International Review no.123 - 4th quarter 2005

100 years ago: the Russian revolution of 1905 and the Soviet of workers' deputies

In this issue, we continue the article begun in International Review n°122, where we highlighted the change in period which formed the backdrop to the events of 1905 in Russia, as capitalism entered the watershed between its ascendant and decadent periods. We also described the conditions that had favoured the radicalisation of the struggle in Russia: the existence of a modern, concentrated and highly conscious working class confronted by the attacks of a capitalism whose situation had been worsened by the disastrous effects of the war with Japan. The working class was thus led into a direct confrontation with the state in order to defend its living conditions, and organised in soviets to undertake this new historic phase in its struggle. The first part of this article recounted how the first workers’ councils were formed, and what needs they answered. This second part analyses in more detail how the soviets were formed, how they were linked to the movement of the whole working class, and their relationship with the trades unions. In fact, the unions – which already in 1905 no longer corresponded to the organisational needs of the working class in the new period, only played a positive role inasmuch as they were pulled along by the movement’s dynamic, in the wake of the soviets and under their authority.

The high point of the 1905 revolution: The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies

The tendencies seen in Ivanovo-Voznesensk were realised most fully in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in St Petersburg.

The soviet emerged from the development of the workers’ struggles in St. Petersburg. Superficially it differed from Ivanovo-Voznesensk in that the initial meeting was called on the initiative of the Mensheviks rather than arising directly from a particular struggle. In reality it was rooted every bit as much in the workers’ struggles, but in the movement as a whole rather than just one part of it. This was an advance and the notion that it was less genuinely proletarian or was in some way the creature of the Social Democracy can only express the superficial formalism of those who argue the point. In fact, revolutionaries were driven along by the rush of events and by the spontaneous development of the struggle at a pace they did not always find comfortable.

From the outset the soviet revealed its political nature: “It was decided immediately to call upon the proletariat of the capital to proclaim a political general strike and to elect delegates. The proclamation drafted at the first meeting states: The working class has resorted to the final, powerful weapon of the world workers' movement -- the general strike. . . Decisive events are going to occur in Russia within the next few days. They will determine the destiny of the working class for many years ahead; we must meet these events in full readiness, united by our common Soviet . . .’".[1] The second meeting of the soviet already presumed to make demands of the ruling class: “A special deputation was instructed to submit the following demands to the city duma: 1) that measures be taken immediately to regulate the flow of food supplies to the workers; 2) that premises be set aside for meetings; 3) that all food supplies, allocations of premises and funds to the police, the gendarmerie, etc., be discontinued forthwith; 4) that funds be issued for the arming of the Petersburg proletariat in its fight for freedom”.[2] Very rapidly the soviet became the rallying point for the struggle and the leader of the mass strike, with trade unions and individual strike committees adhering to its decisions. The constitutional manifesto, signed by the Tsar and published on 18th October, may not have been a particularly radical document in itself but in the political context of the period, it was an expression of the balance of class forces during the revolution, and as such was of real significance: “On October 17, the Tsarist government, covered in the blood and curses of centuries, capitulated before the revolutionary strike of the working masses. No efforts at restoration can rub out this fact from the history books. The sacred crown of the Tsar's absolutism bears forever the trace of the proletarian's boot”.[3]

The next two and a half months saw a trial of strength between the revolutionary proletariat, led by the soviet it had created, and the bourgeoisie. On October 21st, faced with the loss of momentum of the strike, the soviet brought it to an end, showing its power by organising all workers to return at the same hour. In late October, plans for a demonstration to demand an amnesty for the prisoners taken by the state were called off in the face of preparations by part of the ruling class to provoke a clash. These actions were attempts to gain the advantage by the classes as they headed towards an inevitable clash: “That was the general trend of the Soviet's policy; it went towards the inevitable conflict with its eyes open. But it did not feel itself called upon to accelerate the conflict. The later, the better.[4] In late October a wave of pogroms was organised, using the Black Hundreds as well as the worst lumpen and criminal elements of society, that left some 3,500 to 4,000 killed and 10,000 injured; and even in St Petersburg preparations went ahead with isolated beatings and assaults. The working class responded by strengthening its militia, seizing arms and mounting patrols, prompting the government in turn to bring soldiers into the city.

In November a new strike developed, partly in response to the imposition of martial law in Poland and the court martial of the soldiers and sailors from Kronstadt who had rebelled. Again faced with a loss of momentum after forcing some concessions, the soviet called off the strike and the workers returned to work as a disciplined body. The success of the strike lay in the fact that it drew in new sectors of the working class and made contact with the soldiers and sailors: “With a single blow it stirred the consciousness of many circles within the army and, in a matter of a few days, gave rise to a number of political meetings in the barracks of the Petersburg garrison. Not only individual soldiers but also soldiers' delegates began to show up in the Executive Committee and even at meetings of the Soviet itself, making speeches, demanding support; revolutionary liaison among the troops was reinforced; proclamations were widely read”.[5] Similarly, an attempt to enforce the 8 hour day could also not be sustained and the gains that had been made were quickly lost once the campaign was called off, but the impact on the consciousness of the working class was lasting: “Defending the resolution to drop the campaign in the Soviet, the rapporteur of the Executive Committee summed up the campaign in the following words: ‘We may not have won the eight hour day for the masses, but we have certainly won the masses for the eight-hour day. Henceforth the war-cry: Eight hours and a gun! shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker’".[6]

The strikes continued, particularly a new spontaneous movement amongst railway and telegraph workers, but the counter-revolution also gradually gathered strength. On November 26th the Chairman of the Soviet, Georgiy Nosar, was arrested. The soviet now recognised that the clash was inevitable and passed a resolution declaring that it would continue preparations for an armed insurrection. Workers, peasants and soldiers drew towards the soviet, affirmed its call to arms and made preparations. However, on December 6th the soviet was surrounded and its members arrested. The Moscow soviet now came to the fore, calling a general strike and attempting to transform it into an armed insurrection. But by this time the reaction was mobilising on a massive scale and the attempted insurrection became a rearguard, defensive action. By mid-December it had been defeated. In the reaction that followed 14,000 people were killed during the fighting, 1,000 executed, 20,000 wounded and 70,000 arrested and imprisoned or exiled.

The bourgeoisie finds itself perplexed by the events of 1905. Because the revolutionary nature of the working class is foreign to them, the development of the struggle into armed confrontation and the defeat of the proletariat seems like an act of madness: “Flushed with success, the Petersburg Soviet succumbed to hubris.[7] Instead of consolidating its achievements, it became increasingly militant, and even reckless. Many of its leaders reasoned that if the autocracy could be so easily brought to its knees, would it not be possible to gain more and more concessions for the working class and press ahead with a socialist revolution? They chose to ignore the fact that the general strike had succeeded only because it had been a unified effort by various social groups; and they failed to understand that they could count on middle class sympathy only so long as the Soviet concentrated its fire against the autocracy”.[8] For revolutionaries, the significance of 1905 does not lie in any immediate gains made but in the lessons it provides about the development of the conditions for revolution, the role of the proletariat and of the revolutionary organisation and, in particular, about the means the proletariat will use to wage its struggle: the soviets. These lessons were only gained because of the “hubris” and “recklessness” of the proletariat; qualities it will need in abundance if it is to succeed in overthrowing capitalism.

The Bolsheviks were uncertain when confronted with the soviets. In St. Petersburg, although they participated in the formation of the soviet, the Bolshevik organisation in the city passed a resolution calling on it to accept the social democratic programme. In Saratov they opposed the creation of a soviet as late as November 1905, while in Moscow, after some delays, they participated actively in the soviet. Lenin had a much clearer grasp of the potential of the soviets and in an unpublished letter to Pravda in early November, criticised those who opposed the party to the soviets: “…the decision must be: both the Soviet of Workers Deputies and the Party” and argued “it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party”.[9] He went on to argue that the Soviet arose from the struggle and was the product of the whole of the proletariat and that its role was to regroup the proletariat and its revolutionary forces, although the inclusion of the peasantry and elements of the bourgeois intelligentsia blurred this significantly. “To my mind, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, as a revolutionary centre is not too broad an organisation but, on the contrary, a much too narrow one. The Soviet must proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government, or form such a government, and must by all means enlist to this end the participation of the new deputies not only from the workers, but, first of all from the sailors and soldiers (…) secondly, from the revolutionary peasantry, and thirdly, from the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia (…) We are not afraid of so broad and mixed a composition – indeed, we want it, for unless the proletariat and the peasantry unite and unless the Social-Democrats and revolutionary democrats form a fighting alliance, the great Russian revolution cannot be fully successful”.

Lenin’s position at the time of the revolution and just afterwards was not always clear, not least because he linked the soviets to the bourgeois revolution and saw them as the basis for a provisional revolutionary government. However, he clearly grasped some of the most fundamental, defining features of the soviets: that they were a form that arose from the struggle itself, from the mass strike; that they regrouped the class; that they were a weapon of the revolutionary or insurrectionary struggle and that they ebbed and flowed with the struggle. “Soviets of Workers Deputies are organs of direct mass struggle. They originated as organs of the strike struggle. By force of circumstances they very quickly became the organs of the general revolutionary struggle against the government. The course of events and the transition from a strike to an uprising irresistibly transformed them into organs of an uprising. That this was precisely the role that quite a number of ‘soviets’ and ‘committees’ played in December, is an absolutely indisputable fact. Events have proved in the most striking and convincing manner that the strength and importance of such organs in the time of militant action depend entirely upon the strength and success of the uprising”.[10] In 1917 this understanding helped Lenin to grasp the central role to be played by the soviets.

The trade unions and the soviets

One of the major lessons of 1905 concerned the function of the unions. We have already mentioned the fundamental point that the development of the soviets showed that the union form was being transcended by the development of history; however, it is important to consider this in more detail.

In Russia, the immediate context was one in which workers’ associations had been banned by the state for many years. This contrasted with the more advanced capitalist countries where the unions had won the right to exist and had grouped together hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers. The particular situation in Russia did not prevent the workers from struggling but meant that their disputes tended to be quite spontaneous and, in particular, that their organisations arose directly from the struggle as strike committees and disappeared with the strike itself. The only legal form allowed was the collection of relief funds.

In 1901 a Society for Mutual Aid for Workers in Mechanical Industries was founded in Moscow by Sergei Zubatov and was followed by the creation of similar organisations in other cities. The aim of these police unions, as we have already mentioned, was to separate the economic grievances of the working class from the political and to ameliorate the former in order to keep the latter in check. They failed to do this, on the one hand because the state was unwilling to make even the minimal concessions that would have been necessary for them to have any credibility and, on the other, because the working class and the revolutionaries sought to turn them to their own ends. “The Moscow Zubatovists found a following in the workshops of the Moscow-Kursk [railway] line, but contrary to the plans of these ‘police socialists’, the contacts developed in Zubatovist tea rooms and libraries also spurred the organisation of Social-Democratic groups…”.[11] In the face of the strike wave of 1902-03 in which some 225,000 workers participated the Zubatov unions were liquidated.

