CWO Meeting: The need for serious debate between revolutionaries

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Mass poverty within present day society is not accidental: capitalism creates poverty as an inevitable byproduct of its system of exploitation of the working class.  The extraction of surplus value leads to the grotesque polarisation of wealth and want at two opposite poles of society.  It also leads to economic crisis and imperialist war.  The movement ‘make poverty history’ and other similar campaigns – for fair trade, debt relief etc - that are presently protesting the obvious evils of capitalism are sowing the illusion that poverty can be abolished within capitalism without overthrowing it.  These movements divert anger into dead ends. Capitalism must be replaced by communism and only the revolutionary working class can do so. To do this the working class, which today is a sleeping giant, will have to pass onto the offensive and create an international party.

Such, in broad outlines, was the theme of the presentation of the public meeting held by the Communist Workers’ Organisation on 15th October in London. The CWO is the British wing of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP) and like the ICC claims the tradition of the communist left. Despite the serious differences that exist between our organisations (see World Revolution 288), the ICC in Britain welcomed the holding of the meeting (particularly as it has been several years since the last CWO public meeting in London) as a forum for the discussion and development of left communist politics.

Decadence of capitalism, crises and war

Indeed the ICC helped impulse the discussion with several questions and interventions about the CWO’s analysis. Their presentation spent a long time (some 45 minutes) elaborating on the almost obvious fact that capitalism produces poverty as an inevitable result of its system of exploitation and that therefore a socialist system is at least desirable. But it failed to say whether the overthrow of capitalism by a communist revolution is historically necessary. The idea that capitalism since 1914 has been a decadent mode of production that is historically obsolete has always been the bedrock of the programmatic positions of the communist left. But in the CWO presentation this basic concept was missing. Indeed, in recent publications of the IBRP this fundamental marxist concept of the decadence of capitalism has been questioned.  So we asked if the CWO thought that the present crises and wars and mass pauperisation signify that capitalism is a decadent mode of production and therefore objectively obsolete? Their reply was ambiguous. The CWO said that capitalism was in a decadent phase but they preferred to use the word ‘imperialist’ to describe it because the word ‘decadence’ implies, according to them, a fatalist view of the revolutionary process. However we don’t think the absence of the word ‘decadence’ from the lips of the CWO was a question of words but of substance. The presentation claimed that “wars now play a prominent economic role to permit a new period of accumulation”, an idea that implies that war is a beneficial economic weapon that still allows capitalism to perpetuate itself indefinitely rather than contributing to its growing collapse.  Instead of seeing a period of growing military chaos, of unbridled imperialism characteristic of the final phase of capitalist decadence - the period of social decomposition - the CWO sees the prospect of the re-stabilisation of imperialism where the imperialist blocs will be ‘reconstituted’.

 The CWO was even quite optimistic about the present health and economic prospects of capitalism, judging by their claim that ‘globalisation’ was laying the basis for a wider unity of the working class because of rapid industrialization and the creation of millions of new workers in China and elsewhere on the peripheries of the system. This apparently would lead to the massive development of class consciousness. The material conditions for communism are better today than in 1917, they said.

The ICC, in answer to this unwarranted optimism about capitalism’s fortunes, tried to make clear that wars in capitalism have had a very different nature since 1914 than before. In the 19th century wars were broadly a spur to economic development. In the decadent period of the system the massive scale and duration of wars bring the resources of the whole of the national capital into play. The economy has come to serve war. War has become the way of life of capitalism. But it is not an economic weapon; it’s a leech that bleeds the economy white. War is not a rejuvenating elixir but accompanies and accelerates the convulsions of a dying system.

The economic expansion going on in China or India, rather than a harbinger of prosperity in the peripheries, is a temporary and artificial interruption in the descent of capitalism into the abyss. As the ICC and its sympathisers pointed out Chinese capitalism, rather than massively expanding the working class is massively expanding unemployment. The development of class consciousness is not the automatic product of industrialisation as the CWO suggested but depends on historical factors. And these factors place the main responsibility for the development of consciousness on the shoulders of the working class in Western Europe.

The CWO’s theories are therefore coming into more and more conflict with reality, particularly as it has chosen the culminating period of capitalism’s decline to reject the theory of its decadence upon which the entirety of left communist politics depend.

