Internal debate: Centrist slidings towards councilism
In the previous issue of the International Review there appeared a discussion article signed by JA and entitled ‘The ICC and the Politics of the Lesser Evil', expressing the positions of a certain number of comrades who have recently constituted themselves into a ‘tendency'. Due to lack of time (the article only came to us a few days before the Review was due to be published), we weren't able to respond to this article at the time it appeared: we therefore propose to do this in this issue. However, this response won't be an exhaustive one in that comrade JA raises a whole number of diverse questions which couldn't be dealt with seriously in one article. The fact that we are not replying to all the arguments and questions contained in the text in no way implies that we want to avoid these issues (we will be returning to them at a later date), but simply that we prefer to give the reader a clear and precise view of the positions of the organization, rather than sowing confusion by mixing everything up together, as comrade JA unfortunately does in her article.
JA's text has the characteristic of bringing confusion rather than clarity to the issues in debate. The uninformed reader runs the risk of getting completely lost in it. In fact this text merely expresses in a particularly significant (one could almost say caricatured) way the confusion in which the comrades who have formed themselves into a ‘tendency' are conducting the debate. This is why, before responding directly to comrade JA's article, it is necessary - and it's our responsibility - to present to the reader certain elements of the way this debate appeared in our organization, if only to rectify and clarify what is said about this in JA's text.
The origins of the debate
The ICC's Difficulties in 1981
As for all communist organizations, the 1980s, the ‘years of truth' (see IR 20, ‘The 80s: Years of Truth'), have been a real test for the ICC. The considerable aggravation of the crisis of capitalism in these years, the intensification of rivalries between imperialist blocs, the growing weight and significance of workers' struggles, are a challenge to revolutionary groups to be equal to their responsibilities. In the proletarian milieu this challenge has resulted in major convulsions, going as far as the disintegration of organizations like Programma Comunista (accompanied by an evolution towards leftism on the part of the debris), the complete disappearance of other groups like Pour Une Intervention Communiste, and the flight into all sorts of opportunist practices (the flirtation of the Battaglia Comunista-Communist Workers' Organization tandem with Kurdish and Iranian nationalist groups; the participation of the Nuclei Leninisti Internazionalisti in all sorts of ‘collectives' with leftists ard in the referendum in Italy (see IR 39 and 40). For its part the ICC was not spared by this:
"Since its Fourth Congress (1981), the ICC has been through the most serious crisis in its existence. A crisis which...profoundly shook the organization, very nearly making it fall apart, resulting, directly or indirectly in the departure of forty members and cutting in half the membership of its second largest section. A crisis which took the form of a blindness and disorientation the like of which the ICC has not seen since its creation. A crisis which demanded the mobilization of exceptional methods if it was to be overcome: the holding of an extraordinary international conference, discussion and adoption of basic orientation texts on the function and functioning of the revolutionary organization, the adoption of new statutes." (IR 35, ‘The 5th Congress of the ICC')
An Effective but Incomplete Redressment: Councilist Deviations
Along with the Extraordinary Conference of January 1982, the 5th Congress of the ICC (July ‘83) was to represent an important moment in the recovery of the organization after the difficulties it encountered in 1981. However, despite the adoption of reports and resolutions (see IR 35), which were perfectly correct and which have retained their validity, the debates at this Congress revealed the existence within the organization of a certain number of weaknesses on three essential questions:
- the evolution of imperialist conflicts in the present period;
- the perspectives for the development of the class struggle;
- the development of consciousness in the proletariat.
On the first point, there was a certain tendency to underestimate the scale of these conflicts, to consider that, because the historic course is today towards generalized class confrontations (and not towards world war as in the ‘30s - see IR 18), we would see a progressive attenuation of the tensions between imperialist blocs.
On the second point, in the debates at the Congress the thesis was developed that the reflux in workers' struggles which the ICC had noted in 1981 would last a long time and that there would have to be a ‘qualitative leap' in the consciousness and struggles of the proletariat before there could be a new wave of class combats. A few months after the Congress this thesis - which, it should be said, didn't figure either in the report or the resolution on the international situation - was to show its pernicious and dangerous character when it prevented a number of comrades and several sections of the ICC from recognizing the importance of the struggles in the public sector in Belgium and Holland in autumn ‘83 as the first manifestations of a general resurgence of workers' struggles.
On the third point, both at the Congress and in internal texts, and without receiving a clear refutation from the organization as a whole, there emerged councilist views about the way the consciousness of the proletariat develops, as can be seen from the following extracts:
"...the formulation ‘subterranean maturation of consciousness' is to be rejected. First because the one and only crucible for class consciousness is the massive, open struggle...
Furthermore, in moments of retreat in the struggle there is a regression in consciousness.
The formulation ‘subterranean maturation of consciousness' expresses a confusion between two processes which, even if closely linked, are different: the development of the objective conditions and the maturation of consciousness.