In their place the state allowed the creation of starosti, or factory elders[12] to negotiate with management. Such delegations had arisen in the past because of the absence of other forms of organisation; but under the new law, and in order to avoid the appearance of delegates who truly represented the workers’ interests, such individuals could only be nominated with their employers’ permission. They had no immunity and could be fired by the employers or removed by the state-appointed governor of the region.

When the revolution broke out trade unions were still illegal. Nonetheless numerous unions were formed as a result of the first wave of struggles. By the end of September 16 unions had been formed in St. Petersburg, 24 in Moscow and a few others in different parts of the country. By the end of the year this had increased to 57 in St. Petersburg and 67 in Moscow. The intelligentsia and professional classes also formed unions, including lawyers, medical personnel, engineers and technicians and in May 14 of these unions formed the Union of Unions.

What then was the relationship between the unions and the soviets? Quite simply, it was the soviets that led the struggle, the unions being drawn along and radicalised by their leadership. “As the October strike developed, so the Soviet naturally came more and more to the political forefront. Its importance grew literally hour by hour. The industrial proletariat was the first to rally around it. The railwaymen's union established close relations with it. The Union of Unions, which joined the strike from October 14, was obliged to place itself under the Soviet's authority almost from the start. Numerous strike committees - those of the engineers, lawyers, government officials - adapted their actions to the Soviet's decisions. By placing many disconnected organisations under its control, the Soviet united the revolution around itself”.[13]

The example of the railway workers’ union is instructive as it shows both the fullest extent and the limitations of the unions’ role in a revolutionary period.

As we have already seen, the railway workers had gained a reputation for militancy before 1905 and revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks, had a significant influence amongst them. In late January waves of strikes developed, first in Poland and St. Petersburg, then in Belorussia, the Ukraine and the lines centred on Moscow. The authorities first made a few concessions and then tried to impose martial law but neither tactic brought the strikers to heel. In April the All-Russian Union of Railroad Employees and Workers was founded in Moscow. At first the union seems to have been dominated by the professional, white-collar, workers and the blue-collar workers kept their distance; but this changed as the year progressed. In July a new wave of strikes arose from the rank and file workers and, significantly, it immediately took a more political form. In September, as already mentioned, the pensions conference transformed itself into the “First All- Russian Delegate Congress of Railroad Employees”. This rising tide of militancy began to push against the limits of the union with the outbreak of spontaneous strikes in September forcing the union to act, as one delegate to the pensions’ congress noted: “the employees struck spontaneously; recognising the inevitability of a strike on the Moscow-Kazan Railroad, the union found it necessary to support a strike on the remaining roads of the Moscow junction”.[14]

These strikes were the spark that set off the mass strike of October: “On October 9, at an extraordinary meeting of the Petersburg delegates' congress of railway personnel, the slogans of the railway strike were formulated and immediately disseminated by telegraph to all lines. They were the following: eight-hour day, civil liberties, amnesty, Constituent Assembly. The strike began confidently to take over the country. It finally bade farewell to indecision. The self-confidence of its participants grew together with their number. Revolutionary class claims were advanced ahead of the economic claims of separate trades. Having broken out of its local and trade boundaries, the strike began to feel that it was a revolution -- and so acquired unprecedented daring. The strike rushed forward along the rails and stopped all movement in its wake. It announced its coming over the wires of the railway telegraph. ‘Strike!’ was the order of the day in every corner of the land”.[15]

The rank and file workers came to the fore, overflowing the union with their revolutionary fervour: “Between October 9 and 18 there is no record of the Central Bureau issuing even a single instruction to union locals, and the memoirs of the leaders are noticeably silent concerning events of these days. In fact the upsurge of rank-and-file organising sparked by the strike tended to strengthen the influence both of local leadership factions and revolutionary parties at the expense of the nominally independent Central Bureau, especially as the strike came to involve new occupational categories”.[16] Even the Tsarist police noted that “during the strike committees were formed by the strikers on each of the railroads to provide organisation and leadership”.[17] One feature of the strike was the appearance of “delegate trains” used to spread the strike and maintain communication between the centres of struggle.

Between October and December large numbers of new unions were formed but, as a government report noted, these immediately took up the political struggle: “unions were formed initially to regulate the economic relations of the employees, but soon, under the influence of propaganda hostile to the state, they took on a political aspect and began to strive for the overthrow of the existing state and social order”.[18] This was certainly an accurate description of the railway workers who remained at the forefront of the revolution, participating in the strike and armed insurrection of December in Moscow.

In the aftermath of the revolution the union rapidly declined. At its third congress in December 1906 while the number of workers represented was ostensibly double that of the year previously, activity had sharply declined. In February 1907 the Social Democrats withdrew from the union and in 1908 it collapsed.

In Britain in the 19th century the working class fought to create unions. Initially these only regrouped the most skilled workers and it required major struggles in the second half of the century for the unskilled workers to overcome their dispersal and weakness to form their own unions. In Russia in 1905 it was also the most skilled who first formed unions, but in contrast to Britain, the lack of participation of the unskilled, rank-and-file workers was not an expression of a lack of class consciousness and militancy but of their high level. The absence of unions had not prevented the growth of either, and in 1905 both rose to a new level, aspiring towards the mass strike and the soviet. The union form appeared, but its content tended towards the new form of struggle. In the revolutionary ferment the workers created new forms of the struggle but also filled older forms with the new content, overflowed them and joined the revolutionary flood. The revolutionary life of the working class clarified the situation in practice many years before it was understood in theory: in 1917 it was the soviets that the working class returned to when it stormed the gates of capital.

1905 heralds the end of union organisation

The revolution of 1917 thus confirmed that the soviet was the only organisational form adapted to the needs of the workers’ struggle in the "epoch of wars and revolutions" (as the Communist International described the period after World War I: see the article on the political implications of the decadence of capitalism in this issue).

The 1905 mass strike, and the attempted insurrection, demonstrated that the workers’ councils were capable of taking on all the essential functions assumed till then by the unions: providing places where the proletariat could unite and develop its class consciousness, thanks in particular to the influence of revolutionary intervention.[19] But whereas during the previous period the working class was still in the process of formation, the unions often owed their existence to the intervention of revolutionaries who organised their class, the spontaneous creation of the soviet by the working masses in struggle corresponds to the evolution of the working class, to its maturity and the rising level of its consciousness, and to the new conditions of its struggle. Whereas union action was generally conceived on the basis of a struggle for reforms, often in close collaboration with the mass parliamentary parties, the workers’ council corresponds to the need for a struggle which is both economic and political, in head-on confrontation with the state power incapable of according the workers’ demands. In other words, a struggle which could no longer use the union form of organisation as it rallied and unified in action the growing and divers fractions of the working class, and provided the crucible for the general development of their consciousness.

The events of 1905 demonstrated in practice that the trade union, which the workers had fought for decades to build, was losing its usefulness for the working class. If the unions were still able to play a positive role in 1905, this was only thanks to the soviets, whose appendages they became. History’s was to be much sharper in the years that followed. In 1914, the first great slaughter began and the ruling class of the belligerent countries put the unions to serve the bourgeois state, controlling the working class for the benefit of the war effort.


The revolution of 1905 contains many lessons of vital importance for today on the necessity to understand the historical period in order to understand the tasks and form of the revolutionary struggle. The essential elements of the proletariat’s struggle in the period of capitalism’s decadence emerged during the struggle of 1905. The developing crisis of capitalism made the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism the goal of the struggle, while the consequences of the crisis in war, poverty and increased exploitation meant that any real struggle would have to take on a political form. These were the roots of the soviets. None of these were specific to Russia; they developed in different ways and at different paces in all of the main capitalist countries. In the next part of this series we will draw out the international significance of the revolution and the lessons that the workers’ movement drew from it.

North 14/06/05

1 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 8, “The creation of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.

2 Ibid.

3 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 10, ” Witte’s ministry”.

4 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 11 “The first days of the ‘freedoms’”.

5 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 15 “The November strike”.

6 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 16 “Eight hours and a gun”.

7"Hubris" is a notion derived from ancient Greece, where it indicated an overweening pride, punished by the Gods when it led men to think themselves their equals.

8 Abraham Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, Chapter 10, “The days of liberty”. Stanford University Press 1988.

9 Collected Works, Vol.10, “Our tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.

10 Collected Works, Vol.11, “Dissolution of the Duma and tasks of the proletariat”

11 Henry Reichman, Railwaymen and Revolution: Russia, 1905, chapter 5 “First Assaults and Petitioning”.

12The term starost originally applied to the village elders, elected by the peasants, to police the village, settle disputes, and defend their interests. Tradition held that one should always accept the decision of the starost.

13 Trotsky, 1905, chapter 8 “The creation of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.

14 Henry Reichman, Railwaymen and Revolution: Russia, 1905, Chapter 7, “The pension congress and the October Strike”.

15 Trotsky, 1905, chapter 7, “The strike in October”.

16 Reichman, ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid, Chapter 8, “The rush to organise”.

19 Whose attitude differs from that of the reformists in particular because they put forward, in partial and local struggles, the common interests of the proletariat as a world wide and historically revolutionary class, and not the perspective of a "social" capitalism.


History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

30 years of the ICC: Learning from the past to build the future

The ICC held its 16th Congress in the 30th year of its existence. In this article we therefore intend, as we did on the 10th and 20th anniversaries of the ICC, to draw up a balance sheet of our organisation's experience. This is not a sign of narcissism: communist organisations do not exist by or for themselves; they are instruments of the working class, to which their experience belongs. This article thus aims, as one might say, to return our organisation's mandate for its 30 years of existence to the class. And as always in returning a mandate, we must determine whether our organisation has been able to live up to the responsibilities that it took on when it was formed. We will therefore begin by asking what were the responsibilities of revolutionaries in the situation of 30 years ago, and how they have changed since then, as the situation itself has changed.

