Polemic with the IBRP: Task of revolutionaries in the peripheral countries

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In no. 9 of its theoretical publication Prometeo, Battaglia Comunista published ‘Proposed theses on the tactics of communists in the peripheral count­ries', which appeared in English in the third edit­ion of the Communist Review, publication of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP), in the hope of persuading, the IBRP to adopt these theses[1].

The ICC can but greet with delight this attempt to give a well defined guideline for intervention in a sector of the class which is so important, a sector where the absence of clear guidelines led to a precipitate flirtation on the part of Battaglia Comunista (BC) with bourgeois groups such as the UCM from Iran[2] or the RPP in India.

The proposed resolution deals with three kinds of problem. Firstly, the reaffirmation of BC's general positions on these countries; on the whole these positions are the same as ours (end of the period of capitalist development, counter-revolutionary nature of the so-called struggles for nation al liberation, etc). Secondly a definition of the approach to adopt towards groups in these countries who say they are concerned to have a coherence on a class basis. We have already commented many times on the basic opportunism of this approach and we shall not be afraid to return to it in a more systematic way. Thirdly, and this the specific object of these theses, what tactics must communists adopt in these countries which are on the peripheries of capitalism. Our critique is concerned with this last point specifically, not only to point to this or that particular error, but to show up the opportunism inherent in the attempt to get immediate results, which runs through the theses and poisons them.

In fact, many groups, including BC, have turned to work towards the peripheries of capitalism after the failure of the International Conferences of the Communist Left[3] at the beginning of the ‘80s. As they thought it a "waste of time" to engage in "unending discussion" within the Communist Left, they found it more gratifying and more exciting to have hundreds, or even thousands of followers. At this time, rather than contributing to the spread of communist ideas throughout the peripheral countries, they have been party to the penetration of the ideas of the bourgeois groups from the peripheries, such as the UCM-Komala, within the revolutionary milieu of the metropoles.

But the working class is international, as is the resurgence of its struggles, and in the long run, the effects of this resurgence will be felt even where the proletariat is dispersed and small in number. They can't sell us the peripheral countries anymore, only versions improved by the nationalists and third-worldists, but there is also the young voice of tiny groups who move towards a coherence on a class basis in spite of a thousand difficulties. And this voice is a critical voice which asks the communist organizations of the metropoles for clarity above all, for clarity on their own positions and on the real differences between them and other groups.

The debate between the revolutionary groups, which has been interrupted for several years in Europe, today returns to the agenda with force, because of these comrades in the peripheries, in whose name the debate between the groups of the Communist Left was pronounced dead and buried.

The international communists of the metropoles have no reason to be satisfied with the advantage that history and the experience of the proletariat of which they are an expression, has given them in comparison with the comrades in periphery. On the contrary, they should reflect on their lateness in forming a common pole of clarification to serve as a reference point for comrades in all countries. this is the task we set ourselves, the comrades of the IBRP and the whole of the proletarian political milieu. It is a shame that it can't be realized immediately.  

The indispensable unity between "program" and "tactics"

"Objectives which are partial, contingent, simply tactical, can never be assimilated to the programmatic objectives of the Communist Party. This means that they can never and should never be a part of the communist program.

To make this thesis clearer by giving an example, we will refer to the question of the base organizations of the proletariat. What is part of the communist program is the centralized nature of the workers' councils at a national and international level, on the basis of units of production and territorial units (...) On the other hand, what isn't part of the communist program, but is certainly part of communist tactics - is the freeing of the proletariat from the prison of unionism in the struggle against capitalism through its autonomous organizations in the general assemblies in the factories, which are coordinated and centralized through elected and revocable delegates" (Preamble). The reason behind this distinction is that "if the movement of the proletariat attains this objective ("tactical") independently of a global strategy of attacks against the bourgeois power, it would be rapidly recuperated (by the bourgeoisie". (ibid)

It's true that any partial victory of the workers can be recuperated by the bourgeoisie, but this can happen whatever its objective is, even if it is what the proposed resolution identifies as the essence of the program: "the dictatorship of the proletariat and the construction of socialism". In fact, if "the dictatorship of the proletariat" remains isolated in one country alone, it can be - and it even must be - recuper­ated by capitalism, as the experience of the Russian revolution has shown us.