The proletariat, especially its central fractions, is placed at the centre of capitalism's historical process and can thus understand the maturation of the objective conditions and transform this into the development of consciousness, but it can only do this in the struggle, ie. in the confrontation with capitalism...
Class consciousness doesn't advance like a university course... as a global phenomenon, it necessarily implies a global vision, and the only crucible for this is the massive, open struggle...
This formulation (subterranean maturation of consciousness) underestimates a phenomenon which occurs in moments of reflux: the regression which takes place in the class, the regression of consciousness. And we should not be afraid to recognize this because just as the workers' struggle follows a jagged course, so consciousness doesn't develop in a linear way but through advances and retreats...There are two factors which determine the level and development of consciousness: the ripening of capitalism's historical crisis and the balance of class forces. In each period of class struggle, these two factors, taken on a world level, determine the class' clarity as to its historical goals, its confusions, its illusions, even its concessions to the enemy...This happens through new struggles replying to the problems posed by the previous ones."
The comrades who identified with this analysis thought that they were in agreement with the classic theses of marxism (and of the ICC) on the problem of class consciousness. In particular, they never explicitly rejected the necessity for an organization of revolutionaries in the development of consciousness. But in fact, they had ended up with a councilist vision:
- by presenting consciousness as a determined and never a determining factor in the class struggle;
- by considering that the "one and only crucible of class consciousness is the massive, open struggle", which leaves no place for revolutionary organizations;
- by denying any possibility of the latter carrying out the work of developing and deepening class consciousness in phases of reflux in the struggle.
The only major difference between this vision and councilism is that the latter takes the approach to its logical conclusion by explicitly rejecting the necessity for communist organization whereas our comrades did not go as far as this.
The Resolution of January ‘84
In the face of various difficulties which had appeared within the ICC, its central organ adopted in January ‘84 a resolution on three themes (imperialist conflicts, perspectives for the class struggle, development of consciousness). Here we reproduce the last two points of this resolution (points 7 & 8).
"7. The aggravation of the crisis and the economic attacks on the working class are thus the main motive force behind the development of its struggles and consciousness. In particular, this is why the counterattack to the onslaught on working class living conditions, and not to the threat of war, will be for some time to come the mobilizing factor, even though the economic struggle is in fact an obstacle to this threat. However, we must not give this elementary materialist observation, this rejection of the idealist vision criticized above, a restrictive and unilateral interpretation foreign to marxism. In particular, we must avoid the thesis which sees the maturation of class consciousness as a mere result or reflection of the ‘maturation of the objective conditions', which considers that the struggles provoked by this maturation of objective conditions are the only crucible for forging this consciousness, the latter supposedly ‘regressing' with each retreat in the struggle. Against such a vision, the following points must be put forward:
a) Marxism is a materialist and dialectical approach: the class' practice is praxis, ie. it integrates class consciousness as an active factor. Consciousness is not only determined by objective conditions and the struggle, it is also determining in the struggle. It is not a mere static result of the struggle, but has its own dynamic, and becomes in its turn a "material force" (Marx).
b) Even if they are part of the same unity, and interact reciprocally, it is wrong to identify class consciousness with the consciousness of the class or consciousness in the class, that is to say, its extent at a given moment. Just as the latter derives from a great number of factors, both general-historical and contingent-immediate (especially the development of the struggle), so the former is a self-knowledge, not only in the class' immediate, present existence, but also in its future, in its becoming. The condition for coming to consciousness by the class is given by the historic existence of a class capable of apprehending its future, not by its contingent, immediate struggles. These, their experience, provide new elements to enrich it especially in periods of intense proletarian activity. But these are not the only ones: the consciousness arising from existence also has its own dynamic: reflection and theoretical research are also necessary elements for its development.
c) The periods of retreat in the struggle do not determine a regression or even a halt in the development of class consciousness: all our historical experience, from the theoretical deepening following the defeat of 1848 to the work of the lefts in the midst of the counterrevolution prove the contrary. Here again, we must distinguish between the continuity in the proletariat's historic movement - the progressive elaboration of its political positions and its program - and what is tied to circumstantial factors - the extent of their assimilation and impact in the class as a whole.
d )The questions and problems posed in past struggles will not be answered solely in the course of future struggles. Not only do revolutionary organizations make a large contribution, in the period between struggles, to drawing and propagating the lessons of the class' experience, there is a whole work of reflection carried out throughout the working class, to appear in new struggles. A collective class memory exists, which also contributes to the development of consciousness and to its extension in the class, as we could see, once again, in Poland, where the struggles of 1980 revealed an assimilation of the experience of those of 1970 and 1976. On this level, it is important to emphasize the difference between a period of historical retreat of the proletariat - the triumph of the counter-revolution - where the lessons of its experience are momentarily lost for the vast majority, and periods like today where the same generations of workers take part in the successive waves of combat against capitalism, and progressively integrate into their consciousness the lessons of these different waves.
