanding its true role. This heritage, because it was the highest point of the last wave, will be the departure point of the renaissance of tomorrow's workers' movement.
One of the greatest weaknesses of revolutionaries has always been to want to explain the slow, uneven, difficult process of the development of class consciousness throughout the whole history of the proletariat by defects in the proletariat itself (its ‘trade unionism', its ‘anarchism', its ‘councilism', its ‘integration into capitalism', etc) .
This new theory is just a reflection of a certain discouragement with the difficulty the working class has in generalizing its struggle, in asserting its own perspectives for society. This difficulty can only be overcome through the development of struggles and the experience acquired through these battles that will allow the class to rediscover its historical potential. This potential is not only the party but also the councils and communism itself. Seeing ‘councilism' in the class' difficulty in asserting itself today is just a plain mystification. The working class is no more fundamentally sapped by councilism than by Leninism or Bordigism - but it must painfully shake off all aspects of the dead weight of the counter-revolutionary period.
The proof that the weight of the errors of the counter-revolutionary period is diminishing both in relation to councilism and Bordigism (the PCI, Programma Comunista) can be seen in the decantation process that has occurred in the political milieu these past 15 years. Bourgeois ideas on substitutionism and anti-partyism have their main defend ers in the political apparatus of the ruling class (leftists, libertarians, etc) but because of the confusions of the counter-revolution, sclerotic proletarian currents have continued to defend these positions with different variations. The resurgence of proletarian struggles makes it possible to sweep away these vestigal positions whether through clarification of these groups or by their disappearance. We are not yet in a revolutionary situation where organizations defending bourgeois positions pass directly into the enemy camp but pressure from the acceleration of history, in the absence of clarification (cf. the failure of the International Conferences) leads to a decantation in the political milieu just as it leads to getting rid of illusions in the class as a whole.
After 15 years of decantation the remains of both the Dutch and the Italian left have both fallen into organizational decay. The course of history today shows the inadequacy and degeneration of both poles.
On the key question of our time, the road to the politicization of workers' struggles, both poles of reference from the past have shown their historic failure through an under-estimation of the present resurgence, an inability to understand its dynamic. Neither councilism nor Bordigism can understand how the revolution will come about or the dynamic of the course towards class confrontation.
Programma's refusal to discuss, the sectarianism and sabotage of the International Conferences by Battaglia and the CWO, have done as much as councilism to sterilize revolutionary energies and hinder the clarification so necessary to the regroupment of revolutionaries.
The IR 40 article makes no mention of this historic decantation nor can its new theory of councilism, the greatest danger, explain it.
The ICC now seems to want to polemicize with figments of its imagination. In the IR it's now Battaglia and the CWO who are ‘councilists' because their factory groups and gruppi sindicali are supposedly examples of the KAPD's confusions on the AAUD and not, as in fact they are, examples of the plain old party ‘transmission belts' to the class - an idea shared by many traditional currents of the Third International.
Desparately searching for a greater councilist danger, the IR finally fixes on "individualist petty bourgeois ideology" being the mortal scourge of the councils of tomorrow. At a time when everything points to the obvious fact that the illusions of the ‘60s are way behind us and that only collective struggle has any chance at all to make any dent in the system, how can anyone seriously maintain that "the greatest danger" for the revolution is petty bourgeois individualism?
The future evolution of the political milieu will not be a farcical repetition of May ‘68. Moreover, to think that the weight of the petty bourgeoisie is only channeled into ‘councilism' is nonsense.
The proletarian political milieu of the future will be formed on the lessons of the decantation process of today. Councilism will not be the greatest danger in the future any more than it was in the past.
The origins of the debate
When an organization starts to dabble in the politics of the lesser of two evils, it doesn't necessarily realize that it's going to end up distorting its principles. The process has its own logic.
As the IR article states, a confusion developed in the organization on the "subterranean maturation of consciousness". On the one hand, there was a rejection of the possibility of the development of class consciousness outside of open struggle (and the non-marxist idea that class consciousness is just a reflection of reality and not also an active factor within it). On the other, there was a theorization which held that the proletariat's difficulties in going beyond the union framework required a qualitative leap in consciousness which would happen through a pure "subterranean maturation" during a "long reflux" after the defeat in Poland. Aside from this idea of a long reflux which was quickly proven wrong by the resurgence of class struggle, this debate revealed how difficult it is to understand - in real terms and not just in theory - the path of the politicization of workers' struggles via a resistance to economic crisis today and, more generally, the framework given by the period of state capitalism for the maturation of the subjective conditions of revolution.
