The organisation of the proletariat outside periods of open struggle (workers' groups, nuclei, circles, committees)
For the majority of revolutionary groups today, the trade unions are no longer seen as organisations can defend the most immediate interests of the working class, let alone its revolutionary, historic interests. There is also a high level of agreement that the most effective form for organising and spreading the struggle today is the general assembly of workers, and the elected and revocable committees and coordinating bodies that emerge from the assemblies. But such forms of organisation cannot be maintained on a permanent basis when the struggle dies down, which poses a problem for militant workers who don’t want to sink back into atomisation and who want to play an active part in future struggles. This is why there is a tendency, even though it’s usually only seen among a small minority, for such workers to form groups, circles, committees and networks, outside the official unions and sometimes explicitly against them. But among revolutionary organisations there are a number of different approaches to such groupings: are they the basis for a revived form of anarcho-syndicalism? Should they be seen as the basis for forming permanent intermediaries between the communist political organisation and the class as a whole?
These questions have been the subject of debate for some decades and they are still being raised on internet discussion forums, such as this one: http://www.red-marx.com/icc-ict-and-the-icp-t695.html. In a more concrete and practical sense they are being posed in numerous workplaces and localities as a militant minority of workers, students and the unemployed seek to come together to resist capital’s austerity offensive.
We think it would be useful to publish a number of articles that look back over different elements in this debate and seek to draw out some perspectives for future activity. We are beginning with a text that was adopted in 1980 by the Third Congress of the ICC’s Belgian section, and published in International Review no. 21. The text is a good basis for beginning this series because after laying down the overall framework for understanding the nature of the class struggle in the era of capitalism’s decline, it aims to elaborate the general lessons that could be drawn from the experience of workers’ groups in the 1970s. Future articles will look at other experiences from the 1980s and from the last decade, as well as reviewing some of the debates between revolutionaries on this question.
What is to be done outside times of open struggle? How should we organise when the strike is finished? How to prepare the struggles to come?
Faced with this question, faced with the problems posed by the existence of committees, circles, nuclei, etc, regrouping small minorities of the working class, we have no recipes to provide. We cannot choose between giving them moral lessons (‘organise yourselves like this or that’, ‘dissolve yourselves’, ‘join us’) and demagogically flattering them. Instead, our concern is this: to understand these minority expressions of the proletariat as a part of the whole class. If we situate them in the general movement of the class struggle; if we see that they are strictly linked to the strengths and weaknesses of different periods in this struggle between the classes, then, in this way, we’ll be able to understand to what general necessity they are a response. By neither remaining politically imprecise in relation to them, nor by imprisoning ourselves inside rigid schemas, we’ll also be able to grasp what their positive aspects are and be able to point out what dangers lie in wait for them.
Characteristics of the workers’ struggle in decadent capitalism
Our first concern in understanding this problem must be to recall the general, historical context within which we find ourselves. We must remember the nature of this historic period (the period of social revolutions) and the characteristics of the class struggle in decadence. This analysis is fundamental because it allows us to understand the type of class organisation that can exist in such a period.
Without going into all the details, let’s recall simply that the proletariat in the nineteenth century existed as an organised force in a permanent way. The proletariat unified itself as a class through an economic and political struggle for reforms. The progressive character of the capitalist system allowed the proletariat to bring pressure to bear on the bourgeoisie in order to obtain reforms, and for this, large masses of the working class regrouped within unions and parties.
In the period of capitalism’s senility, the characteristics and the forms of organisation of the class changed. A quasi-permanent mobilisation of the proletariat around its immediate and political interests was no longer possible, nor viable. Henceforward, the permanent unitary organs of the class were no longer able to exist except in the course of the struggle itself. From this time on, the function of these unitary organs could no longer be limited to simply ‘negotiating’ an improvement in the proletariat’s living conditions (because an improvement was no longer possible over the long term and because the only realistic answer was that of revolution). Their task was to prepare for the seizure of power.