e) Massive and open struggles are indeed a rich source for the development of consciousness, and above all for the speed with which it spreads in the class. However, they are not the only one. The organization of revolutionaries is another forge for the development and grasp of consciousness, an indispensable tool in the immediate and historical struggle of the class.
f) For all these reasons, there exists, in the moments between the open struggles, a ‘subterranean maturation' of class consciousness (the "old mole" so dear to Marx), which can be expressed both in the deepening and clarification of the political positions of revolutionary organizations, and in a reflection and decantation throughout the class, a disengagement from bourgeois mystifications.
g) In the final analysis, any conception which derives consciousness solely from the objective conditions and the struggles that they provoke is unable to take account of the existence of an historic course. If the ICC since 1968 has pointed out that the present historic course is different from that of the 1930s, that the aggravation of the economic crisis will culminate, not in world imperialist war but in generalized class confrontations, this is precisely because it has been able to understand that the working class today is nowhere near as open to the bourgeois mystifications - especially on anti-fascism and the nature of the USSR - which has made it possible to derail its discontent, to exhaust its combativity and to enroll it under the bourgeois flag. Even before the historic renewal of the struggle at the end of the ‘60s the consciousness of the proletariat was thus already the key to the perspective for the life of society at the end of the 20th Century."
The development of the debate and the constitution of a ‘tendency'
The ‘Reservations' on Point 7 of the Resolution and How They Were Characterized in the ICC
When this resolution was adopted, the ICC comrades who had previously developed the thesis of ‘no subterranean maturation', with all its councilist implications, acknowledged the error they had made. Thus they pronounced themselves firmly in favor of this resolution and notably of point 7 whose specific function was to reject the analyses which they had previously elaborated. But at the same time, other comrades raised disagreements with point 7 which led them either to reject it en bloc or to vote for it ‘with reservations', rejecting some of its formulations. We thus saw the appearance within the organization of an approach which, without openly supporting the councilist theses, served as a shield or umbrella for these theses by rejecting the organization's clear condemnation of them or attenuating their significance. Against this approach, the ICC's central organ was led in March ‘84 to adopt a resolution recalling the characteristics of
" - opportunism as a manifestation of the penetration of bourgeois ideology into proletarian organizations, and which is mainly expressed by:
* a rejection or covering up of revolutionary principles and of the general framework of marxis t analyses
* a lack of firmness in the defense of these principles
- centrism as a particular form of opportunism characterized by:
* a phobia about intransigent, frank and decisive positions, positions that take their implications to their conclusions
* the systematic adoption of medium positions between antagonistic ones
* a taste for conciliation between these positions
* the search for a role of arbiter between these positions
* the search for the unity of the organization at any price, including that of confusion, concession on matters of principle, and a Zack of rigour, coherence and cohesion in analyses"
Next, the resolution "underlines the fact that, like all other revolutionary organizations in the history of the workers' movement, the ICC must defend itself in a permanent manner against the constant pressure of bourgeois ideology and the danger of it infiltrating its ranks." It considers "that, as for all the other organizations, the tendency towards centrism constitutes one of the important weaknesses of the ICC, and is one of the most dangerous ... that this weakness has been manifested on a number of occasions in our organization, notably ...
- at the time of the development of a councilist approach in the name of the rejection of the ‘subterranean maturation of consciousness', through a clear reticence about rigorously rejecting this approach
- (in January 1984) through a difficulty in pronouncing clearly, through hesitations and ‘reservations' that were not explicit ... with regard to the resolution on the international situation."
Then the resolution "warns the whole ICC against, the danger of centrism." It "calls on the whole organization to be fully aware of this danger in order to combat it with determination each time it appears." Finally, the resolution "considers that one of the main dangers of the present time is constituted by a slide towards councilism - a slide illustrated by the analysis rejecting ‘subterranean maturation' - and which, in the coming period of massive struggles by the proletariat in the central countries of capitalism, will constitute, for the whole class and for its revolutionary minority, a real danger, having a more important and pernicious influence than the danger of falling into substitutionist conceptions." And the resolution concludes "that within the ICC at the moment there is a tendency towards centrism - ie towards conciliation and lack of firmness - with regard to councilism."
The Tendency Towards Centrism vis-a-vis Councilism
The tendency towards ‘centrism vis-a-vis council-ism' was to be illustrated in the ‘explanations of votes' requested from the comrades who voted for point 7 of the resolution ‘with reservations' or rejected it. While certain comrades recognized their own doubts and lack of clarity, others attributed this lack of clarity to the resolution itself, raising the accusation that it:
- "cuts too close to conceptions which defend the idea of two consciousnesses in the revolutionary struggle" (like socialist consciousness and trade union consciousness as distinguished by Kautsky and Lenin);
- "develops formulations that leave the door open to ‘Kautsky-Leninist' interpretations of the process of development of working class consciousness", or has "a very Hegelian ring to it", or that it "says nothing different from what the Bordigist say, for example";
- "flirts with Leninist conceptions" and "constitutes a regression" with regard to the "going beyond of Leninism" which the ICC had previously achieved;
- is "closed into an approach which makes it seem that class consciousness is an already achieved entity ... It implies that class consciousness is there somewhere in the hands of a minority and that the historical contribution of the class as a whole is simply to accept it, ‘assimilate' it ..."