But our fundamental objection to BC's argu­ments is that as communists "we do not present ourselves to the world as doctrinaires with a new principle: here is the truth, down on your knees! We do not say to the workers: give up your struggles because they are foolish (...) All we do is to show the world why it is actually struggling..." (Marx). To limit what is said in the program to the need for the centralization of the workers' councils, is to present to the workers a sort of ideal which it would be nice to achieve but which has nothing to do with the struggles they are already involved in. The role of communists is rather that which Marx described - to show that the final objective of the inter­national centralization of the workers' councils is nothing other than the end point of the proc­ess which is already taking shape in today's, as yet sporadic attempts at the self-organization of strikes on the level of one factory, or in the efforts to extend the struggles from one sector to another. The fact that the vast majority of workers are not yet aware of the real stakes of their struggles simply confirms the need for communists to put forward before the class as clearly as possible, "why they are actually struggling, and that consciousness is something they must develop, even though they reject it" (Marx, Letter to Ruge).

The program therefore does not consist solely of "the point where we want to arrive", but also "why it's possible and how it's possible to get there". To exclude this essential component from the program and to relegate it to the non-essential as a "communist tactic" which is more flexible, "is one of the historic paradoxes of certain political formations" like Battaglia Comunista, who correctly assert that the distinction between a "maximum program" and a "minimum program" is no longer applicable; who stress the need to eliminate any ambiguities remaining on this question from the Communist International - and then manage to forget the most important one. This is the ambiguity: BC rejects the old out-dated distinction but then reintroduces a new version that takes the form of a growing insistence on a distinction between the program, the bastion of principles, and tactics where you are more free to "maneuver" for the final victory of those principles.

Various groups of the Communist Left came out against this conception, particularly the Italian Left who, through Bordiga, reaffirmed the fact that tactics are simply the concrete application of strategy; that is, of the program. In fact, the intention of the CI's leadership in emphasizing this distinction was two-fold: on the one hand to give itself some margin for maneuver in the realm of tactics, and on the other to insure that momentary and sudden changes of tactics did not contaminate the essence and therefore the purity of the program. Of course, this dist­inction between tactics and the program existed only in the heads of the leaders of the Internat­ional: opportunism came in through the back door of tactics, infiltrated the program more and more, and finally opened wide the front door to the Stalinist counter-revolution.

Apparently, the comrades of BC also have ill­usions, expressed in their belief that it's enough to say specific tactics for the peripheral countries have no place in the program. In this way they run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. They want to believe that the "little" tactical concessions needed to more firmly catch hold of groups and elements from the peripheral countries do not have any effect on the prog­ram; in this way the program remains pure, it will be easy to correct the contingent deviations that occur at a tactical level. The Communist International too thought this was easy...and we can see how it ended up. If BC - and the IBRP - do not back-track quickly they will run the risk of taking a path from which there is no return.

Illusion on "democratic rights"

Now let's see where the concrete application of this subtle distinction between program and tactics leads:

"The domination of capital in the peripheral countries is maintained through the use of violent repression and the absence of the most basic freedom of speech, of the press, to organize (...) Marxists know how to make a distinction between social movements for such freedoms and for democracy, and liberal-democratic political forces which make use of these movements to preserve capitalism (...) It is not the policy of communists to condemn the whole of the material and social movement and its demands in condemning this political leadership (...) just as it is not up to communists to ignore the immediate, economic demands of the proletariat in the metropoles, because in themselves they do not negate the capitalist mode of production." (Thesis 11)