The responsibilities of revolutionaries

During its first years the ICC's responsibilities were determined by the end of the profound counter-revolution which had crushed the world proletariat after the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. The immense strike of May 1968 in France, the “hot autumn” of 1969 in Italy, and the Baltic strikes in Poland during the winter of 1970-71, and many other movements, had shown that the proletariat had risen again after more than four decades of defeat. This historic recovery of the proletariat was not only expressed in a resurgence of workers' struggles, and in these struggles' ability to break the straitjacket in which the left parties and above all the trade unions had held them for decades (this was particularly the case during the wildcat strikes of Italy's “hot autumn” in 1969). One of the most significant signs of the working class’ emergence from the counter-revolution was the appearance of a whole generation of individuals and small groups in search of the proletariat's real revolutionary positions, thus calling into question the monopoly of the Stalinist parties, with their Trotskyist or Maoist appendages, of the very idea of communist revolution. The ICC was itself the fruit of this process, since it was formed by the regroupment of several groups which had appeared in France, the United States, Britain, Italy and Spain and which had moved towards the positions defended since 1964 by the Internacionalismo group in Venezuela, itself under the impetus of an old militant of the Communist Left, MC, who had been living there since 1952.

During this initial period the ICC's main preoccupations and activity were thus determined by three fundamental responsibilities:

  • fully absorbing the positions, the analyses, and the lessons of the communist organisations of the past, since these had either disappeared or become completely sclerotic as a result of the counter-revolution;
  • intervening in the international wave of workers' struggles opened by May 1968 in France;

  • continuing the regroupment of new communist forces, of which the ICC’s formation was a first step.

The collapse of the Eastern bloc and of Europe's Stalinist regimes in 1989 created a new situation for the working class, subjected to the full blast of all the campaigns about the “triumph of democracy”, the “death of communism”, the “disappearance of the class struggle” or even of the working class itself. The situation was responsible for a profound ebb in both the militancy and the consciousness of the proletariat.

The ICC's 30 years of existence have thus been divided into two very different periods of 15 years each. During the first period, it was necessary to take part in the working class’ progressive steps forward in developing its struggles and its consciousness, in particular through an active intervention in these struggles. During the second period, one of our organisation's prime concerns was to hold fast against the current of disarray that swept over the world working class. This was a test for the ICC, as it was for all the communist organisations, since the latter are not immune to the general atmosphere breathed by the class as a whole: the demoralisation and the lack self-confidence that affected the class could not help having its effects within our own ranks. And this danger was all the greater in that the generation which had founded the ICC had entered politics after 1968 and at the beginning of the 1970s in the wake of large-scale workers’ struggles which encouraged the idea that the communist revolution was already knocking on history's door.

If we are to draw up a balance sheet of 30 years of the ICC's existence, we must therefore examine whether the organisation was able to confront these two periods in the life of society and in the struggle of the working class. In particular, we must see how, in the tests which it has had to confront, it has overcome the weaknesses inherent in the historical circumstances within which it was formed. In doing so, we must understand what are the ICC’s strengths that allow it to evaluate these 30 years of its existence positively.

A positive balance sheet

Before we continue, we must state straightaway that the ICC can draw a thoroughly positive balance sheet of these 30 years of its existence. It is true that our organisation's size and above all its impact remain extremely modest. As we put it in an article published on the ICC's 20th anniversary: “The comparison between the ICC and the organisations which have marked the history of the workers' movement, especially the Internationals, is disconcerting: whereas the latter organisations included or influenced millions, even tens of millions of workers, the ICC is only known, throughout the world, to a tiny minority of the working class” (International Review n°80). The situation remains fundamentally the same today and can be explained, as we have often said in our articles, by the particular circumstances in which the working class has once again set out on the long path towards the revolution:

  • the slow rhythm of capitalism's economic collapse, whose first expressions at the end of the 1960s served as a detonator for the proletariat's historical resurgence;

  • the length and depth of the counter-revolution that crushed the working class from the end of the 1920s onwards, and which cut off the new generations of proletarians from the experience of the generations which had undertaken the great struggles of the early 20th century and above all of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23;

  • the extreme distrust of those workers who rejected the unions and the so-called “workers’”, “socialist” or “communist” parties towards any kind of proletarian political organisation;

  • the even greater weight of the lack of self-confidence and demoralisation as a result of the collapse of the so-called “communist regimes”.

That said, we should also point out how far we have come: in 1968, our political tendency was nothing but a little nucleus in Venezuela, and a tiny group in a provincial French city, capable of publishing no more than a roneoed magazine two or three times a year; our organisation has today become a sort of reference point for all those who are coming towards revolutionary positions:

  • a territorial press in twelve countries and seven languages (English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Dutch, and Swedish);

  • more than a hundred pamphlets and other documents published in these languages, and also in Russian, Portuguese, Bengali, Hindi, Farsi, and Korean;

  • more than 420 issues of our theoretical publication, the International Review, published every three months in English, Spanish, and French, as well as less regularly in German, Italian, Dutch and Swedish.

Since its formation, the ICC has produced a publication on average every five days; today, we publish roughly every four days. To this should now be added our website “” in thirteen languages. This site publishes the printed articles from the territorial press and the International Review, our pamphlets and leaflets, but it also includes an Internet publication ICConline which gives us the possibility of taking position rapidly on the most important events in the news.

As well as our publications, we should also mention the thousands of public and open meetings held in fifteen countries since our organisation’s foundation, where sympathisers and contacts can come to discuss our positions and analyses. Nor should we forget our oral interventions, sales of the press and distribution of still more numerous leaflets in public meetings, forums and gatherings of other organisations, in street demonstrations, in front of workplaces and in markets and railway stations – not forgetting of course in the workers’ struggles.

Once again, all this is little enough when we compare it, for example, with the activity of the sections of the Communist International in the 1920s, when revolutionary positions found expression in a daily press. But as we have seen, one can only compare what is comparable. A true measure of the ICC’s “success” can be seen from the difference between the ICC and the other organisations of the Communist Left, which already existed in 1968 when the ICC was no more than an embryo.

The groups of the Communist Left since 1968

In 1968, several organisations existed which considered themselves to be descendants of the Communist Left. On the one hand, there were the groups that belonged to the tradition of the Dutch Left, the “councilists” represented essentially in Holland by the Spartacusbond and Daad en Gedachte, in France by the “Groupe de Liaison pour l’Action des Travailleurs” (GLAT) and Informations et Correspondances ouvrières (ICO), and in Britain by Solidarity, whose origins lay above all in the experience of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, which sprang from a split in the Trotskyist 4th International just after World War II and had disappeared in 1964.

Apart from the councilist current, there also existed another group in France, descended from Socialisme ou Barbarie, Pouvoir Ouvrier, as well as a small group around Grandizo Munis (one-time leader of the Spanish section of the 4th International), the “Ferment Ouvrier Révolutionnaire” (FOR, in Spanish the “Fomento Obrero Revolucionario”) which published Alarme (Alarma in Spanish).

The other current of the Communist Left in 1968 had its roots in the Italian Left, and comprised the two branches that had emerged from the 1952 split in the Partito Comunista Internazionalista founded in Italy after the war in 1945. On one side was the “Bordigist” International Communist Party which published Programma Comunista in Italy, and Le Prolétaire and Programme Communiste in France; on the other was the majority at the time of the split which published Battaglia Comunista and Prometeo.

For a while, some of these groups enjoyed an undoubted success in terms of their audience. “Councilist” groups like ICO witnessed the arrival of a whole series of militants awoken to politics by May 1968, and in 1969 and 1970 was able to organise several encounters at the regional, national and even international level (Brussels 1969) which brought together a considerable number of individuals and groups (including our own). But at the beginning of the 1970s, ICO disappeared. The tendency reappeared in 1975 with the quarterly bulletin Echanges et Mouvements in which people from several countries took part but which was only published in French. As for the other groups, they either ceased to exist, in the case of the GLAT during the 1970s, Solidarity in 1988, or the Spartacusbond which did not outlive its main figure Stan Poppe (who died in 1991), or else ceased publication like Daad en Gedachte at the end of the 1990s.

Other groups that we have mentioned above have also disappeared, such as Pouvoir Ouvrier in the 1970s and the FOR during the 1990s.

As for the groups which descend from the Italian Left, one can hardly say that their fate has been much better. Since Bordiga’s death in 1970, the “Bordigist” movement has undergone several splits, including one which led to the creation of a new “International Communist Party” publishing Il Partito Comunista. At the end of the 1970s, the majority tendency that published Il Programma Comunista expanded rapidly in several countries, and for a time became the main organisation of the Communist Left tradition. But this progress was in large part made possible by a turn towards leftism and Third Worldism. In 1982, the International Communist Party exploded and the whole organisation collapsed like a house of cards, its members all pulling in different directions. The French section disappeared for several years, while in Italy only a few militants remained faithful to “orthodox” Bordigism and after a while reappeared with two publications: Il Programma Comunista and Il Comunista. While the Bordigist current still has a certain ability to publish in Italian with three more or less monthly papers, it is barely present internationally. The Il Comunista tendency is represented in France by Le Prolétaire which publishes every three months. The Programma Comunista tendency publishes Internationalist Papers in English every year or two, and Cahiers internationalistes still less often. The Il Partito Comunista tendency publishes an Italian “monthly” (that comes out seven times a year) and also produces Comunismo every six months and La Izquierda Comunista and Communist Left, in Spanish and English respectively, once or twice a year.

As for the current descended from the majority in the 1952 split, and which kept both the press and the name of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (PCInt), we have already, in our article “An opportunist policy of regroupment that leads to nothing but ‘abortions’” (International Review n°121), described its misadventures in its attempts to widen its international audience. In 1984, the PCInt came together with the Communist Workers Organisation (which publishes Revolutionary Perspectives) to form the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP). Fifteen years later, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the IBRP at last managed to spread beyond its first two participants to include a few small nuclei of which the most active is Internationalist Notes in Canada, which manages to publish once or twice a year, while Bilan et Perspectives in France publishes less than once a year and the “Circulo de América Latina” (a “sympathising group” of the IBRP) has no regular press and contents itself with publishing statements and translations on the IBRP’s Spanish language website. The IBRP was formed 20 years ago (and the Partito Comunista Internazionalista has existed for 60 years), and yet despite being the most internationally developed[1] of all the groups that claim to descend from the PCInt of 1945 the IBRP today is still smaller than the ICC was when it was founded.

More generally, each year the ICC alone produces more regular publications in more languages than all the other organisations put together. In particular, none of the other organisations has a regular publication in German, which is clearly a weakness given the importance of the German proletariat in both the history and the future of the workers’ movement.