One of the characteristics of the ‘reservations' was thus to attribute to the resolution ideas which aren't in it and which are even explicitly rejected by it (as can be seen by re-reading it). In particular, it was seen to contain ‘Bordigist' or ‘Leninist' conceptions, which is the classic accusation of the councilists against the positions of the ICC (just as ‘Bordigist' or ‘Leninist' groups see the same positions as councilist). The concessions to councilism were all the more flagrant when the ‘reservations' tended to put the councilist analyses which had appeared previously, and their critique in point 7, on the same level, by considering that while the former was "led to cite a correct idea ... in order to demonstrate a false one", the latter "is led clumsily to combat what is correct ... in order to put forward ideas that are right."
These concessions were also expressed in another ‘reservation' which considered that these councilist analyses "stem more from acute exaggeration in the debate about the maturation of consciousness ... than from a deliberate desire to pass off councilist conceptions when no-one was looking."
These are clear examples of the ‘centrist attitude towards councilism' identified by the ICC, in that they:
- posed as an arbiter between two conflicting positions;
- came to the aid of the councilist position by refusing to call it by its name;
- created smokescreen to obstruct the clarification of the debate (eg, the introduction of term like ‘deliberate' and ‘when no-one was looking' which had never appeared in the debate).
We also find this approach in the text by comrade JA (IR 41) when it tries to present the 'origins of the debate':
" ... even though subterranean maturation is explicitly rejected by both Battaglia and the CWO, for example ... because this is perfectly consistent with the ‘Leninist' theory of the trade union consciousness of the working class ... and by the theorizations of degenerated councilism... the ICC decided that the rejection of subterranean maturation was ipso facto the fruit of councilism in our ranks."
It is enough to reread the above extracts from the analyses rejecting the notion of subterranean maturation to see that the approach behind this rejection is quite clearly of a councilist nature (even if those other than the councilists, and with other arguments, also reject this notion). Of course in order to see this it's necessary not to be the victim of a councilist vision yourself. The comrades who criticized point 7 fixated on this question of subterranean maturation without seeing that the rejection of it was based on a councilist approach, and the reason they didn't see it was that in the final analysis they were in agreement with such an approach even if they didn't follow to the end all of its implications (another characteristic of centrism). This is why point 7 of the resolution doesn't deal with ‘subterranean maturation' until its sixth and final paragraph, after refuting all the chains in the reasoning which leads to the rejection of this notion. For the ICC, as for marxism in general, it's important to attack the roots of the conceptions it is combatting, rather than pruning this or that twig. This is the difference between the radical marxist critique and the superficial critiques put out by all the viewpoints alien to marxism, notably by councilism.
The Avoidance of the Problem by the ‘Reservationist' Comrades
This incapacity of the ‘reservationist' comrades to refute seriously the councilist conceptions which had been introduced into the organization was illustrated in the fact that they have never proposed another formulation of point 7 despite repeated requests by the ICC and even though they set about doing this in April ... 1984. There's nothing mysterious about this. When you yourself have fallen victim of a councilist vision, you're not very well armed to condemn councilism. What's more, this was understood by certain of these comrades: having failed in their efforts to reformulate this point, they became aware of their councilist errors and in the end came to support point 7 without reservations, as had, in January ‘84, the comrades who had elaborated the councilist thesis of ‘no subterranean maturation'. The other comrades, on the other hand, chose to avoid the problem: in order to mask their incapacity to condemn councilism clearly, they began to raise a whole series of other questions foreign to the original debate. Thus, amongst other objections (we'll save the reader an exhaustive list), it was said that:
1. "nothing authorizes (the central organ) to unilaterally decide, without proof, that the ICC is, in this debate, in the presence of a councilist tendency or a tendency of conciliation towards councilism", and that the organization was "launching a quixotic campaign against councilist and centrist windmills";
2. that the March 1984 resolution gives a "psychologizing and behavioral definition of centrism", "a purely subjective definition of centrism in terms of behavior and no longer in political terms."
3. that in any case, you couldn't talk about centrism in the ICC because centrism, like opportunism in general, are specific phenomena of the ascendant period of capitalism, an idea which can be found in JA's text;
4. that, because of this, we can in no way consider that the USPD, given in the debate as an example of a centrist party, belonged to the working class; that it was, from the beginning, "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." (IR 41)
In this article we won't enter into the refutation of these objections, but a few precisions have to be made here.
1. We can understand quite well why comrades who have themselves become imprisoned in a centrist attitude towards councilism should consider that the ICC's conduct against this approach is nothing but "a quixotic campaign against councilist and centrist windmills." Everyone knows the story of the knight who couldn't find the horse he was sitting on. However, myopia and distraction, as well as ignorance (as Marx said against Weitling) are not arguments.