The enormous differences existing in the social and political conditions of the peripheral countries compared to those of the metropoles are so obvious that no-one can deny them. The quest­ion is: what has "freedom and democracy" been doing over here? What does it mean to say that "It is the domination of capitalism - liberal and democratic in the metropoles - which denies freedom and democracy in the peripheral regions"? What capitalism denies, or rather, what it is incapable of guaranteeing, is a minimal develop­ment, in capitalist terms, of these areas, which would at least ensure the physical survival of their populations. Capitalism is not "democrat­ic" anywhere in the world, least of all in the metropoles. What does still exist in the metropoles - although to a lesser and lesser extent - is a standard of living that is high enough to feed democratic illusions within the working class. Alternatively, if you want to talk about the fact that in the metropoles there is more freedom to organize, of the press, etc, than there is in the peripheries, you shouldn't forget the part played in this state of affairs by the existence of a balance of forces which is more favorable to the proletariat because of its strength and concentration. To raise the slogan of "democratic rights" in the areas where the proletariat is not strong enough to realize them and where capitalism is not strong enough to grant them; this is to dangle before the eyes of the masses, not a miserable carrot, but the illusion of a miserable carrot.

The distinction between social movements for democracy and their political direction is even more opportunist. As the Theses themselves admit, the "desire for freedom and democracy which is present in all strata of the population" (Thesis 11) is shared by the bourgeoisie as well. The picture, then, is not that of a vague "social movement" which is taken over parasitically by a bourgeois leadership basically alien to it. On the contrary, the movement against apartheid in South Africa (to use the example given in the Theses) is an inter-classist movement in which black workers have to march at the side of black bourgeois, under the direction of black bourgeois and under slogans which defend the interests of the black bourgeoisie in particular and of capit­alism in general. The fact that these demands "arise naturally from social life in these count­ries", in marxist terms is a banality robbed "of all meaning. The demand for "reform of the superstructure" also arises "naturally" in Italy and in other industrialized countries; communists do not refuse to fight it and denounce it with all their strength because of that. In an effort to make "critical" support for these movements more acceptable, the Theses try hard to emphasize their "real", "natural", "material" nature and so on. Rather like the bourgeois philosophers of the 18th Century who thought that "everything that is real is natural" (ie. bourgeois), BC seems to think that everything that is material is proletarian, or at least not anti-proletarian. We are sorry to have to dampen this facile enth­usiasm, but phenomena such as nationalism, union­ism, racism (or anti-racism) are real forces, which exert a material weight in a very precise way and which arise quite naturally in defense of the existence of capitalism. The parallel with "immediate" proletarian demands, which is supp­osed to justify marxism in supporting these move­ments, simply shows how BC is forced to confuse the issue so as to get back on its feet. Immed­iate demands of the workers are one thing (higher wages, less working hours.); although these are limited, they are in the spirit of the defense of class interests and must therefore be supported by communists. The demand for "free elections", or for more power for its own "oppressed" bourg­eoisie is another thing; in the short term as well as in terms of a perspective, these only serve to divert the workers' struggles into a dead-end. In the first instance, communists are in the forefront of the struggle; in the second they are still in the forefront but in warning the workers against the traps laid by the bourg­eoisie.

This is the main point: Battaglia Comunista has a clear conscience because it rejects "the inclusion in the communist program of democrat­ic political objectives which push back the real content to the communist program". At the same time it uses these objectives "in defining tact­ical lines, slogans for the immediate struggle (...) firmly linked to the demands, tactical lines and agitational slogans of the economic struggle, in a way which makes it practical at a material level for the penetration of the real communist program into the heart of the prolet­arian and dispossessed masses". The catch is that these democratic political (ie. bourgeois) objectives simply "push back" the communist prog­ram; they deny it and destroys it from top to bottom! To hold the view that the practical app­lication of these objectives enables "the penet­ration of the real communist program into the heart of the masses", is to think that to teach someone to swim, you must start by tying his hands together and throwing him into the water.

When they say that these democratic objectives must go hand in hand with economic demands, the comrades of BC are deliberately turning their backs on reality. The experience of proletarian movements in the periphery of capitalism shows that exactly the opposite happens; submitting to nonsense about democracy results in renouncing proletarian political demands. We will again use the example of South Africa: in the Spring of 1985 black miners decided to strike for a large wage increase. The unions and black parties decided that the demands must be "widened" to include political aims such as the abolition of apartheid. Then the economic demands were elim­inated - "so as not to ask too much all at once". In the meantime the strike was put off from week to week, giving the bosses time to prepare. The result was that the strike, emptied of all prol­etarian direction from that moment, was defeated the very day it started and as a result the workers were brainwashed into thinking that, ‘the struggle doesn't pay, only free elections can change things'.