We do not make this comparison between the extent of our organisation and that of the other groups out of a spirit of competition. Contrary to what some of these groups have claimed, we have never tried to expand at the expense of others, far from it. When we discuss with our contacts, we always make them aware of the other groups’ existence and encourage them to acquaint themselves with the latter’s positions.[2] Similarly, we have always invited the other organisations to our public meetings, both to speak and to present their own press (we have even proposed to lodge their militants in cities or countries where they themselves have no presence [3]), as we have also on occasion placed other groups’ press in bookshops, when they were in agreement. Finally, it has never been our policy to “go fishing” after the militants of these organisations who have developed disagreements with the latter’s policies or positions. We have always encouraged them to stay in their organisations in order to debate and to clarify. [4]

In fact, unlike the other groups which we have cited, each of which thinks itself to be the only one able to develop the future party of the communist revolution, we consider that there exists a Left Communist camp which defends proletarian positions within the working class, and that all the groups within it only stand to gain if this camp develops as a whole. Obviously, we criticise those positions that we believe to be incorrect whenever we consider it useful to do so. But these polemics are part of the necessary debate within the proletariat and we believe, with Marx and Engels, that together with its experience only the discussion and confrontation of positions will allow its consciousness to move forward.[5]

In fact, this comparison of the ICC’s balance sheet with that of the other organisations of the Communist Left aims above all to highlight how weak is the impact of revolutionary positions within the class due to historical conditions and to the obstacles it encounters on its road to consciousness. This allows us to understand that the ICC’s lack of influence today is in no way a demonstration of failure either of its politics or of its orientations: given present historical conditions, what we have managed to do during the last thirty years can be considered as very positive, and emphasises the validity of our orientations throughout this period. We should therefore examine more precisely how and why these orientations have allowed us to confront successfully the different situations that we have had to face since our organisation was founded. And to start with, we need to recall (as we have already done in the articles published on the organisation’s 10th and 20th anniversaries) what are the fundamental principles on which the ICC is based.

The fundamental principles for the construction of the organisation

The first thing that we should emphasise strongly, is that these principles are not an invention of the ICC. They have been worked out over time by the whole workers’ movement. There is thus nothing platonic in the statement in the “Basic Positions” that appear on the back of all our publications, that “The positions and activity of revolutionary organisations are the product of the past experiences of the working class and of the lessons that its political organisations have drawn throughout its history. The ICC thus traces its origins to the successive contributions of the Communist League of Marx and Engels (1847-52), the three Internationals (the International Workingmen’s Association, 1864-72, the Socialist International, 1889-1914, the Communist International, 1919-28), the left fractions which detached themselves from the degenerating Third International in the years 1920-30, in particular the German, Dutch and Italian Lefts.”

While our heritage lies in the different left fractions of the Communist International, as far as the question of building the organisation is concerned we rely on the ideas of the left fractions of the Communist Party of Italy, in particular as these were expressed during the 1930s in the review Bilan. This group's great clarity played a decisive part in its ability not only to survive, but also to push forward a remarkable development in communist thinking.

We cannot, in the framework of this article, do justice to all the richness of the positions of the Italian Fraction. We will limit ourselves here to summarising a few essential aspects.

The first question where we have inherited from the Italian Fraction is their position on the course of history. Each of the fundamental classes in society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, has its own response to the mortal crisis of the capitalist economy: that of the former is imperialist war, of the latter world revolution. Which of these finally gains the upper hand depends on the balance of power between the classes. The bourgeoisie was only able to unleash World War I because it had defeated the proletariat politically beforehand, above all through the victory of opportunism within the main parties of the Second International. However, the barbarity of the imperialist war, by sweeping away any illusions in capitalism's ability to bring peace and prosperity to society and to improve the living conditions of the working class, led to a reawakening of the proletariat in 1917 in Russia and in 1918 in Germany: the workers rose against the war to launch themselves into the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism. The defeat of the revolution in Germany, in other words in the most decisive country, opened the door to the victory of the counter-revolution, which spread throughout the world especially in Europe with the victory of Stalinism in Russia, of fascism in Germany and Italy, and of “antifascist” ideology in the “democratic” countries. During the 1930s, one of the Fraction's merits was to have understood that, precisely because of this profound defeat of the working class, the acute crisis of capitalism, which began in 1929, could only lead to a new world war. On the basis of their analysis of the period, which considered that the course of history led not towards revolution and the radicalisation of workers' struggles but towards world war, the Fraction was able to understand what was happening in Spain in 1936 and to avoid falling into the fatal mistake of the Trotskyists who mistook this preparation for the second imperialist slaughter for the beginnings of the proletarian revolution.

The Fraction’s ability to identify the real balance of forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat was combined with a clear conception of the role of communist organisations in each period of history. On the basis of the experience of different left fractions which existed previously in the history of the workers movement, notably of the Bolshevik fraction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) but also of Marx and Engels after 1847, the Fraction in its publication Bilan established the difference between two forms of communist organisation: the party and the fraction. The working class gives rise to the party in periods of intense struggle, when the positions defended by revolutionaries have a real impact on the course of events. When the balance of forces turns against the proletariat, then the party either disappears as such or else tends to degenerate in an opportunist course which leads it towards betrayal in the service of the enemy class. It is the fraction, smaller in both its size and its impact, which must then take up the defence of revolutionary positions. The fraction's role is to struggle to correct the party's line so that it is able to play its part when the class struggle recovers. Should this task prove vain, then its role is to provide a programmatic and organisational bridge towards the new party, which can only be formed under two conditions:

  • that the fraction has drawn all the lessons from past experience, and above all from past defeats;

  • that the balance of class forces is once again in the proletariat's favour.

Another lesson passed on by the Italian Left and which flows naturally from what we have just said is the rejection of immediatism, in other words of an approach which loses sight of the long-term nature of the proletariat’s struggle and of the intervention of revolutionary organisations within it. Lenin used to say that patience was one of the Bolsheviks' main qualities. He was doing no more than continue the struggle of Marx and Engels against the scourge of immediatism.[6] Because the working class is constantly penetrated by the ideology of the petty bourgeoisie, that is to say of a social stratum which has no future, immediatism is a constant threat to the workers' movement.

The corollary of the struggle against immediatism is programmatic rigour in the work to regroup revolutionary forces. Unlike the Trotskyist current, which preferred hasty regroupment notably on the basis of agreements between “personalities”, the Fraction insisted on profound discussion on programmatic principle before merging with other currents.

That said, this rigorous adherence to principle in no way excluded discussion with other groups. Those who are firm in their convictions have no fear of confrontation with other currents. Sectarianism by contrast, which considers itself “alone in the world” and rejects any contact with other proletarian groups, is generally the mark of a lack of conviction in the validity of one's own positions. In particular, it was precisely because it stood solidly on the experience of the workers movement that the Fraction was able to criticise this experience with such daring, even when this meant calling into question positions which had come to be considered as dogma by other currents.[7] Whereas the Dutch-German left reacted to the degeneration of the revolution in Russia and the counter-revolutionary role which was henceforth played by the Bolshevik party, by throwing out the baby with the bathwater and concluding that both the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks had been bourgeois, the Fraction always asserted loud and clear the proletarian nature of both. In doing so, it also combatted the “Councilist” position where the Dutch left ended up, by declaring that the party had a vital role to play in the victory of the communist revolution. And unlike the Trotskyists who base themselves on the totality of the first four congresses of the Communist International, the Fraction, like the Communist Party of Italy at the beginning of the 1920s, rejected the incorrect positions adopted by these congresses, especially the policy of the “United Front”. Indeed the Fraction went further still when it called into question the position of Lenin and the Second Congress on support for national liberation struggles, adopting instead the position defended by Rosa Luxemburg.

All these lessons were adopted and systematised by the French Communist Left (1945-52) and it was on this basis that the ICC was founded. This is what has allowed it to win through in the different ordeals that it has had to confront, notably those due to the weaknesses that weighed on the proletariat and its revolutionary minorities at the moment of its historic recovery in 1968.

History puts the Fraction's principles to the test

Faced with this resurgence of the working class, the first thing that had to be understood was the question of the historic course. This was little understood by the other groups who considered themselves the heirs of the Italian Left. Having formed the Party in 1945, when the class was still in the grip of the counter-revolution, and having failed since then to criticise this premature formation, these groups (who continued to call themselves “the party”) proved unable to distinguish between the counter-revolution and the end of the counter-revolution. They saw nothing of any importance for the working class either in the France of May 1968 or in the Italian hot autumn of 1969, and put these events down to mere student agitation. By contrast, our comrades of Internacionalismo (in particular MC, an old militant of the Fraction and the GCF), conscious of the change in the balance of class forces, understood the necessity of launching a process of discussion and regroupment with those groups that had emerged as a result of the change in the historic course. These comrades repeatedly asked the PCInt to appeal for the opening of discussion between the groups and to call an international conference inasmuch as the size and influence of the PCInt was far greater than that of our little nucleus in Venezuela. Each time, the PCInt rejected our proposal on the basis that nothing new was going on. Finally, a first cycle of conferences began in 1973 following an appeal launched by Internationalism, a group in the United States close to the positions of Internacionalismo and of Révolution Internationale which had been formed in France in 1968. It was largely thanks to these conferences, which allowed a serious decantation to take place among a whole series of groups and elements that had come towards politics after May 1968, that the ICC was formed in January 1975. It is obvious that the attitude, inherited from the Fraction, of systematically seeking to discuss with individuals, however confused, if they clearly demonstrated a revolutionary will was a determining element in this first step.

That said, while the young militants who had formed the ICC or joined it in its first years, were certainly enthusiastic, they nonetheless suffered from a certain number of very important weaknesses:

  • the impact of the student movement soaked in petty bourgeois ideas, especially individualism and immediatism (“revolution now!” was one of the student slogans of 1968);

  • suspicion towards any form of revolutionary organisation intervening in the class as a result of the counter-revolutionary role played by the Stalinist parties; in other words, the weight of councilism.

These weaknesses did not only affect the militants regrouped in the ICC. On the contrary they remained much greater amongst the groups and elements who had remained outside our organisation, which was to a large extent formed through the struggle against them. These weaknesses explain the ephemeral success after 1968 of the councilist current. Inevitably ephemeral since when one makes a theory out of one's uselessness for the class struggle, one has little chance of survival. They also explain the success and then the rout of Programma Comunista: after completely failing to understand the significance of what was happening in 1968, this current suddenly lost its head in the face of the international development of workers’ struggles and abandoned the caution and organisational rigour which had characterised it for some time previously. Its congenital sectarianism and its vaunted “monolithism” mutated into an “opening” in all directions (except towards our organisation which it continued to consider as “petty bourgeois”), notably towards a large number of elements who had barely and incompletely emerged from leftism, and especially from Third Worldism. Its catastrophic disintegration in 1982 was the logical result of its forgetting the main lessons of the Italian Left whose heir it nonetheless continually claimed to be.