2. Their attempt to define centrism in ‘political terms' rather than ‘behavioral terms' show that they haven't understood one of the basic elements of marxism: in the class struggle, behavior, comportment, is an eminently political question. Hesitations, vacillations, indecision, the spirit of conciliation, lack of firmness, all of which affect the class or the revolutionary organization during the course of the struggle, are in no way reducible to ‘psychology' but are political facts expressing capitulations or weaknesses in the face of the pressure of bourgeois ideology and in the face of the tasks which await the proletariat, tasks whose scale has no precedence in history. Marxists have always posed the problem in these terms. This is why Rosa Luxemburg, in her polemic against opportunism, could write:
"... The political ‘on the one hand - on the other hand', ‘yes - but' of the bourgeoisie of today resembles in a marked degree Bernstein's manner of thinking, which is the sharpest and surest proof of the bourgeois nature of his conception of the world." (Reform or Revolution)
Similarly, when she was explaining the shameful capitulation of social democracy on 4th August 1914, she talked not only about "objective causes" but also about "the weakness of our will to struggle, of our courage, of our conviction." (The Crisis of Social Democracy)
This is also why Bordiga defined the revolutionary party as "a program and a will to action" and why the platform of the ICC defines revolutionaries as "the most determined and combative elements in the struggles of the class."
3. The idea that opportunism and centrism are constant dangers for revolutionary organizations, and not specific to the ascendant period of capitalism, is in no way a "new orientation" of the ICC as comrade JA writes in her article. On the contrary, this is an acquisition of the organization which can be found not only in many articles in our press, but also in the official texts of the ICC, such as the resolution on proletarian political groups adopted by the ICC at its Second Congress, where it says:
"Any errors or precipitation here... could lead to deviations either of an opportunist or a sectarian nature which would threaten the very life of the Current." Similarly, "communist fractions who appear as a reaction to the degeneration of a proletarian organization ....base themselves not on a break but on a continuity with a revolutionary program which is being threatened by the opportunist policies of the organization." (IR 11)
These notions were also acquisitions for comrade JA herself when she wrote in IR 36 (concerning the approach of Battaglia Comunista):
"At the beginning of the twenties, the centrist majority of the Communist International, led by the Bolsheviks, chose to eliminate the Left to join with the Right (the Independents in Germany, etc) ... Although history repeats itself as farce, opportunism always remains the same." (IR 36: ‘In Answer to the Replies')
This couldn't be clearer. It has to be said therefore that as well as being myopic and a bit distracted the comrades of the minority also have a short memory ... and a lot of cheek.
4. All the insistence of the rninority comrades on the class nature of the USPD (an insistence found in JA's article even though it's not on the subject) is simply a diversion. Even if one considered that the USPD was a bourgeois organization (as was written wrongly ten years ago in the IR, and as JA is pleased to recall), this in no way would invalidate the idea that opportunism and centrism are today still dangers for proletarian organizations, are "always the same", as JA said so well a year and a half ago.
The Heterogeneity of the Critiques of the ICC's Orientations
In addition to the previous remarks, it must be said that the various objections raised against the ICC's orientations do not all come from the same comrades who have defended divergent views in the organization for over a year.
Thus, among the comrades of the minority, some voted against point 7 of the January ‘84 resolution, others voted for with reservations and others voted for without reservations and explicitly rejected the arguments of the ‘reservationists'. Similarly, the thesis of the nonexistence of the phenomena of opportunism and centrism in the period of the decadence of capitalism was for a long time only defended by certain minority comrades (in fact, by the ones who were in agreement with point 7), whereas others considered that opportunism and centrism:
- either had never been diseases of proletarian organizations but were direct expressions of the bourgeoisie (like the Bordigists who qualify bourgeois organizations like the CPs and SPs as ‘opportunist');
- or that they could manifest themselves within the workers' movement in the period of decadence, but not in the ICC;
- or that they could exist (and had already manifested themselves) in the ICC, but not with regard to councilism.
It should also be pointed out that the different positions weren't necessarily defended by different comrades: some defended them in succession and even simultaneously (!)
Finally, the position on the danger of councilism as expressed in JA's text was also for a long time not the position of all the minority comrades.
A ‘Tendency' With No Coherent Basis
Up until the end of 1984, this heterogeneity between the positions of different minority comrades was expressed in the debate and was also recognized by the comrades themselves. Thus, the constitution of a ‘tendency' at the beginning of 1985 by these same comrades was a surprise for the ICC. Today these comrades affirm that they share the same analysis on the three main questions which have provoked disagreements since January ‘84:
- point 7 of the resolution
- the danger of councilism
- the menace of opportunism and centrism in proletarian organizations.