The unitary organs of the dictatorship of the proletariat are the workers’ councils. These organs possess a certain number of characteristics which we must make clear if we are to grasp the entire process which leads to the self-organisation of the proletariat.
Thus, we must clearly show that the councils are a direct expression of working class struggle. They arise in a spontaneous (but not mechanical) way from out of this struggle. This is why they are intimately tied to the development and maturity of the struggle. They draw from it their substance and their vitality. They don’t constitute, then, a simple ‘delegation’ of power, a parody of Parliament, but are truly the organised expression of the whole working class and its power. Their task isn’t to organise a proportional representation of social groupings, or political parties, but allow the will of the proletariat to realise itself practically. It’s through them that all the decisions are taken. That is the reason why the workers must constantly keep control of them (the revocability of delegates) by means of the General Assemblies.
Only the workers’ councils are capable of realising the living identification between the immediate struggle and the final goal. In this liaison between the struggle for immediate interests and the struggle for political power, the councils establish the objective and subjective basis for the revolution. They constitute, par excellence, the crucible of class consciousness. The constitution of the proletariat in councils is not then a simple question of a form of organisation, but is the product of the development of the struggle and of class consciousness. The appearance of the councils isn’t the fruit of organisational recipes, of prefabricated structures, of intermediate organs.
The more and more conscious extension and centralisation of struggles, beyond the factories and beyond frontiers, cannot be an artificial, voluntarist action. To be convinced of the correctness of this idea, it’s sufficient to recall the experience of the AAUD and its artificial attempt to unite and centralise the ‘factory organisations’ in a period when the struggle was in reflux. 
The councils can only continue to exist when the permanent, open struggle continues to exist, signifying the participation of an ever-growing number of workers in the struggle. Their appearance is essentially a function of the development of the struggle itself and of the development of class consciousness.
The attempts to bridge a gap
But we are not yet in a period of permanent struggle, in a revolutionary context which would allow the proletariat to organise itself in workers’ councils. The constitution of the proletariat in councils is the result of objective conditions (the depth of the crisis, the historic course) and subjective conditions (the maturity of the struggle and the consciousness of the class). It is the result of an entire apprenticeship, a whole maturation, which is as much organisational as it is political.
We must be conscious that this maturation, this political fermentation, doesn’t unfold in a well-designated straight line. It expresses itself instead as a fiery, impetuous, confused process within a jostling, jerky movement. It demands the active participation of revolutionary minorities.
Since it is incapable of acting mechanically in accordance with abstract principles, preconceived plans or voluntarist schemes detached from reality, the proletariat must forge its unity and consciousness by means of a painful apprenticeship. Incapable of regrouping all its forces on a preordained day, it consolidates its ranks in the course of the battle itself. It forms its ‘army’ within the conflict itself. But in the course of the struggle it forms in its ranks more combative elements, a more determined vanguard. These elements don’t necessarily regroup themselves within the revolutionary organisation (because, in certain periods, it is virtually unknown). The appearance of these combative minorities within the proletariat, whether before or after open struggles, isn’t an incomprehensible or new phenomenon. It really expresses the irregular character of the struggle, the unequal and heterogeneous development of class consciousness. Thus, since the end of the 1960’s, we’ve witnessed, at one and the same time, the development of the struggle (in the sense of its greater self-organisation), a reinforcement of revolutionary minorities, and the appearance of committees, nuclei, circles, etc, trying to regroup a working class avant-garde. The development of a coherent political pole of regroupment, and the tendency for the proletariat to try to organise itself outside the unions, both issue from the same maturation of the struggle.