These weaknesses soon also appeared in the ICC, despite our determination to avoid the hasty integration of new militants. In 1981 our organisation suffered an important crisis which swept away half of its section in Britain. This crisis was fed essentially by immediatism, which led a whole series of militants to overestimate the potential of the class struggle (at the time Britain was going through the most massive workers struggles of its history: with 29 million strike days lost in 1979, Britain took second place behind the France of 1968 in terms of the statistics of workers militancy). As a result some of them mistook the rank-and-file union organisations which the bourgeoisie had produced as the unions lost their grip, for proletarian groups. At the same time a still powerful individualism led to a rejection of the unitary and centralised nature of the organisation: each local section, or even each individual, could break the organisation's discipline if he considered that its orientations were incorrect. The immediatist danger is one of the main targets of the “Report on the function of the revolutionary organisation” (International Review n°29) adopted by the Extraordinary Conference held in January 1982 to put the ICC back on the rails

In the same way, the “Report on the structure and functioning of the revolutionary organisation” (International Review n°33) was aimed at individualism in defence of a centralised and disciplined organisation (while insisting at the same time on the necessity for the most open and profound debates within it).

This victorious struggle against immediatism and individualism saved the organisation in 1981, but it did not eliminate the threats to it: in particular, the weight of councilism, in other words the underestimation of the role of the communist organisation, crystallised in 1984 with the formation of a “tendency” which raised the flag against “witchhunts” when we began to fight against the remains of councilist ideas in our own ranks. This “tendency” ended up by leaving the ICC at its Sixth Congress, in late 1985, to form the External Fraction of the ICC (EFICC) which proposed to defend our organisation's “real platform” against its supposed “Stalinist degeneration” (the same accusation that had been made by those elements who left the ICC in 1981).

Overall, these different struggles allowed our organisation to assume its responsibilities in the class struggles which took place during this period, such as the miners’ strike of 1984 in Britain, the general strike of 1985 in Denmark, the huge public sector strike of 1986 in Belgium, the strike on the railways and hospitals in 1986 and 1988 in France, and the teachers’ strike in Italy in 1987.[8]

During this active intervention in the workers’ struggles of the 1980s, our organisation did not forget one of the main concerns of the Italian Fraction: to draw the lessons of past defeats. After following and analysing with great attention the workers’ struggles in Poland in 1980,[9] in order to understand their defeat the ICC made an attentive examination of the specific characteristics of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe.[10] It was this analysis which allowed our organisation to foresee the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the USSR two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when many groups were still analysing the events in the USSR and its glacis (“perestroika” and “glasnost”, Solidarnosc in Poland coming to power in the summer of 1989) as part of the policy to reinforce the same Bloc.[11]

Similarly, the ability to face up with lucidity to the defeats of the class, which had been a strength of the Fraction and after it of the French Communist Left (GCF), made it possible for us, even before the events of autumn 1989, to predict that they would provoke a profound ebb in proletarian consciousness: “even in its death, Stalinism is doing capitalist rule one last service: its decomposing corpse continues to pollute the atmosphere that the proletariat breathes... we must expect to see a temporary retreat in the proletariat's consciousness (...) even if it does not call into question the historic course or the general perspective of class confrontations, the present retreat of the proletariat, given the historic importance of the events by which it is determined, is far more profound than that which accompanied the defeat of 1981 in Poland.[12]

This analysis did not meet with universal agreement in the Left Communist camp, many of whom thought that because Stalinism had been the spearhead of the counter-revolution, its pitiful disintegration would open the way for the development of the consciousness and militancy of the proletariat. This was also the time when the IBRP could write as follows about the coup d'état which had overthrown the Ceausescu regime at the end of 1989: “Romania is the first country in the industrialised regions in which the world economic crisis has given birth to a real and authentic popular insurrection whose result has been the overthrow of the ruling government (...) in Romania, all the objective conditions and almost all the subjective conditions for the transformation of the insurrection into a real and authentic social revolution were present” (Battaglia Comunista, January 1990, “Ceausescu is dead, but capitalism still lives”).

Finally, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and Stalinism, and the difficulties that these created for the struggle of the working class, were only fully understood by our own organisation because it had previously been able to identify the new phase in the decadence of capitalism, the phase of decomposition: “Up to now, the class combats which have developed in the four corners of the planet have been able to prevent decadent capitalism from providing its own answer to the dead-end of its economy: the ultimate form of its barbarity , a new world war. However, the working class is not yet capable of affirming its own perspective through its own revolutionary struggles, nor even of setting before the rest of society the future that it holds within itself. It is precisely this temporary stalemate, where for the moment neither the bourgeois nor the proletarian alternative can emerge openly, that lies at the origin of capitalism’s putrefaction, and which explains the extreme degree of decadent capitalism’s barbarity. And this rottenness will get still worse with the inexorable aggravation of the economic crisis" (The decomposition of capitalism”, International Review n°57).

"In reality, the present collapse of the Eastern bloc is another sign of the general decomposition of capitalist society, whose origins lie precisely in the bourgeoisie's own inability to give its own answer - imperialist war - to the open crisis of the world economy" (International Review n°60, "Theses on the economic and political crisis in the USSR and in the Eastern bloc", Point 20).

Here again, the ICC drew its inspiration from the method of the Italian Fraction, for whom “knowledge can tolerate no embargo and no ostracism”. The ICC was able to elaborate this analysis because, like the Fraction, it has a constant concern to fight against routine, against lazy thinking, against the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun” or that “the positions of the proletariat have been invariant since 1848” (as the Bordigists claim). Our organisation foresaw the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the disappearance of the Western Bloc which was to follow, just as it foresaw a serious retreat suffered by the working class from 1989 onwards, because it too has adopted this determination to be constantly alert to historical events even if this means calling into question comfortable and well-established certainties. In fact, this method of the Fraction which the ICC continues, is not specific to the former, however capable it was of putting it to work. This is the method of Marx and Engels, who never hesitated to call into question positions that they had adopted previously when reality demanded it. This is the method of Rosa Luxemburg who at the 1896 Congress of the Socialist International dared to call for the abandoning of one of the most symbolic positions of the workers’ movement: support for Polish independence and more generally for national liberation struggles. This was Lenin’s method when, to the astonishment and against the opposition of the Mensheviks and the “old Bolsheviks”, he declared that it was necessary to rewrite the programme adopted by the Party in 1903, with the words Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.”

The ICC's determination to remain vigilant in the face of any new event does not only apply in the domain of the international situation. It also applies to the internal life of our organisation. Once again, this is no invention of ours. We learnt this approach from the Fraction which in turn took its inspiration from the example of the Bolsheviks, and before them from Marx and Engels, especially within the First International. The period that followed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, which as we have seen represents almost half of the life of the ICC, was a new test for our organisation which had to confront new crises, as it had done during the 1980s. From 1993 onwards, it has had to engage in the struggle against the “circle spirit” as Lenin defined it during the 1903 Congress of the RSDLP, whose source lay in the origins of the ICC when it brought together small groups where affinity was mixed with political conviction. The survival of the circle spirit, combined with the growing pressure of decomposition, tended more and more to encourage clan behaviour within the ICC, threatening its unity and even its survival. And in the same way that the elements most marked by the circle spirit, including a number of founding members of the party like Plekhanov, Axelrod, Zassulich, Potressov and Martov, had opposed and separated from the Bolsheviks to form the Menshevik fraction after the 1903 Congress, a certain number of “eminent members” of the ICC (as Lenin called them) were unable to face up to the struggle and fled the organisation (1995-96). However, the struggle against the circle spirit and against clan behaviour were not taken to their conclusion and once again made themselves felt in 2000-2001. In 2001, the same ingredients were present as in the crisis of 1993, but for some militants they were combined with an exhaustion of communist conviction aggravated by the prolonged retreat of the working class and the increased weight of decomposition. This explains how long-standing members of the ICC could either abandon any concern with politics, or could be transformed into blackmailers, ruffians, and even volunteer stool pigeons.[13] Shortly before his death in 1990, our comrade MC insisted that the working class was about to suffer a serious retreat, saying that we would now see who the real militants were, that is to say those who do not lose their convictions in the face of difficulty. Those elements who, in 2001, either resigned or formed the IFICC, demonstrated this alteration in their convictions. Once again, the ICC sought to defend the organisation with the same determination that it had shown on previous occasions. And we owe this determination to the example of the Italian Fraction. In the depths of the counter-revolution, the Fraction's slogan was “never betray”. Since the retreat of the working class did not mean the return of the counter-revolution, in the 1990s the ICC adopted as its watchword: “hold fast”. Some betrayed, but the organisation as a whole held fast, and even become stronger thanks to this determination to address organisational questions at the greatest possible theoretical depth, just as in their time Marx, Lenin and the Fraction had done. The two texts already published in our International Review (“The question of the functioning of the organisation in the ICC” in International Review n°109 and “Confidence and solidarity in the proletarian struggle” in n°111 and 112) are testimony to this theoretical effort on organisational questions.

In the same way, the ICC has responded firmly to those who claim that the numerous crises that our organisation has gone through are proof of its failure: “it is because the ICC does struggle against any penetration of opportunism that it seems to have such a troubled life, that it has gone through so many crises. It is because it defended its statutes and the proletarian spirit that animates them without any concessions, that it was met with such anger by a minority which had fallen deep into opportunism on the organisation question. At this level, the ICC was carrying on the combat of the workers’ movement which was waged by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in particular, whose many detractors castigated their frequent organisational struggles and crises. In the same period, the German Social-Democratic Party was much less agitated but the opportunist calm which reigned within it (challenged only by “trouble-makers” on the left like Rosa Luxemburg) actually prefigured its treason in 1914. By contrast, the crises of the Bolshevik party helped it to develop the strength to lead the revolution in 1917.” (“15th Congress of the ICC, today the stakes are high - strengthen the organisation to confront them”, International Review n°114).

We thus owe the ICC's ability to live up to its responsibilities during its 30 years of existence largely to the contributions of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left. The secret of the positive balance sheets that we can draw of activity during this period lies in our fidelity to the teachings of the Fraction and, more generally, to the method and the spirit of Marxism which it had learnt so well.[14]

The Fraction found itself disarmed when World War II broke out. This was because its majority had followed Vercesi in abandoning the principles which had been its strength beforehand, especially during the war in Spain. And on the contrary, it was on the basis of these principles that a small nucleus in Marseilles was able to re-form the Fraction during the war, and to continue an exemplary theoretical and political work. In its turn, the remainder of the Fraction abandoned its fundamental principles at the end of the war, when the majority decided to dissolve and to join as individuals the Partito Comunista Internazionalista founded in 1945. It was therefore left to the French Communist Left (GCF) to adopt the fundamental gains of the Fraction and to continue with their theoretical work of preparing the political framework which would make it possible for the ICC to form, to exist, and to progress. In this sense, we consider the summary of 30 years of our organisation as a homage to the extraordinary work carried out by the small group of exiled militants who kept alive the flame of communist thought in the darkest period of history. Their work which, while it is largely unknown today and largely ignored by those who claim to be the heirs of the Italian Left, will prove to be a determining element in the final victory of the proletariat.