The most worrying thing is that this insist­ence that the pursuit of democratic objectives can lead the masses towards communist positions, is dangerously close to the well-known and react­ionary thesis of the Trotskyists who think that the proletariat isn't ready for class positions and must be brought to them bit by bit through intermediate aims, which are laid out in a lovely manual called "The Transitional Program". To be sure, BC does not share these counter­revolutionary positions and fights them within the western proletariat. But it is not equally firm in excluding the possibility of a tactic that is similar in many ways for the proletariat of the peripheral countries.

Such ambiguity does not even open one tiny window to communist positions in the peripheries: on the contrary, it runs the risk of opening wide the doors to the infiltration of opportunism everywhere.

The conditions of the struggle and of the communist program in the peripheral countries

"... The capitalist mode of production in the peripheral countries was imposed by overturning the old equilibrium and its preservation is based on and translated into the growing wretchedness of the ever increasing masses of proletarians and disposed, political oppression and repression are thus necessary to ensure that the masses submit to this situation. All this means that in the peripheral countries the potential is greater for the radicalization of consciousness than in the social formations of the metropoles." (...)

"Contrary to the countries of the metropoles, this makes possible the existence and activity of mass communist organizations." (Thesis 5)

"The possibility of "mass" organizations controlled by communists (...) must not mean that the communist parties themselves become mass parties."

"Basically the same problem appears in the advanced countries and it is this problem that our current is answering in the theses on "communist factory groups" which regroup the vanguard workers around the party cadres, these workers take their orientation from the party and are under its direct influence. The specificity of the peripheral countries lies in the fact that these conditions do not exist only in the factories and in a very limited way (for the moment) in the field of action of the revolutionary minority, in periods of social calm, but also on a larger scale on the ground, in the towns and in the country. In these countries, then, for the reasons we have given, the organization of communist groups at a territorial level is becoming a possibility." (Thesis 6)  

As you can see, BC puts forward two closely linked theses on the "specificities" of the peripheral countries.

The first thesis is that because capitalism is implanted so weakly in these countries, the contradictions are laid bare, which makes "the circulation of the program within the masses" easier.

The second thesis is that this greater openness to revolutionary propaganda makes the formation of mass organizations under the direct influence of the party possible now.

Two theses, two errors. First of all, the thesis that because the contradictions in the peripheral countries are particularly acute they offer the best conditions for revolutionary activity is not an idea unique to BC. It comes from an idea defended by Lenin, known as the theory of "the weak link of capitalism", which sought to make a generalization of the fact that the revolution was victorious in a peripheral country, ie. Tsarist Russia. The ICC has made a detailed critique of this theory, but there is no room to take up the whole of this critique again here[4]. Suffice it to say simply that the international system of bourgeois domination does not consist of so many independent links which can be taken separately. When one of the weakest links is under stress (Poland in 1980, for example), the whole international bourgeoisie intervenes to support this national bourgeoisie against the proletariat. In these countries, the process of a proletarian revolt, confronting only its ‘own' bourgeoisie, would certainly have great possibilities for extension and radicalization. But in the face of a united front of the world bourgeoisie opposing it, these possibilities are very rapidly diminished.

Consequently, the circulation of the communist program in these countries is by no means easier, in spite of the high degree of radicalism and violence often reached in the struggles. Anyone who has had contact with the comrades of these countries can bear witness to this, and the com­rades who work in these countries above all can bear witness to it. The daily reality that you have to deal with in a country like Iran, for example, is the enormous influence of Islamic radicalism on the semi-proletarian and disposs­essed masses. The reality that you are confront­ed with every day in India is the existence even within the proletariat of tribal sectarianism which exists between the thousands of ethnic groupings in the country; the reality of the separation of individuals through the caste system.