Comrade JA puts it in these terms:
"When reservations were expressed on this formulation, the new orientation on councilism the greatest danger, and on centrism were introduced into our 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." (IR 41)
For its part, the ICC does not consider that this is a true tendency presenting a positive alternative orientation to the organization, but an agglomeration of comrades whose real cement is neither the coherence of their positions, nor a profound conviction in these positions, but an attitude of being ‘against' the orientations of the ICC in its combat against councilism, as can be seen from the above citation from JA's text.
However, while the ICC considers that the constitution of the ‘tendency' is simply the continuation of the politics of evasion in which the comrades have been stuck for over a year, it still accords them the rights of a tendency - as recognized in our principles of organization, which are explained for example in the ‘Report on the Structure and Functioning of the Organization of Revolutionaries' (IR 33). The minority comrades think they are a tendency; the ICC thinks to the contrary but prefers to convince the comrades of their error rather than prevent them from functioning as a tendency. But it remains the ICC's responsibility to say clearly, as it does in this article, what it thinks of the approach of these comrades, and of JA's article which is an illustration of this approach.
Comrade JA's article: an illustration of the approach of the minority comrades
We've seen that the centrist slidings towards councilism on the part of the comrades in disagreement have been expressed throughout the debate by a tendency to avoid the real problems under discussion. This is still the approach of comrade JA's article when it proposes to reply to the article in IR 40 and to the ICC's analysis of the ‘danger of councilism'. We can't deal with all the examples of this approach here: we could easily get lost in details. Here we will restrict ourselves to some of the more significant examples.
The ICC's So-called ‘Politics of the Lesser Evil'
The title and various passages of JA's article suggest or even affirm openly that the ICC's analysis amounts to the ‘politics of the lesser evil'.
"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 reintroduced 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'." (IR 41)
We are obliged to say that either comrade JA doesn't know what she's talking about, or she's falsifying our positions in a deliberate and unacceptable way. The ‘politics of the lesser evil' consists, as its name implies, in choosing one evil against another. It was in particular illustrated in the 1930s, especially by Trotskyism, in the choice between the two capitalist evils, bourgeois democracy and fascism, to the benefit of the former. It led to calling the workers to put a priority on the struggle against fascism to the detriment of other aspects of the struggle against the capitalist state. It resulted in supporting (and even participating directly in) the dragooning of the workers into one camp in the imperialist war. In politics words have the meaning that history has conferred on them: the essence of the ‘politics of the lesser evil', as illustrated by history, is the submission of the interests of the proletariat to the interests of one capitalist sector and thus of capitalism as a whole. To apply this notion to the ICC's positions is to suggest that the ICC has embarked upon the same path as the one which led Trotskyism, for example, into the bourgeois camp, We dare to hope that it is more out of ignorance than out of any deliberate policy that comrade JA has allowed polemical argument to be replaced by more gratuitous insults, even though one could think the opposite when she writes:
"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." (IR 41)
But even if this does come from ignorance, ignorance is no more an argument today than it was in Marx's time.
Concerning the way the ICC poses this problem, it's clear that it in no way calls for a choice between the councilist evil and the substitutionist evil: both of them, if the proletariat doesn't go beyond them, are mortal dangers for the revolution.
The question posed by the ICC is not, therefore, ‘which one is preferable to the other?', but ‘which one will have the most influence in the period ahead?', so that the organization and the class as a whole are as well-armed as possible against the pitfalls that lie ahead. When you go for a walk, you could for example be bitten by a poisonous snake or run over by a car. Both dangers are fatal and are to be avoided equally. But if you're walking down a forest path you'd better watch out for the first danger, and this doesn't mean you'd ‘prefer' to be run over by a car. This image, already used in internal debate, must have seemed a bit ‘simplistic' to comrade JA. She prefers to ascribe to the ICC positions which it doesn't hold: it's obviously much easier to fight such positions, but it doesn't take the debate a flea-hop further, unless to reveal the poverty of the arguments of the ‘tendency' comrades and their propensity for eluding the real questions.
‘The Greatest Danger is the Bourgeoisie'
"The divergence is not on whether councilism represents a danger but...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'...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'." (IR 41)
As we can see, the falsification of the ICC's positions is not restricted to the question of the lesser evil. Comrade JA also has the ICC saying that councilism is the great danger threatening the working class. She thus shows either her bad faith, or her incomprehension of the difference between a superlative and a comparative, even though this is on the primary school syllabus. To say that in the present period ahead councilism will be a greater danger for the working class than substitutionism is quite different from saying that councilism is the greatest danger in the absolute. Furthermore, with the same elementary lack of rigor, JA has us ‘dismissing substitutionism as a lesser danger'. Is it worth explaining to comrade JA that if, in a group, you say that ‘Peter is the tallest' or that ‘Peter is taller than Paul', this doesn't necessarily mean that Paul is the smallest, unless the group is reduced to these two elements. In the context of the ICC's debate this would imply that the ICC sees only two dangers for the working class: councilism and substitutionism. Comrade JA doesn't go to this absurd length but it is the implicit accusation contained in her strenuous insistence on "the essential danger for the proletariat coming from the capitalist state and its extensions in the working class." Frankly, if JA wrote her article to teach us that the greatest danger for the proletariat comes from the enemy class and its state, she needn't have bothered: we know this already. And here again the debate hasn't been advanced very much, except to show that alongside the falsification of the ICC's position, there's another way of evading the real problems: kicking open doors.