A new generation of communist fighters

Thanks especially to the lessons left us by the Fraction and by the GCF, transmitted and elaborated untiringly by our comrade MC right up to his death, the ICC today is fit and ready to welcome into its ranks the new generation of revolutionaries coming towards our organisation, who will increase in both numbers and enthusiasm with the tendency towards the recovery in class struggle since 2003. The last International Congress noted that we are currently witnessing a significant increase in the number of our contacts and new members: “And what is remarkable is that a significant number of these new members are young elements who have not been through the whole deformation that results from being militants in leftist organisations. Young elements whose dynamism and enthusiasm is making up for the tired and exhausted ‘militant forces’ who have left us.” (“16th ICC Congress”, International Review n°122).

For human beings 30 years is the average age of a generation. Today the elements who are coming towards us or who have already joined us could be the children (and sometimes are the children) of the militants who founded the ICC.

What we said in the Report on the International Situation presented to the Eighth Congress of the ICC is becoming a concrete reality: “it was necessary that the generations who had been marked by the counter-revolution of the 1930-50s should give way to those who had not known it, for the world proletariat to find the strength to overcome it. Similarly (though bearing in mind that there was a historic break between the generation of 1968 and its predecessors whereas there is that continuity with the following generations), the generation which will make the revolution cannot be that which accomplished the historic task of opening to the world proletariat a new perspective after the most profound counter-revolution of its history.

What is true for the working class is also true for its revolutionary minority. And yet, most of the “old militants” are still there, even if their hair is grey (when they have any left!). The generation which founded the ICC in 1975 is ready to transmit to the “youngsters” the lessons which it received from its predecessors, as well as those which it has learnt during the course of these 30 years, so that the ICC becomes more and more capable of making its contribution to the formation of the future party of the communist revolution.

11. In particular, it is the only organisation with any significant publication in English (a dozen issues a year).

22. It is worth mentioning that the comrades who publish Internationalist Notes in Montreal first contacted the ICC, who encouraged them to make contact with the IBRP. In the end, these comrades turned towards this organisation. Similarly, at one meeting with us a comrade of the CWO (British branch of the IBRP) said quite frankly that their only contacts in Britain came from the ICC, which had encouraged them to enter into contact with the other groups of the Communist Left.

3. See for example, the letter that we addressed to the groups of the Communist Left on 24th March and published in International Review n°113.

4. This is why we wrote in the “Report on the structure and functioning of the revolutionary organisation” (International Review n°33): “Within the proletarian political milieu, we have always defended this position [that “if the organisation is going in the wrong direction, the responsibility of the members who consider that they defend the correct position is not to save themselves in their own little corner, but to wage a struggle within the organisation in order to help put it back in the right direction”]. This was notably the case when the Aberdeen/Edinburgh sections split from the Communist Workers Organisation and when the Nucleo Communista Internationalista broke from Programma Communista. We criticised the hasty nature of these splits based on divergences which didn't seem to be fundamental and which weren't clarified through a rigorous internal debate. As a general rule, the ICC is opposed to unprincipled 'splits' based on secondary differences (even when the militants concerned seek to join the ICC).

5. “For the ultimate final triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto, Marx relied solely upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily has to ensue from united action and discussion.” (Engels, preface to the 1890 German edition of the Communist Manifesto, repeating almost word for word what he wrote in the preface to the 1888 English edition).

6. Marx and Engels thus had to struggle within the Communist League in 1850, against the Willich-Schapper tendency which wanted “revolution now!” despite the defeat of the revolution of 1848: “We say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil wars and struggles between the peoples, not only to change the existing conditions, but to change yourselves and to make yourselves apt for political power’. You, on the contrary, say to them: ‘We must take power immediately, or else we might as well go home to bed” (Marx at the General Council of the League, 15th September 1850).

7. “The militants of the new proletarian parties can only appear as a result of a profound knowledge of the causes of these defeats. And this knowledge can tolerate no embargo and no ostracism” (Bilan n°1, November 1933).

8. Our article written for the 20th anniversary of the ICC goes into more detail about our intervention in the workers’ struggles during this period.

9. See on this “Mass strikes in Poland: a new breach is opened”, “The international dimension of the workers’ struggles in Poland”, “The role of revolutionaries in the light of the events in Poland”, “Perspectives for the international class struggle: a breach has opened in Poland”, “One year of workers’ struggles in Poland”, “Notes on the mass strike”, “After the repression in Poland” in International Review n°23, 24, 26, 27 and 29.

10. “Eastern Europe: economic crisis and the weapons of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat”, International Review n°34.

11. See International Review n°60, “Theses on the economic and political crisis in the USSR and in the Eastern bloc”, as well as what we have written on the subject in “20 years of the ICC” in International Review n°80.

12. “Theses on the economic and political crisis in the USSR and in the Eastern bloc”, op. cit.

13. On the ICC’s 2001 crisis and the behaviour of the so-called internal fraction of the ICC (IFICC), see in particular “15th Congress of the ICC, today the stakes are high - strengthen the organisation to confront them”, International Review n°114.

14 If the other organisations we have cited are unable to draw such a positive balance-sheet, it is because their attachment to the Italian Left’s organisational principles is essentially platonic.

Site structure: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 

Communism Vol. 3, Part 1: Mankind's entry into its real history

The only future is communism

With this article, we are beginning a third volume of our series of communism, begun nearly 15 years ago. The second volume of the series (in International Review 111) ended with an end: the exhaustion of the international revolutionary wave which shook world capitalism to its foundations, and more specifically, with an audacious description of the communist culture of the future, outlined by Trotsky in his 1924 work, Literature and Revolution.

For the proletarian movement, the clarification of its overall goals has always been a constant element of its struggle. This series has try to play its own part in this struggle, not only by re-telling its history – although that is important enough, given the terrible distortion of the proletariat’s real history by the dominant ideology – but also by seeking to explore new or long-neglected areas, to develop a deeper understanding of the entire communist project. In forthcoming articles, therefore, we will continue with the chronological thread of the series up to now, in particular by studying the contributions to the problems of the period of transition made by the left communist fractions during the period of counter-revolution that followed this historical defeat of the working class. But rather than simply taking off from the workers’ movement’s new theoretical developments on the problems of communism and the period of transition in the light of the revolutionary proletariat’s first seizure of power, we think it both useful and necessary to clarify the aims and methodology of the series by returning once more to a beginning: on the one hand we will return to the beginning of the series, and to the beginning of marxism itself, while on the other we will recapitulate the main arguments developed in the first two volumes of this series, which give an account of the studies and clarification of the content of communist society that have accompanied the development of the proletariat’s historical experience. This will then provide a firmer starting point for looking at the questions that were posed to the revolutionaries of the 1930s and 40s, and indeed for going on to consider the problem of the proletarian revolution in our own times.

In this issue of the Review, we will therefore examine in detail a seminal text of the young Karl Marx: the letter to Arnold Ruge[1] of September 1843, a text which has been quoted very often but rarely analysed in depth. There is more than one reason for going back to the letter to Ruge. With Marx and marxism it is not simply a question of struggling for a new form of economy to replace capitalism once it has reached its historical limits. It is not simply a question of fighting for the emancipation of the working class. As Engels said later on, it is a question of making it possible for the human species to move from “the reign of necessity to the reign of freedom”, from its “prehistory” to its real history; it is a question of liberating all the potential that mankind bears within itself and which has been held in check by hundreds of thousands of years of scarcity and in particular by thousands of years of class society. The letter to Ruge provides us with a way into this problematic, by insisting that we are on the verge of a general awakening of mankind. And we could go even further: as Marx was to argue in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the resurrection of man is at the same time the resurrection of nature; if man becomes conscious of itself through the proletariat, then nature becomes conscious of itself through man. Surely these are questions that take us to the very depths of human inquiry. The outlining of their solution is not the invention of the brilliant individual Marx, but the theoretical synthesis of the real possibilities unfolding in history.

The letter to Ruge is a very good illustration of the process through which Marx evolved from the milieu of philosophy to the communist movement. We have already dealt with this question in the second article of the series (‘How the proletariat won Marx to communism’ in International Review n°69), where we showed that Marx’s political trajectory was in itself an illustration of the position adopted in the Communist Manifesto: that the views of the communists were not the inventions of individual ideologues, but the theoretical expression of a living movement, the movement of the proletariat. We showed in particular how Marx’s involvement with the workers’ associations of Paris in 1844 played a decisive part in winning him over to a communist movement that predated Marx and arose independently of him. The study of Ruge’s letter and of other works by Marx prior to his arrival in Paris make it clear that this was no sudden ‘conversion’, but the culmination of a process that was already in development. But this does not alter the basic thesis. Marx was no aloof philosopher concocting the recipe books of the future from the safety of his kitchen/study. He moved towards communism under the magnetic pull of a revolutionary class which was then able to appropriate and integrate all of his undoubted talents as a thinker into the struggle for a new world. And the letter to Ruge, as we shall see, already begins to articulate this biographical reality into a coherent theoretical approach to the question of consciousness.

From the critique of alienation to historical materialism

In September 1843, Marx spent a ‘holiday’ of several months in Kreuznach, thanks in part to the actions of the elephantine Prussian censorship, which had deprived Marx of the responsibility of editing the Rheinische Zeitung. The newspaper had been closed down after publishing a number of ‘subversive’ pieces, including Marx’s article on the sufferings of the Moselle wine-growers. Marx took advantage of the freedom thus accorded him to reflect and to write. He was going through a crucial period of evolution, of transition from a radical democratic standpoint to the explicitly communist position he was to proclaim from Paris in the following year.

A great deal has been written about ‘the young Marx’, in particular the works he wrote in the years 1843-44. Some of the most important works of this period remained unknown until well after Marx’s death; in particular, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, (EPM), which he wrote in Paris in 1844, were not published at all until 1932.

As a result, much of Marx’s early work and ideas were unknown to marxists themselves during a very significant period in the development of the workers’ movement – including the entire period of the Second International and the period of the formation of the Third. Some of the most daring explorations contained in the EPM – key elements concerning both the concept of alienation and the content of human experience in a society in which alienation has been overcome – could not have been directly integrated into the evolution of marxist thought during this whole period.