If you can talk of the ease with which the communist program is circulated in countries where a day's wage is insufficient to buy even one issue of a revolutionary newspaper, in count­ries where the workers cannot read in the evening after ten hours in the factory because electric­ity is only supplied for a few hours a day, you are talking cheap humanism - or quite simply, you've never set foot in these countries.

The reality of the situation is exactly the opposite. Very small groups of comrades begin to work in the peripheral countries of capitalism and have to conquer the streets inch by inch, fighting tooth and nail against unbelievable difficulties. In order that they do not collapse under the weight of all these difficulties surr­ounding them, these comrades need all the support and all the strength of the communist organizations in the metropoles, rather than speeches about how easy their work is.

The practical conclusion that BC draws from the so-called ease of communist propaganda is the possibility of forming mass organizations direct­ed by communists. We can see in this a typical example of bourgeois ideology entering through chinks left by a persistent weakness in revolut­ionary positions. In the circumstances, it is a case of the meeting of the shameless lies of the nationalists of the CP of Iran (on the existence of "mass communist organizations" in the mount­ains of Kurdistan and throughout Iran) with BC's hopeless desire to believe these lies which seem to give a breath of life to its old fixation on "communist factory groups". For some years now the ICC has polemicised with BC about its pret­ence of forming factory groups at the workplace, which regroup workers influenced politically by the party as well as party militants themselves.

BC's chimera: ‘communist factory groups'

In response to our criticisms and warnings on the danger of opportunist slidings, the comrades of BC have always insisted that the "communist factory groups" do not divert the direction of the party and that therefore their existence is not based on a watering-down of the program.

Now this is precisely the issue. While the factory groups are such as they are today, that is, simply initiatives of the party with a few rare sympathizers as well, and at least a little programmatic coherence, they cannot effectively give rise to any great problem, at least at the moment, because only something that has a real existence can really give rise to advantages or problems. It is a different question if we suppose the growth of these groups, a supposition which in fact is not realistic. As the crisis deepens, a growing number of proletarians will be pushed into the search for an alternative to the phony workers' parties and to all their so-called "intermediaries" (workers' groups, factory groups, etc), and we will see the influx of a large number of these elements. Once these factory groups have a real existence, they will consist of a certain number of proletarians who are disgusted by the false workers' parties but who are still partly tied to them ideologically; also a few, rare militants who have a programm­atic coherence. This perspective is like the "Promised Land" for the militants of BC: finally the programmatic coherence of the party will be able to influence a greater number of workers! This they understand perfectly. On the other hand, what they can't get into their heads is that it is in the nature of things that all ex­changes are made in both directions. This means that if factory groups offer common organizational ground for programmatic coherence and for the illusions which still weigh on the workers, it is not only the illusions which give way to revolut­ionary positions, but also revolutionary posit­ions must make some small concessions to the workers' illusions if they are to maintain a common area of agreement.

If to the usual surrounding pressure of dominant ideology you add the internal pressure of the tendencies towards activism, localism and ouvrierism of dozens of workers recently awakened to the need to ‘do something'; where will the factory groups end up? The meeting point between coherence and confusion will of necessity tend to be situated closer to the side of confusion, con­taminating even the revolutionary militants present in these groups.

BC's reply to these warnings can easily be inferred from the insistence made in the proposed theses on the fact that "the best qualities, the best cadres of the revolutionary proletariat and the best prepared are concentrated in the organs of the party" (Thesis 6).

In short, the guarantee that factory groups or territorial groups will not deviate lies in the existence of a homogeneous and selective party, which ensures the correct political direction. In fact BC is once more prey to the illusion that it is possible to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, in imagining there to be divisions into watertight compartments which do not exist in reality.

We have already seen how, at the level of political positions, the more you leave the coast clear for "agitational slogans" and a margin for maneuver for the "communist tactic", the more you cling to illusions in the possibility of saving your soul by declaring that all that "must not in any way become part of the communist program" (Preamble). It's the same at the organizational level: the more you throw open the doors of the so-called "communist" organs to the mass of proletarians who are only half-convinced, the more you think to save your soul by declaring that only "suitable" elements can enter the party, the real party. What does this correlation mean?