The appearance of these committees, circles, etc, truly responds to a necessity within the struggle. If some combative elements sense the need to remain grouped together after they’ve been struggling together, they do so with the aim of simultaneously continuing to ‘act together’ (the eventual preparation of a new strike) and of drawing the lessons of the struggle (through political discussion). The problem which poses itself to these workers is as much one of regrouping with a view to future action as it is of regrouping with a view to clarifying questions posed by the past struggle and the struggle to come. This attitude is understandable in the sense that the absence of permanent struggle the ‘bankruptcy’ of the unions, and the very great weakness of revolutionary organisations creates an organisational and political void. When the working class returns to the path of its historic struggle, it has a horror of this void. Therefore, it seeks to reply to the need posed by this organisational and political void.
These committees, these nuclei, these proletarian minorities who still don’t understand clearly their own function, are a response to this need. They are, at one and the same time, an expression of the general weakness of today’s class struggle and an expression of the maturation of the organisation of the class. They are a crystallisation of a whole subterranean development at work within the proletariat.
The reflux of 1973-77
That is why we must be careful not to lock away these organs in a hermetic, rigidly classified drawer. We cannot forecast their appearance and development in a totally precise way. Furthermore, we must be careful not to make artificial separations in the different moments in the life of these committees, getting ourselves caught in the false dilemma: ‘action or discussion’.
This said, it must not stop us from making an intervention towards these organs. We must also be capable of appreciating their evolution in terms of the period, depending on whether we are in a phase of renewal or reflux in the struggle. Because they are a spontaneous, immediate product of the struggle, and because the appearance of these nuclei is based mainly on conjunctural problems (in distinction to the revolutionary organisation which appears on the basis of the historical necessities of the proletariat), this means that they remain very dependent on the surrounding milieu of the class struggle. They remain more strongly imprisoned by the general weaknesses of the movement and have a tendency to follow the ups and downs of the struggle.
We must make a distinction in the development of these nuclei between the period of reflux in the struggle (1973-77) and today’s period of renewed class struggle internationally. While underlining the fact that the dangers threatening them remain identical in both periods, we must, nonetheless, be capable of grasping what differences the change in period implies for their evolution.
At the end of the first wave of struggle at the end of the 1960’s, we witnessed the appearance of a whole series of confusions within the working class. We could measure the extent of these confusions by examining the attitude of some of the combative elements of the class, who tried to remain regrouped.
We saw develop:
- the illusion in fighting unionism and the distrust of anything political (OHK, AAH, Komiteewerking ). In many cases, the committees that came out of struggles transformed themselves, categorically, into semi-unions. This was the case for the workers’ commissions in Spain and the ‘factory councils’ in Italy. Even more often they just disappeared.
- a very strong corporatism (which itself constitutes the basis for the illusion in ‘fighting unionism’).
- when attempts were made to go beyond the limits of the factory, the result was confusion and a great political eclecticism.
- a very great political confusion was present, rendering these organs very vulnerable to the manoeuvres of the leftists, and also allowing them to fall prey to illusions of the type held by the PIC (cf. their ‘bluff’ about workers’ groups). Also, in the course of this period, the ideology of ‘workers’ autonomy’ developed, bringing with it an apology for immediatism, factoryism and economism.
All of these weaknesses were essentially a function of the weaknesses of the first wave of struggle at the end of the 60’s. This movement was characterised by a disproportion between the strength and extension of the strikes and the weakness in the content of the demands made. What especially indicated this disproportion was the absence of any clear, political perspective in the movement. The falling-back of the workers, which happened between 1973 and 1977, was a product of this weakness, which the bourgeoisie utilised to demobilise and ideologically contain the struggles. Each of the weak points of the first wave of strikes was ‘recuperated’ by the bourgeoisie to its own profit:
“Thus the idea of a permanent organisation of the class, at one and the same time economic and political, was transformed later into the idea of ‘new unions’ to end finally in a return to classical trade unionism. The vision of the General Assembly as a form independent of any content ended up — via the mystification concerning direct democracy and popular power - re-establishing trust in classical bourgeois democracy. Ideas about self-management and workers’ control of production (confusions which were understandable at the beginning) were theorised into the myth of ‘generalised self-management’, ‘islands of communism’ or ‘nationalisation under workers’ control’. All this caused the workers to put their confidence in plans to restructure the economy, which would supposedly avoid layoffs or caused them to back national solidarity pacts presented as a way of ‘getting out of the crisis”.