This has given rise to a number of ideological interpretations, gradations of which can generally found to lie between two poles. The one pole is personified by that spokesman of the most senile form of Stalinist intellectualism – Louis Althusser, for whom the early writings of Marx can be relegated to the category of sentimental humanism and youthful folly, later wisely discarded by a Scientific Marx who emphasised the central importance of the objective laws of the economy – which, if you can move from the sublime gobbledegook of Althusserian theory to its rather more comprehensible application in the world of politics, happily point not towards the end of alienation but towards the much more achievable state capitalist programme of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The other pole is the mirror image of Marx-the-hard-headed-Stalinist: this is the ideology embraced by a congregation of Catholics, existentialists and other philosophers, who also accept the continuity between Marx’s later work and the Five Year Plans in the USSR, but who whisper to us that there is a different Marx, a young, romantic and idealist Marx who offers an alternative to the spiritual impoverishment which plagues the Materialist West. In between these poles are all sorts of theorists – some of them more inclined to the Frankfurt school[2] or the work of Lucio Colletti,[3] others who are partly influenced by partial aspects of left communism (example: the publication Aufheben in Britain) – who have used the Second International’s reliance on Engels rather than on the early Marx in matters of philosophy to construct a huge gulf not so much between the two Marx’s, but between Marx and Engels or between Marx and the Second and Third Internationals. In either case, the villains of the piece are seen as proponents of a mechanical, positivist distortion of Marx’s thought.

These approaches certainly sprinkle elements of the truth into their recipes. It is true that the period of the Second International in particular saw the workers’ movement becoming increasingly vulnerable to the penetration of the dominant ideology, and this was no less the case at the level of general theory (e.g. philosophy, the problem of historical progress, the origins of class consciousness) than at the level of political practise (eg on the question of parliament, the minimum and maximum programmes. etc). It must also be the case that an ignorance of Marx’s early work accentuated this vulnerability, sometimes in regard to the most far-reaching problems. Engels for one never denied that Marx was the more profound thinker of the two, and there are moments in Engels’ theoretical work when a full assimilation of some of the questions posed most insistently in Marx’s earlier work would indeed have taken his contributions onto a deeper level. But what all the divisive approaches lack is the sense of the continuity of Marx’s thought, and of the continuity of the revolutionary current that, for all its weaknesses and deficiencies, adopted the marxist method to advance the cause of communism. In previous articles in this series, we have argued against the idea that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Second International and authentic marxism, either before or after it (see International Review n°84, ‘Social Democracy advances the communist cause’); we have also responded to the attempt to oppose Marx to Engels on the philosophical level (see ‘The transformation of social relations’ in International Review n°85, which rejects the idea advanced by Schmidt - and Colletti - that there is no concept of the dialectics of nature in Marx). And we have insisted, with Bordiga, on the essential continuity between the Marx of 1844 and the EPM, and the mature Marx of Capital, who did not abandon his earlier visions but sought to give them a solid grounding and a more scientific basis, above all through the development of the theory of historical materialism and a more profound study of capitalist political economy (see International Review n°75, ‘Capital and the principles of communism’).

A glance at Marx in his immediately ‘pre-communist’ phase, the Marx of 1843, fully supports this way of approaching the problem. During the preceding period, Marx had been increasingly exposed to communist ideas. For example, while involved in editing the Rheinsiche Zeitung, he had attended the meetings of a discussion circle in the paper’s Cologne offices, animated by Moses Hess,[4] who had already declared his support for communism. Certainly, Marx did not commit himself to any cause lightly. As he had thought long and hard about becoming a follower of Hegel, so again he refused any superficial adoption of communist theories, recognising that many of the existing forms of communism were crude and undeveloped – dogmatic abstractions, as he described them in his September 43 letter to Ruge. In a previous letter to Ruge (November 1842), he had insisted that “I find it inappropriate, indeed even immoral to smuggle communist and socialist doctrines, hence a new world outlook, into incidental theatre criticisms, etc, and that I demand a quite different and more thorough discussion of communism, if it should be discussed at all”.

Overcoming the separation between the individual and the community

But a cursory examination of the texts he was writing in this phase show that the transition to communism was already well underway. The main text he was working on during his stay at Kreuznach was his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. This is a long and incomplete text which is difficult to read but which shows Marx wrestling with Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel. Marx was particularly influenced by Feuerbach’s pertinent inversion of Hegel’s idealist speculations, which stressed that thought derives from being and not the other way round. This method informs the critique of the state, seen by Hegel as an incarnation of the Idea rather than the reflection of the more earthy realities of human life. The premises are therefore laid for a fundamental critique of the state as such. In the view of the 1843 Critique, the state – even the modern representative state - was already approached as an expression of the alienation of man’s social powers. And although Marx is still counting on the advent of universal suffrage and a democratic republic, he was from the very beginning looking beyond the ideal of a liberal political regime; for in the admittedly hybrid formulations of the Critique, Marx argues that universal suffrage, or rather radical democracy, heralded the transcendence both of the state and of civil (i.e. bourgeois) society. “Within the abstract political state the reform of voting is a dissolution of the state, but likewise the dissolution of civil society”.

Here in embryo is a goal that has animated the marxist movement throughout its history: the withering away of the state.

In his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’, written towards the end of 1843, Marx is again looking beyond the fight to abolish feudal barriers – in this case, restrictions on civil rights for Jews, whose repeal he affirmed as a step forward, in opposition to the sophisms of Bruno Bauer. Marx shows the inherent limitations of the very notion of civil rights, which can only mean the rights of the atomised citizen in a society of competing egos. For Marx, political emancipation – in other words, the goals of the bourgeois revolution, yet to be achieved in backward Germany – should not be confused with a genuine social emancipation, in which mankind would not only be freed from the rule of alien political powers, but also from the tyranny of buying and selling. This involved overcoming the separation between the individual and the community. The word communism is not used, but the implications are already plain (see ‘Marx and the Jewish Question’, International Review n°114).

Finally, in the shorter but far more focused Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (written at the end of 1843 or the beginning of 1844), Marx’s achievements are enormous and it would take another article to do them justice. Summarised as briefly as possible, they are twofold: first, he puts forward his famous critique of religion which already surpasses the rationalist criticisms of the bourgeois Enlightenment, recognising that the power of religion derives from the existence of a social order which must deny human needs; and secondly, he for the first time identifies the proletariat as the agent of the social revolution, this “class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, a class which is the dissolution of all classes…..a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from – and thereby emancipating – all the other spheres of society, which is in a word the total loss of humanity and which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity”.

The emancipation of the proletariat is inseparable from general human emancipation: the working class cannot merely free itself from exploitation, cannot perpetuate itself as a ruling class, but must act as the standard bearer of all the oppressed; likewise, it cannot rid itself and humanity of capitalism alone, but must overcome the nightmare weight of all previously existing forms of exploitation and oppression.

The proletariat, agent of revolutionary change

We should also add that the last two texts, together with the collection of Marx’s letters to Ruge, were published in the one and only edition of the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher in February 1844. This journal was the fruit of Marx’s collaboration with Ruge, Engels, and others.[5] Marx had set great store by this enterprise, which he had hoped would both replace Ruge’s banned Deutsche Jahrbücher and take an important step forward by creating firm links between French and German revolutionary thought, although in the end none of his prospective French collaborators lived up to these hopes, and all the contributions were from the German side. It is of considerable interest to note that in August-September 1843 Marx wrote a short draft programme for the publication:

The articles of our annals will be written by Germans or Frenchmen, and will deal with

1) Men and systems which have acquired a useful or dangerous influence, and political questions of the day, whether they concern constitutions, political economy, or public institutions and morals.
2) We shall provide a review of newspapers and journals which in some way will be a castigation and correction of the servility and baseness shown by some, and which will help to call attention to the worthy efforts on behalf of humanity and freedom shown by others.
3) We shall include a review of the literature and publications of the old regime of Germany which is decaying and destroying itself, and finally a review of the books of the two nations which mark the commencement and continuance of the new era that we are entering”.

From this document we can draw two things. First, that even at this stage, Marx’s preoccupation was a militant one: to draw up a draft programme for a publication, however brief and general, is to see that publication as the expression of organised action. This dimension of Marx’s life – the idea of committing his life to a cause and to the necessity to build an organisation of revolutionaries – remains a fundamental mark of the proletarian influence on Marx the “man and fighter”, to use the title of Nikolaevsky’s 1936 biography.

Secondly, when Marx talks about the “new era”, we must bear in mind that while in Germany and in much of Europe the new era meant the overthrow of feudalism and the victory of the democratic bourgeoisie, there was also a powerful tendency in Marx and Engels’ initial commitment to communism to conflate the bourgeois with the proletarian revolution, to see one following fairly rapidly after the other. This is clear from Marx’s identification of the proletariat as the agent of revolutionary change even in backward Germany, and it is even clearer in the approach taken by the Communist Manifesto and in his theory of permanent revolution, elaborated in the wake of the 1848 uprisings. Applied to Marx’s thinking in 1843 and 1844, we must deduce that in anticipating a “new era”, Marx’s gaze was fixed less on the purely transitional struggle for a bourgeois republic and far more on the ensuing battle for a truly human society free of capitalist egoism and exploitation. What animated Marx throughout his life was above all this sense of the possibility of such a society. He was later to recognise more lucidly that the direct struggle for such a world was not yet on the agenda of history; that mankind had yet to pass through the Calvary of capitalism in order for the material bases for the new society to be established; but this original inspiration never left him.

Marxism is not a closed system

It is therefore senseless to make a rigid distinction between the young Marx and the old. The texts of 1843-4 are all decisive steps towards his fully-formed communist world-outlook, even before he consciously or explicitly defined himself as a communist. Furthermore, the pace of Marx’s movement in this period is quite remarkable. Following the production of the texts mentioned above, Marx moved to Paris. During the summer of 1844, palpably influenced by his direct involvement with the communist workers’ associations of that city, Marx produced the EPM where he declares for communism; in late August he met Engels, who was able to contribute a much more direct understanding of the functioning of the capitalist system. Their collaboration had a further dynamising effect on Marx’s work, and by 1845, through his "Theses on Feuerbach" and The German Ideology, he was able to present the essentials of the materialist theory of history. And since marxism, contrary to its detractors, is not a closed system, this process of evolution and self-development was continue to the very end of Marx’s life (see for example the article from this series on the "late Marx" in International Review n°81, which recounts how Marx took on the task of teaching himself Russian in order to deal with the Russian question, producing answers that confounded some of his more rigid followers).