Caricature As a Way of Not Going to the Root of the Debate
To evade the real questions, it's not always necessary to kick open doors or falsify the positions you claim to be fighting. You can also caricature them. Comrade JA doesn't miss her chance. Thus, the article in IR 40 on ‘The Danger of Councilism', in the part on the conditions for the appearance of councilism and its characteristics, describes how councilism was a gangrene in the German Left which made it slide towards the rejection of centralism, towards localism, neo-revolutionary syndicalism, factoryism, ouvrierism, individualism. It shows that while these are not specific characteristics of councilism, councilism is led to fall into traps of this kind through a whole logical process which starts off from the negation or underestimation of the role of the revolutionary party. Similarly, it tries to show how in the period after 1963, the weight of councilism led many groups to fall into modernism, immediatism and activism, particularly under the pressure of the ideology of the rebellious petty bourgeoisie.
When comrade JA seeks to tell us what she has understood of this argumentation, she shows either that she hasn't understood, or that she hasn't taken the trouble to do so. Judge from the following:
"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 reaction of workers, the petty bourgeoisie, immediatism, activism and... indecision. In short, the ills of creation...‘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', ‘minimising' the party." (IR 41)
It suffices to re-read the article in IR 40 to see that what is described there is a process and the causal links between the different stages of this process, and that this has nothing in common with the chaotic photography presented by comrade JA. This way of caricaturing the ICC's positions may be effective for convincing those who are already convinced or for whom rigorous thought is an intolerable prison. But it's not very effective for clarifying the real debate.
To conclude this part, we should say that the ICC pamphlet Communist Organizations and Class Consciousness, which the comrades of the ‘tendency' are always referring to, deserves the same reproaches that JA directs against the article in IR 40, in particular when it says:
"It is logical that this immediatist conception of class consciousness leads the councilists to topple into workerism and localism...But pushed to its final conclusion, the councilists' apology for the strictly economic struggle of the proletariat ends in the pure and simple self-destruction of all revolutionary organizations."
The Non-Responses of Comrade JA
The different techniques for evading the debate which we've just seen (and which is much more widely used in JA's article than we can point to here) are completed by an even simpler technique: purely and simply ignoring the most important arguments of the analysis you claim to be fighting.
Thus, the following arguments of the text on ‘The Danger of Councilism' don't get the slightest response in JA's article:
- the weight of substitutionism in the past was linked to the social democratic conception of the party as the ‘educator', ‘representative', or ‘general staff' of the class;
- these conceptions were able to gain ground in a period when the proletariat was growing and thus immature (this is particularly true in more backward countries with a young and weak proletariat);
- these conceptions will have much less weight in the proletariat after the experience of the Stalinist counter-revolution and all the theoretical reflection of the Communist Left on this question and on the role of the party in the revolution;
- the fact that the next revolutionary wave will necessarily begin from the advanced countries; from the oldest and most experienced part of the proletariat, will further lessen the weight of substitutionism in the working class as a whole: in this sense, the experience of the revolution in Germany between 1918 and 1923 - where the main difficulty affecting the most advanced elements of the class was not substitutionism but councilism - is much more significant for the next revolution than the experience of the revolution in Russia where substitutionism played such a negative role;
- the weight of councilism in the coming revolution will be all the greater in that the struggle will be directed against the Stalinist and social democratic parties. The workers' distrust for these parties will tend to express itself, as it does already, in a distrust for all political organizations which claim to be fighting for the interests of the working class, including the genuine revolutionary ones;
- nearly half a century of counter-revolution and the resulting organic rupture in its communist organizations will not only lead to a giant number of the most combative workers not to understand the necessity to commit themselves to these organizations but also makes it extremely difficult for the militants of these organizations to understand the whole importance of their role, the absolutely indispensable character of the revolutionary party and the organizations which prepare it, the enormous responsibility which lies on their shoulders - all of which are expressions of councilist deviations.
The fact that comrade JA evades responding to these arguments (of which we've only reproduced the main threads here), which are central to the defense of the ICC's analysis, is characteristic of the inability of the ‘tendency' to mount serious arguments against this analysis. The most ironic thing in all this is the fact that one of the few serious arguments contained in JA's text, probably the most important in the defense of the ‘tendency's' position, is hardly used. It's as though comrade JA would rather attack a fortress with a catapult when she's already got a cannon at her disposal (even if it is of insufficient caliber).