But the CWO’s theories are also coming into conflict with each other as well as reality. During the meeting they tied themselves up in knots on the connection between war and economic development.

The CWO in reply to a question from the floor at the beginning of the discussion, said that the recent war and occupation of Iraq was a means for the United States to make its capitalist rivals pay for the crisis through the US control of oil production and exchange in the Middle East. Indeed this view that the present growth of US militarism since the collapse of the Eastern imperialist bloc in 1989 is determined by the search for economic benefit and protection of raw materials has been extensively developed in the IBRP press and in the advertising for the present meeting.

However the CWO later flatly contradicted this analysis after it was pointed out that the Iraq war and occupation has been an immense drain on the US economy. Henceforth the CWO then claimed that the Iraq war was only a ‘skirmish’ that didn’t help the US economy. Localised wars like the one in Iraq were of little use to capitalist accumulation, they said.

The conclusion to the meeting therefore had to modify the initial presentation considerably. Now wars in general could not open up a new period of accumulation, as the presentation had it, but only world wars. But this change in analysis – on the fly – only landed the CWO in more self-contradiction with its previous theory that the real reasons for the US recent wars in the Middle East is to control oil production and distribution in order to maintain its economic supremacy. If these wars are then proved to be an economic disaster why does the US still pursue them so assiduously? How does the CWO now explain the economic logic of US imperialism? Does the US want to make itself even more bankrupt than ever?

In reality the main reason for the recent wars led by US imperialism is geo-strategic. They are conducted at the expense of the economy. They exemplify the growing economic irrationality of war today; something the CWO’s vulgar materialism – that wants to explain history by ‘economic mechanisms’ alone – is incapable of understanding. In its confusion it is not competent to explain either unfolding events or the seriousness of the long term stakes facing the working class. 

Revolutionary organisation

The CWO was even more incoherent on the other main theme of the meeting, revolutionary organisation. This theme focused on how revolutionary groups behave towards each other. Towards the end of the meeting the ICC asked why the IBRP had republished on its website last year (in several languages) some very serious slanders against the ICC from an Argentine ‘group’ called the ‘Circle of Internationalist Communists’. These slanders could be found in a document entitled ‘Declaration against the nauseating methods of the ICC’ which said, for example, that the ICC uses “practices which don’t belong to the legacy of the Communist Left, but rather to the very method of the bourgeois left and of Stalinism1.  What would have the CWO’s reaction have been had the ICC published such slanders on its website? Would the CWO not have demanded a public retraction of such scandalous and totally unfounded accusations? A year later, however, the IBRP have yet to retract the slanders they published about the ICC, maintaining a deliberate silence on the question.

The CWO chair, in continuity with this policy, tried to rule the ICC question out of order and simply refused to answer it, even though at the public forum of World Revolution in September the CWO suggested that ‘they had made mistakes’ about this episode (see WR 288). Now they only wanted to discuss ‘programmatic’ questions, not supposedly sectarian disputes between groups, as though lies and slanders are not important! Instead of replying to the legitimate ICC question, they proceeded to throw more mud at our organization - no doubt in the interests of non-sectarianism.  The CWO accused the ICC of creating pretend disagreements, and of not sticking to the subject of the meeting. More: the ICC was apparently guilty of attacking the CWO for the last twenty five years; reducing every meeting to a ‘ping-pong’ match. In other words the CWO presented themselves as the victims of the trouble-making ICC and not the perpetrators of slanders against the ICC! All this noise was designed to hide their silence on the real question on the table2.

The ICC and its sympathisers tried to make it clear at the meeting that our question was  perfectly valid and required an answer. It was artificial to separate ‘programmatic’ from organisational problems; they are inevitably connected to each other.  Indeed, the problem of creating the party was raised by the presentation to the meeting, so the ICC could hardly be accused of talking off the subject.  Our question about the Argentine episode directly relates to this problem of the party. It is about the behaviour of groups who want to create this party: do they try to advance their own separate cause at the expense of other groups, in this case by helping to slander them? Or do they abide by certain minimum rules of mutual solidarity and respect? Without the latter there can be no talk of a class party.