(Report on the Class Struggle presented to the IIIrd International Congress of the ICC).
The renewal of struggles since 1977
With the renewal in struggle since 1977, we have seen other tendencies delineate themselves. The proletariat matured through its ‘defeat’. It had drawn albeit in a confused way, the lessons of the reflux, and even if the dangers represented by ‘fighting unionism’, corporatism, etc remain, they exist within a different general evolution in the struggle.
Since 1977, we have seen the hesitant development of:
- a more or less marked will on the part of the avant-garde of combative workers to develop political discussion (remember the General Assembly of Co-ordinamenti in Turin, the debate at Antwerp with the workers of Rotterdam, Antwerp, etc, the conference of dockers in Barcelona. );
- the will to enlarge the field of struggle, to go beyond the ghetto of factoryism, to give a more global political framework to the struggle. This will expressed itself through the appearance of the ‘co—ordinamenti’, and more specifically in the political manifesto produced by one of the co-ordinamenti situated in the North of Italy (Sesto San Giovanni). This manifesto demanded the unification of the combative avant-garde in the factories, spelt out the necessity for a politically independent struggle by the workers and insisted on the necessity for the struggle to break out of factory limitations;
- the concern to establish a link between the immediate aspect of the struggle and the final goal. This concern was particularly expressed in workers’ groups in Italy (FIAT) and in Spain (FEYCU, FORD). The first of these groups intervened by means of a leaflet to denounce the dangers of layoffs made by the bourgeoisie in the name of ‘fighting terrorism’, and the second intervened to denounce the illusion of parliamentarism.
- the concern to better prepare and organise the struggles to come (cf. the action of the ‘spokesmen’ group of dockers in Rotterdam calling for the formation of a General Assembly).
We must repeat that the dangers of corporatism, ‘fighting unionism’ and locking-up of the struggle on a strictly economic terrain continue to exist even within this period. But what we must take into account is the important influence of the period on the evolution of the committees and nuclei that appear both before and after open struggles. When the period is one of combativity and resurgence of class struggle, the intervention of such minorities takes on a different sense, as does our attitude toward them. In a period of generalised reflux in the struggle, we have to insist more on the danger of these organs becoming transformed into semi-unions, of falling into the clutches of the leftists, of having illusions in terrorism, etc. In a period of class resurgence we insist more on the dangers represented by voluntarism and activism (see the illusions expressed in this connection in the manifesto of the co-ordinamento of Sesto San Giovanni), and by the illusion which some of these combative workers may have about the possibility of forming the embryos of future strike committees, etc. In a period of renewal in the struggle, we will also be more open to combative minorities which appear and regroup with a view to calling for strikes and the formation of strike committees, General Assemblies, etc.
The possibilities of these organs
The concern to situate the committees, nuclei, etc, in the cauldron of the class struggle, to understand them in terms of the period in which they appear, doesn’t imply, however, abruptly changing our analysis in the wake of the different stages in the class struggle. Whatever the moment that gives birth to these committees, we know that they constitute only one stage in a dynamic, general process; they are one moment in the maturation of the organisation and consciousness of the class. They can only have a positive role when they give themselves a broad, supple framework to work within, in order not to freeze the general process. This is why these organs must be vigilant if they are to avoid falling into the following traps:
- imagining that they constitute a structure which can prepare the way for the appearance of strike committees or councils;
- imagining themselves to be invested with a sort of ‘potentiality’ which can develop future struggles. (It isn’t the minorities who artificially create a strike or cause a General Assembly or a committee to appear, even though they do have an active intervention to make in this process).
- giving themselves a platform or statutes or anything else that risks freezing their evolution and thus condemning them to political confusion.