In the first place that these famous mass territorial organs are no more than the organizational concretization of the opportunist division between tactics and program (the practice of the groups is tactical while the party concerns itself with preserving the prog­ram).

Secondly, this means that just as an opportun­ist tactic ends up by sullying the program which was supposed to have inspired it, so every oscillation of the mass of partly conscious elements within the groups necessarily has reper­cussions on the revolutionary organization which is politically and organizationally responsible for these groups.

In the final analysis, all this talk about tactics and "mass" organizations leads not to the "penetration of the real communist program into the heart of the proletarian and dispossessed masses" (Thesis 11), but more mundanely to the penetration of bourgeois ideology into the rare and precious communist organizations.

The limitations of the amendment: a welcome but inadequate reaction

Any attempt to adapt communist positions to specific conditions in different countries (backwardness, etc) carries a great risk of an opportunist deviation. This is an old acquisit­ion of the Communist Left. The accentuation of opportunist connotations that we see in every line of the proposed resolution was therefore very predictable; even a reaction against this accentuation within the IBRP could have been predicted. At the Bureau's last meeting a "formal amendment" was passed, which replaced "mass communist organizations" with "mass organizations directed by communists". And so, we read: "no concession, not even a formal one, to the mass communist political organizations, but a serious study of the various possibilities for the work of communists in the peripheral count­ries" (Battaglia Comunista no.l, 1986). In fact, for the comrades of BC, "The subsequent formulat­ion left no room for doubt". Changing a term is more than enough to clarify everything. Perhaps this is true. But let's begin with the observat­ion that these groups were intended to have one adjective too many attached to them: for 30 years, BC called them "trade union factory groups", and it was only after the initial polem­ics with us that they rechristened them "inter­nationalist factory groups". We therefore made the remark: "If the elimination of the word ‘trade union' were enough to eliminate the ambig­uity on the unions, all would be well..." (polem­ic with the CWO in International Review no.39, p.16). Having said this, in this instance, it isn't a matter of just one adjective too many: the Theses don't just call these territorial groups ‘communist'. They also take pains to say precisely that they are "communist because they are directed by and dependent on communist prin­ciples, because they are animated and guided by the party cadres and organs" (Thesis 6). If you were to take these assertions seriously, you would throw overboard, in one single sentence, the whole political-organizational tradition of the Italian Left, by passing off a mass organ composed of non-communists and inevitably subject to the oscillations of the proletarians who compose it, as a communist organization.

The logic of the liquidation of the party which lies behind these organizations cannot be got rid of by simply eliminating an adjective. By setting down these particularly opportunist formulations, those who drew up the proposed theses only developed logically and to its ultimate conclusion what the comrades of BC have always said: that factory groups are communist organs, are party organs, even if they contain workers who are not members of the party. The present supposition of the mass entry of non--communists, non-party militants into these party organisms simply makes apparent, on a larger scale, a contradiction which already existed. If BC wants as usual to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, they must say precisely that an organ can be communist even if the vast majority of its militants are not (it's enough that its leadership is communist). If so it is impossible to understand the need for the agreed amendment. Otherwise they must admit that it isn't a matter of party organs, but semi-political organs, intermediaries between the class and the party, which BC has always denied. And even if they admitted this, it would not be a great step forward: in fact they would be abandoning one of their particular confusions only to sink into the general confusion existing in the proletarian milieu on the question of ‘intermediate organs' or ‘transmission belts'.

In both cases the attempt to develop specific proposals for the comrades of the peripheral countries at a political-organizational level runs aground on the principles on which they are constituted. The comrades of the IBRP should think about this. Very seriously.


[1] The IBRP was formed through an initiative of Battaglia Comunista and the Communist Workers' Organization (CWO).

[2] See ‘Address to proletarian political groups - in answer to the replies', in International Review no. 36

[3] See the pamphlets containing the proceedings of these conferences.

[4] See ‘The proletariat of western Europe at the heart of the class struggle', and ‘On the critique of the theory of the weak link' in International Review nos. 31 & 37.