The existence of a subterranean maturation of class consciousness, the development of a latent revolutionary consciousness in the working class through its experience in the crisis and through the intervention of communist minorities within it, is a fundamental element of the entire conception of the ICC, the negation of both councilism and Bordigism. It was thus necessary to correct these confusions and clarify in depth. But even though subterranean maturation is explicitly rejected by both Battaglia and the CWO for example (see Revolutionary Perspectives 21) because this is perfectly consistent with the ‘Leninist' theory of the trade union consciousness of the working class (which Lenin defended at various times but not at others) and by the theorizations of degenerated councilism (but not by all of the Dutch left before the Second World War); the ICC decided that the rejection of subterranean maturation was ipso facto the fruit of councilism in our ranks. In the same way, the appearance of a non-marxist vision that reduced consciousness to a mere epiphenomenon, even though it denies both the role of a heterogeneous but inherent revolutionary consciousness in the class as a whole as well as the active role of revolutionary minorities, was interpreted just as unilaterally as a negation of the party. Thus in a resolution that was supposed to sum up the lessons of this debate, there was the following formulation:
"Even if they form part of a single unity and act upon one another, it is wrong to identify class consciousness with the consciousness of the class or in the class, that is to say its extension at a given moment ... It is necessary to distinguish between that which expresses a continuity in the historical movement of the proletariat,, the progressive elaboration of its political positions and of its program, from that which is linked to circumstantial factors, the extension of their assimilation and of their impact in the class."
This formulation is incorrect. It tends to introduce the notion of two consciousnesses. The notion of ‘extension' and ‘depth' applied to consciousness can and is, by other currents, interpreted as a question of qualitative and quantitative ‘dimensions' - especially since the formulation tends to reduce the question of class consciousness to theory and the role of the class to the ‘assimilation' of the program.
When reservations were expressed on this formulation, the new orientation on councilism, the greatest danger and on centrism were introduced into the organization. The present minority has formed a tendency in relation to all of this new theory in that it represents a regression in the theoretical armory of the ICC.
The stakes of the present debate
This article has had to confine itself to answering the points raised in IR 40. But even though these debates have had only a faint echo in our press up to now, it is necessary to see the whole range of the new theory in order to understand the stakes of this debate.
To quote only our public press:
- In WR, the Kautskyist conception of class consciousness is presented as simply a "bugbear"; the danger of substitutionism a mere diversion raised by ‘councilists'. The fact that giving a bourgeois role to the party does not defend the real function and necessity of the party any more than rejecting all parties, seems to be fading out of our press.
- "The ICC, like the KAPD and Bilan, is convinced of the decisive role of the party in the revolution." (IR 40) But the KAPD and Bilan do not defend the same function and role of the party - why start to blur this? It is true that the Italian left regressed after Bilan but it always basically defended Bordiga's conceptions on the party. Bilan began a very important critique of the party as integrated into the state apparatus but it reprinted as its own Bordiga's texts on the relation of party and class with the same lack of understanding of the role of the councils (seen unilaterally through the prism of the anti-Gramsci struggle) and the development of consciousness and the theory of mediation. Furthermore, the conceptions of Internationalisme in the ‘40s are not the same as Bilan's. And there is yet another evolution between Internationalisme's position on class consciousness and the ICC's .
- In Revolution Internationale 125, the Chauvinistic elements Froissard and Cachin are rebaptised ‘centrists' and ‘opportunists' and thus proletarian according to the ICC's new theory while in reality they were counter-revolutionary elements. Calling them ‘centrists' on the model of the tendencies in the workers' movement in ascendancy only served to give an ideological cover to the disastrous policies of the Communist International against the Left in the formation of the CPs in the west. But the grave danger that the use of this concept of centrism represents in the period of decadence for any revolutionary organization including the ICC can be seen two months later in RI; in no.127 the CP is ‘centrist', in other words not so good but still proletarian, until 1934! This is in explicit contradiction to the Manifesto of the foundation of the ICC: "1924-26: the beginning of the theory of ‘building socialism in one country'. This abandonment of internationalism signified the death of the Communist International and the passage of its parties into the camp of the bourgeoisie."
It is now imperative, whatever the confusions on the use of the term ‘centrism' in the past and even among our own comrades to realize that today any conciliation with the positions of the class enemy in the epoch of state capitalism manifest itself by the direct surrender to and acceptance of capitalist ideology and no longer - as in the period of ascendancy - by the existence of ‘intermediary' positions, neither Marxist nor capitalist. And this realization must come before the gangrene of the theory of ‘centrism' destroys our basic principles.
The present debates coming during an acceleration of history are the price the ICC is paying for the superficiality of its theoretical work in the past few years.
Any attempt to apply the notion of ‘councilism, the greatest danger' coherently will lead to destruction of the ICC's position on class consciousness, the touchstone of a correct understanding of class struggle and the role of the future party within it; on the lessons of the revolutionary wave; on state capitalism; on the class line between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The ICC's ability to fulfill the tasks it was set up to meet in the future historic confrontation will depend, to a large extent, on our ability, all of us, to overcome the present weaknesses and redirect the orientation of the present debates.