A Serious Argument
One has the impression that the following phrase finds its way into the text almost by accident:
"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." (IR 41)
Let's leave aside the cavalier way that JA talks about the ICC seeing substitutionism as a "negligible quantity". This is not the position of the ICC. The fact is that substitutionism is incontestably an "ideological expression of the division of labor in class society". In this sense, one could be led to the conclusion that because thousands of years of class society impregnate society today, including the revolutionary class, the proletariat will have the greatest difficulty in ridding itself of the ideological burden created by the hierarchical division of labor which has prevailed for millennia and which is expressed in substitutionism. In fact, this was particularly true in the past when substitutionism manifested itself in the Babouvist and Blanquist sects which were directly influenced by the schema of the bourgeois revolution in which a party (for example the Jacobins) necessarily had to take power on behalf of the whole of its class. This model of the bourgeois revolution continued to exert a very strong influence on the working class - which tended to see it as the only possible model for the revolution - as long as it itself had not yet engaged in massive struggles against capitalism and in attempted revolutions. But the accumulation of these positive and negative experiences (such as the degeneration of the revolution) on the one hand and on the other hand the distance in time between the bourgeois revolutions and the revolution in Russia, have allowed the proletariat to disengage itself gradually from the weight of the past. Does this mean that substitutionism can no longer threaten the working class or its political minorities? Obviously not, and the ICC has always been clear about this, as can be seen from the article in IR 40. Rather, the question posed is: with what impact and in what way will this weight continue to make itself felt? Marx gives us the key in The 18th Brumaire when he says that while bourgeois revolutions necessarily drape themselves in the costumes of the past, "the weight of dead generations which weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living" will tend to lessen with the proletarian revolution, "which draws its poetry from the future." The proletarian revolution can only take place on the basis of a radical break with centuries of capitalist domination and millennia of class divisions, and by taking up the perspective of a communist society (the ‘poetry of the future'). In particular, this implies a break with substitutionism. On the other hand, one element will weigh for a very long time on the proletariat, as it has already weighed considerably in the past; an element which, even though permanently exploited and activated by bourgeois ideology results from a specific characteristic of the working class which it doesn't share with any previous revolutionary class. This is the fact that the proletariat is the only class in history which is both an exploited and a revolutionary class. This element has led to great difficulties for the class - and for its revolutionary minority - to grasp the relationship between these two aspects of its being, a relationship which is neither one of identity nor of separation. This difficulty is to a large extent concretized in councilism's rejection of the role of communist organizations: it's a difficulty in conceiving the proletariat as a class with a revolutionary future, one of whose expressions is precisely the existence of these organizations. This is why councilism tends to meet up with anarcho-syndicalism, for whom the organs of struggle of the proletariat as an exploited class - the unions - had to be the organs for running the future society. This is why councilism falls ineluctably into economism or factoryism, which also express this incapacity to conceive the struggle of the proletariat as anything more than a struggle strictly limited to the workplaces where the workers are exploited, and which turn their back on a general, social world-wide, political vision of the revolutionary process.
Thus, when we attempt to examine the difficulties the working class will encounter on the road to revolution, it's important to take into account all the historical elements which lie behind these difficulties, and not just some of them. Otherwise, the perspective we develop will be distorted and of little use to the proletariat in the battles that lie ahead . But obviously we have to start off with the idea that the proletariat does require a perspective for its struggle and not fall into the view of the CWO-Battaglia, for whom the analysis of the historic course (towards world war or towards generalized class confrontations) is of no interest. Comrade JA does seem to doubt this when she says ironically: "we now have to 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'." What she proposes instead is: no perspective!
The basis of JA's approach: slidings towards councilism
In reality, and in a contradictory manner (since towards the end of her text she seems to say that neither substitutionism nor councilism will be a danger, what with the bankruptcy, after 1968, of the currents descending from the Italian Left and the German Left), what JA's arguments amount to at root is that substitutionism is a much greater danger than councilism.
This is why she spends so much time in her text identifying substitutionism with leftism, substitutionism with the counter-revolution, whereas the article in IR 40 shows precisely that substitutionism is, of course, a "fatal error", but that it applies to the relationship between the class and its own organizations and not those of the bourgeoisie. This is why she writes:
"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." (IR 41)
In fact, the debate on the role of the party has since the last century taken place within marxism, which has always defended the necessity of the revolutionary party, whereas the rejection of any party is alien to marxism and had its first advocates amongst the anarchists. In order to be able to say that the role of the party is not to take power, you first have to recognize that it has a role.
In the final analysis, what the thesis of the ‘tendency', as defended by JA in her article, is trying to show, even if it doesn't say so openly, is that there is no councilist danger, notably for revolutionary organizations and most particularly for the ICC. So the comrades of the ‘tendency' can be at peace: they can in no way be the victims of slidings towards councilism and the ICC is just tilting at windmills.
For the ‘tendency', there is no real danger of councilism. For the ICC, this danger is very real. The proof: the whole approach of the ‘tendency'.