- presenting themselves as intermediate organs, half-way between the class and a political organisation, as if they were an organisation that is at one and the same time unitary and political.
This is why our attitude towards these minority organs remains open, but at the same time tries to influence the evolution of political reflection in their midst, and this whatever the period in which we find ourselves. We must try our hardest to ensure that these committees, nuclei, etc. don’t freeze up, either in one direction (a structure which imagines itself to prefigure the workers’ councils) or another (political fixation). Before all else, what must guide us in our intervention is not the interests and the conjunctural concerns of these organs (since we can’t suggest to them any organisational recipes nor any ready-made answers), but the general interests of the whole class. Our concern is always to homogenise and develop class consciousness in such a way that the development of the class struggle happens with a greater, more massive participation of all workers, and that the struggle is taken in-hand by the workers themselves and not by a minority, no matter what type it may be. It is for this reason that we insist on the dynamic of the movement and that we put the combative elements on their guard against any attempt at substitutionism or anything that might block the later development of the struggle and of class consciousness.
In orientating the evolution of these organs in one direction (reflection and political discussion), rather than another, we can give a response which will be favourable to the dynamic of the movement. But let it be well-understood that this doesn’t signify that we condemn any form of ‘intervention’ or ‘action’ undertaken by these organs. It is obvious that the instant a group of combative workers understands that the task isn’t to act to constitute themselves as a semi-union, but rather to draw the political lessons of the past struggles, this doesn’t imply that their political reflection is going to happen in an ethereal vacuum, in the abstract, without any practical consequences. The political clarification undertaken by these combative workers will also push them to act together within their own factory (and in the most positive of cases, even outside their own factory). They will feel the necessity to give a material, political expression to their political reflection (leaflets, newspapers, etc). They will feel the need to take up positions in relation to the concrete issues that face the working class. In order to defend and disseminate their positions, they will thus have to make a concrete intervention. In certain circumstances they will propose concrete means of action (formation of General Assemblies, strike committees…) to advance the struggle. In the course of the struggle itself, they will sense the necessity for a concerted effort to develop a certain orientation for the struggle; they will support demands that will permit the struggle to extend itself and they will insist on the necessity for its enlargement, generalisation, etc.
Even though we remain attentive to these efforts and don’t try to lay down rigid schemas for them to follow, nonetheless it is clear that we must continue to insist on the fact that what counts the most is the active participation of all the workers in the struggle, and that the combative workers should at no time substitute themselves for their comrades in the organisation and co-ordination of the strike. Moreover, it is also clear that the more the organisation of revolutionaries increases its influence within the struggles, the more the combative elements will turn toward it. Not because the organisation will have a policy of forcibly recruiting these elements, but quite simply because the combative workers themselves will become conscious that a political intervention, which is really active and effective, can only be made in the framework of such an international organisation.
The intervention of revolutionaries
All that glitters isn’t gold. To point out that the working class in its struggle can cause more combative elements to appear doesn’t mean affirming that the impact of these minorities is decisive for the later development of class consciousness. We must not make this absolute identification: an expression of the maturation of consciousness = an active factor in its development.
In reality the influence which these nuclei can have in the later unfolding of the struggle is very limited. Their influence entirely depends on the general combativity of the proletariat and of the capacity of these nuclei to pursue without let-up this work of political clarification. In the long-term, this work cannot be followed except within the framework of a revolutionary organisation.
But here again, we’ve no mechanism to drop in place. It’s not in an artificial manner that the revolutionary organisation wins these elements. Contrary to the ideas of organisations like Battaglia Communista or the PIC, the ICC does not seek to fill-in, in an artificial, voluntarist manner, ‘the gap’ between the party and the class. Our understanding of the working class as a historic force, and our comprehension of our own role prevents us from wanting to freeze these committees into the form of an intermediate structure. Nor do we seek to create ‘factory groups’ as transmission belts between the class and the party.