The importance of political discussion and debate

Superficially the CWO’s attempted silence on a vital question of organisation seemed to be justified by the intervention at the meeting by someone new to politics who had hoped to hear about communism and complained they had had to listen to an argument between two small organisations.  Those coming to a political meeting for the first time may well be disappointed with the apparent discrepancy between the enormity of the revolutionary project and the intractability of the disagreements between groups espousing it. However it is up to those with more knowledge of the marxist movement to explain that the communist project is a long term prosaic struggle, requiring an enduring passion and commitment to political research and debate. Revolutionary politics and discussion cannot be conducted like the empty spectacle of leftist meetings where the only contribution of the audience is to listen and applaud rousing but empty speeches.

In this regard an ICC contact quite rightly emphasized the importance of ‘ping pong’ matches both to maintain contact between revolutionary organizations and to eventually clarify vital political questions in preparation for the future when the arms of criticism give way to criticism by arms3.

It’s the job of more experienced militants to refer newcomers to the real nature of the marxist movement that has always been an extreme minority outside of revolutionary periods (Trotsky noted at Zimmerwald in 1915 that all the revolutionaries in the world could fit into two taxis). It has also always been marked by its passion for political argument and debate. In the Second International the Bolsheviks were derided by the opportunists and centrists for their constant  polemics. Yet it was the glacial unanimity of the German Party that collapsed in front of the test of 1914, while political combat and polemic tempered the Bolshevik Party for its success in 1917.

The failure of the CWO to answer on this point, its encouragement of the illusions of those looking to the revolutionary movement for guidance, which it used to justify its policy of ‘non-reply’, could not be more irresponsible.

Not only did the CWO try to justify a policy of non-discussion of difficult organisational questions, the way the meeting itself was run by the CWO seemed to show they were in two minds about whether they wanted a discussion with other revolutionaries. In the first place they insisted on a period during the short amount of time after the presentation for ‘questions only’. This made it very difficult to develop interventions that could help enrich the debate and was a break with the tradition of previous left communist public meetings where other internationalist organisations are allowed a decent period in which to express their position. The format of the CWO meeting was at least a misreading of the nature of the audience which was almost entirely made up of people to whom the positions of the CWO were well known: there was no need have a period of questions about them.  The ‘question only’ format is a typical feature of leftist meetings designed to prevent the elaboration of opposing political positions and thus real debate. And this was the effect at the CWO meeting. On top of this the CWO praesidium, rather than encouraging discussion, constantly interrupted ICC speakers,  sniggered amongst themselves while the latter were speaking, with the result that the elaboration of opposing ideas was discouraged. When ICC militants complained of this, they were invited, on two occasions, to leave the meeting.

This CWO public meeting confirmed that the IBRP is in sorry state. It is unable to recognize let alone explain the full seriousness of the current conditions facing the working class, and contradicts its own positions about the nature of the current wars.

Its  opportunist policy towards other groups and refusal to justify or correct its behaviour shows that the CWO is unable to put forward the minimum conditions for the construction of the revolutionary organisation. Most worrying is its growing distaste for discussion with other revolutionary groups. In other words, as we say in our ‘Open letter to the IBRP’, the CWO is putting its own ‘right to exist’ as a revolutionary organisation into question.




1 See ‘Open letter to the militants of the IBRP’ on the ICC website: This letter shows that the ‘Circle’ was a complete sham pretending to replace a real Argentine group called the Nucleus of Internationalist Communists.

2 Nevertheless the CWO couldn’t resist compounding the original slanders of the Argentine ‘Circle’: they said that the ICC had itself written the declaration of the Nucleus of Internationalist Communists exposing the myth of the ‘Circle’. In other words the CWO suggested the NCI didn’t really exist. The CWO is cordially invited to the next ICC public meeting in Buenos Aires to test their allegations.

3 If we had had more opportunity to intervene the ICC would also have reminded comrades that alongside our commitment to debate between revolutionaries, we have always insisted on the adoption of common positions on events of fundamental importance by other organisations of the left communist camp. But from the invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 to the war in Iraq in 2003, the ICC’s appeals to the IBRP in this regard have always been refused.