This presents us with the question of determining what our attitude to such circles, committees, etc should be. Even while recognising their limited influence and their weaknesses, we must remain open to them and attentive to their appearance. The most important thing that we propose to them is that they open up widely to discussions. At no time do we adopt toward them a distrustful or condemnatory attitude under the pretext of reacting against their political ‘impurity’. So that’s one thing we should avoid; another is to avoid flattering them or even uniquely concentrating our energies on them. We mustn’t ignore workers’ groups, but equally we mustn’t become obsessive about them. We recognise that the struggle matures and class-consciousness develops in a process.
Within this process, tendencies exist within the class that attempt to ‘hoist’ the struggle onto a political terrain. In the course of this process, we know that the proletariat will give rise to combative minorities within itself, but they won’t necessarily organise themselves within political organisations. We must be careful not to identify this process of maturation in the class today with what characterised the development of the struggle last century. This understanding is very important because it permits us to appreciate in what way these committees, circles, etc are a real expression of the maturation of class consciousness, but an expression which is, above all, temporary and ephemeral and not a fixed, structured organisational rung in the development of the class struggle. The class struggle in the period of capitalist decadence advances explosively. Sudden eruptions appear which surprise even those elements who were the most combative in the proceeding round of struggle, and these eruptions can immediately go beyond previous experience in terms of the consciousness and maturity developed in the new struggle. The proletariat can only really organise itself on a unitary level within the struggle. To the extent that the struggle itself becomes permanent, it causes the unitary organisations of the class to grow and become stronger.
This understanding is what allows us to grasp why we don’t have a specific policy, a special ‘tactic’ in relation to workers’ committees, even though in; certain circumstances it can be very positive for us to begin and systematically continue discussions with them, and to participate in their meetings. We know that it is possible and increasingly easy to discuss with these combative elements (particularly when open struggle isn’t taking place). We are also aware that certain of these elements may want to join us, but we don’t focus all our attention on them. Because what is of primary importance for us is the general dynamic of the struggle, and we don’t set up any rigid classifications or hierarchies within this dynamic. Before everything, we address ourselves to the working class as a whole. Contrary to other political groups who try to surmount the problem of the lack of influence of revolutionary minorities in the class by artificial methods and by feeding themselves on illusions about these workers’ groups, the ICC recognises that it has very little impact in the present period. We don’t try to increase our influence among the workers by giving them artificial ‘confidence’ in us. We aren’t workerist, nor are we megalomaniacs. The influence which we will progressively develop within the struggles will come essentially from our political practice inside these struggles and not from our acting as toadies, or flatterers, or as ‘water-carriers’ who restrict themselves to performing technical tasks. Furthermore, we address our political intervention to all the workers, to the proletariat taken as a whole, as a class, because our fundamental task is to call for the maximum extension of the struggles. We don’t exist in order to feel satisfied at winning the confidence of two or three horny-handed worker but to homogenise and accelerate the development of the consciousness of the class. It’s necessary to be aware that it will only be in the revolutionary process itself that the proletariat will accord us its political ‘confidence’ to the extent that it realises that the revolutionary party really makes up a part of its historic struggle.
 AAUD: Allgemeine Arbeiter Union Deutschlands, ‘General Workers Union of Germany’. The ‘Unions’ weren’t trade unions, but attempts to create permanent forms of organisation regrouping all the workers outside and against the unions, in Germany in the years following the crushing of the 1919 Berlin insurrection. They expressed nostalgia for the workers’ councils, but never succeeded in carrying out the function of the councils.
 These were all workers’ groups in Belgium.
 The French group PIC (Pour Une Intervention Communiste) was for several months convinced - and tried to convince everyone else - that it was participating in the development of a network of ‘workers’ groups’ which would constitute a powerful avant-garde of the revolutionary movement. They based this illusion on the skeletal reality of two or three groups largely made-up of ex-leftist elements. There’s not much left of this bluff today.
 These are organised meetings regrouping delegates from different workers’ groups, collectives and committees.