The September letter to Ruge, which we reprint in full below, must be approached in the light of the above. It was not accidental that the entire collection of letters was published in the DFJ; they were obviously seen even then as contributions to the elaboration of a new programme or at least of a new political method; and the final letter is the most ‘programmatic’ of them all. Through the course of these letters, we can chart Marx’s decision to quit Germany, where his prospects had become ever-more precarious owing to a combination of family disagreements and harassment by the authorities. In the September letter, Marx confesses that he was finding it increasingly difficult to breath in Germany, and had determined to head for France – the land of revolutions, where socialist and communist thought was developing luxuriously in a variety of directions. Ruge, the former editor of the suppressed Deutsche Jahrbuche, was a willing collaborator in the plan to establish the ‘German-French Annals’, although their ways were to part when Marx adopted an explicitly communist standpoint, and Ruge had already confessed to Marx his feelings of discouragement following his experiences with the German censors and with the philistine atmosphere prevailing in Germany. Thus Marx’s penultimate letter to Ruge (written from Cologne, May 1843) was devoted in part to lifting Ruge’s spirits, and gives us a good insight into Marx’s optimistic state of mind at the time: “For our part, we must expose the old world to the full light of day and shape the new one in a positive way. The longer the time that events allow to thinking humanity for taking stock of its position, and to suffering mankind for mobilising its forces, the more perfect on entering the world will be the product that the present time bears in its womb”.

The struggle against dogmatism

By the time Marx wrote the September letter, Ruge’s depression had lifted. Marx was keen to outline the political approach that should hold sway in their proposed enterprise. To begin with, he was anxious to avoid any dogmatic and sectarian approaches. It must be remembered that this was the hey-day of utopian socialism of all kinds, nearly all of them based on abstract speculations about how a new and more equitable society should be run, and with little or no connection to the real, down-to-earth struggles going on around them. In many cases, the utopians displayed a haughty disdain both for the demands of the democratic opposition to feudalism and for the immediate economic demands of the nascent working class; and they could rarely come up with a better scheme for instituting the new social order than handing out the begging bowl to rich bourgeois philanthropists. This is why Marx dismisses so many of the varieties of contemporary socialism as forms of dogmatism, confronting the world with ready made schemas and regarding practical political struggles as unworthy of their attention. At the same time, Marx makes it clear that he was well aware of different trends within the communist movement, and that some of these – he mentions Proudhon and Fourier[6] – were more worthy of study than others. But the key is the conviction that a new world could not descend from the heavens but must be the result of struggles going on in the real world. Hence the famous passage:Nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to”.

In essence, as Lukacs points out in his 1920 essay ‘Class Consciousness’, this is already a materialist analysis: it is not a question of bringing consciousness to unconscious matter – the essence of idealism – but of making conscious a process which is already moving in a certain direction; a process driven by a material necessity which also encompasses the necessity to become aware of itself.

It is certainly the case that Marx is still largely talking about the struggle for political emancipation - for the completion of the bourgeois revolution, and this above all in Germany. The emphasis on the critique of religion, on intervening in contemporary political questions such as the differences between the estates system and representative government, confirms this, as does the possibility that these activities will “win the interest of a large party” – i.e. influence the liberal bourgeoisie. But let us not forget that Marx was also on the verge of announcing the proletariat as the agent of social change, a conclusion that would soon be applied both to feudal Germany and to the more capitalistically developed countries. Hence the method can equally – and in fact most specifically – be applied to the proletarian struggle for immediate demands, whether economic or political. This is in fact a profound anticipation of the struggle against the sectarian approach to socialism, which in later years would be typified by Bakunin; but it is also linked to the formulations in the German Ideology, which define communism as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs”; which locates revolutionary consciousness in the existence of a revolutionary class, and which explicitly defines communist consciousness as an historic emanation of the exploited proletariat. The continuity with the "Theses on Feuerbach" - the understanding that the educators must also be educated - is equally evident. Together these works provide an early warning against all the latter-day saviours of the proletariat, all those who see socialist consciousness being brought to the lowly workers from some exalted place on high.

Communism in continuity with mankind’s history

The concluding paragraphs of the letter summarise Marx’s approach to political intervention, but they also take us into deeper waters.

Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

In short, therefore, we can formulate the trend of our journal as being: self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires. This is a work for the world and for us. It can be only the work of united forces. It is a matter of a confession, and nothing more. In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are”.

In George Elliot’s great novel of mid-19th century social life in England, Middlemarch, there is a character called Casaubon, a dry and dusty scholar, a man of the church with independent means, who devotes his life to writing a monumental and would-be definitive work entitled The Key to All Mythologies. This work is never completed and this is a symbolic expression of the character’s divorce from real human life and passions. But we can also take this as a story about bourgeois scholarship in general. In its period of ascent, the bourgeoisie did develop a taste for universal questions and the search for universal answers, but this search was increasingly abandoned in its decadent phase, when any posing of such questions leads to the uncomfortable conclusion of its demise as a class. Casaubon’s failure thus anticipates the intellectual dead-ends of bourgeois thinking. Marx, by contrast, in just a few brief remarks, offers us the beginnings of an approach that really does offer us a key to all mythologies; for just as Marx says in the September letter that religion is the “register” or “table of contents of the theoretical struggles of mankind”, mythology is the register of mankind’s psychic life since its beginnings, both in its limits and in its aspirations, and the study of mythology provides us with an insight into the needs that give rise to these aspirations .

David McLellan, perhaps one of Marx’s best biographers since Mehring, comments that “the notion of salvation through a ‘reform of consciousness’ was, of course, very idealistic. But this was merely typical of German philosophy of this time” (Karl Marx, His Life and Thought, 1973, p 77). But this is surely to take a purely static view of Marx’s formulation. When we take into account the fact that Marx was already seeing this ‘reform of consciousness’ as being the product of real struggles, when we recall that Marx was already beginning to look to the proletariat as the bearer of this ‘reformed’ consciousness, then it is evident that Marx is already moving past the dogmas of contemporary German philosophy. As Lukacs later made clear in the essays contained in History and Class Consciousness, the proletariat, the first to be both a revolutionary and an exploited class, has no need for ideological mystifications. Its class consciousness is thus for the first time a clear and lucid consciousness which marks a fundamental break with all forms of ideology.[7] The notion of a consciousness which is clear to itself is intimately linked to Marx’s movement towards the proletariat. And it was this same movement which was to enable Marx and Engels to elaborate the materialist theory of history, which recognised that communism was no longer just a "beautiful ideal" because capitalism had laid down the material premises for a society of abundance. The basics of this understanding would be put forward only two years later, in The German Ideology.

The charge could also be made that Marx’s formulations in the September letter are still caught up in the framework of humanism, of an ‘all-class’ vision of mankind. But as we have shown, since Marx was already tending towards the proletarian movement, it seems plain that any such humanitarian residues were no obstacle to his adoption of a class standpoint. Besides, it is not only permissible but necessary to speak of mankind, of the species, as a reality and not as an abstraction if we want to understand the true dimensions of the communist project. For while the proletariat is the communist class par excellence, still the proletariat “does not begin a new work”. The EPM, as we have seen, would make it clear that communism must be based on the recovering the entire wealth of the human past; by the same token it argued that “the entire movement of history, as simply communism’s actual act of genesis – the birth act of its empirical existence – is, therefore, for its thinking consciousness the comprehended and known process of its becoming. Communism is therefore the labour of history, and the communism of the proletariat is the clarification and synthesis of all previous struggles against misery and exploitation. This is why Marx, for one, named Spartacus as the historical figure he admired the most. Looking even further back, the communism of the future will rediscover on a higher level the unity of the tribal communities in which mankind lived for the greater part of its historical existence, prior to the advent of class divisions and the exploitation of man by man.

The proletariat sees itself as the defender of all that is human. While ferociously denouncing the inhumanity of exploitation, it does not preach an attitude of hatred even towards individual exploiters, nor does it regard with contempt or superiority other oppressed classes and social strata, past or present. The view that communism meant the obliteration of all culture because it had hitherto belonged to the exploiters was lambasted as “crude communism” in the EPM. This is a negative tradition that has plagued the workers’ movement ever since, for example in certain forms of anarchism which delight in the despoiling and destruction of the cultural symbols of the past; and the decadence of capitalism, especially when it is combined with the Stalinist counter-revolution, has spawned even more hideous caricatures such as the Maoist campaigns against “The Four Olds”[8] during the so-called Cultural Revolution. But simplistic and destructive attitudes to the culture of the past did manifest themselves even during the heroic days of the Russian revolution, when in particular organs of repression such as the Cheka frequently displayed a harsh and vengeful attitude towards ‘non-proletarians’, sometimes almost seen as congenitally inferior to ‘pure’ proletarians. The marxist recognition of the historical role of the working class has nothing in common with this kind of ‘workerism’, the worship of the proletariat as it is at any given moment; nor with the philistinism that rejects the entire culture of the old world (see in particular the article in this series on Trotsky and proletarian culture, in International Review n°109).The communism of the future will integrate into itself all that is best in the cultural and moral endeavours of the human species.

Marx’s letter to Ruge, September 1843

I am glad that you have made up your mind and, ceasing to look back at the past, are turning your thoughts ahead to a new enterprise. And so — to Paris, to the old university of philosophy — absit omen! [May it not be an ill omen] — and the new capital of the new world! What is necessary comes to pass. I have no doubt, therefore, that it will be possible to overcome all obstacles, the gravity of which I do not fail to recognise.

But whether the enterprise comes into being or not, in any case I shall be in Paris by the end of this month, since the atmosphere here makes one a serf, and in Germany I see no scope at all for free activity.

In Germany, everything is forcibly suppressed; a real anarchy of the mind, the reign of stupidity itself, prevails there, and Zurich obeys orders from Berlin. It therefore becomes increasingly obvious that a new rallying point must be sought for truly thinking and independent minds. I am convinced that our plan would answer a real need, and after all it must be possible for real needs to be fulfilled in reality. Hence I have no doubt about the enterprise, if it is undertaken seriously.

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. For although no doubt exists on the question of “Whence,” all the greater confusion prevails on the question of “Whither.” Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

Therefore I am not in favour of raising any dogmatic banner. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatists to clarify their propositions for themselves. Thus, communism, in particular, is a dogmatic abstraction; in which connection, however, I am not thinking of some imaginary and possible communism, but actually existing communism as taught by Cabet, Dézamy, Weitling, etc.[9] This communism is itself only a special expression of the humanistic principle, an expression which is still infected by its antithesis — the private system. Hence the abolition of private property and communism are by no means identical, and it is not accidental but inevitable that communism has seen other socialist doctrines — such as those of Fourier, Proudhon, etc. — arising to confront it because it is itself only a special, one-sided realisation of the socialist principle.

And the whole socialist principle in its turn is only one aspect that concerns the reality of the true human being. But we have to pay just as much attention to the other aspect, to the theoretical existence of man, and therefore to make religion, science, etc., the object of our criticism. In addition, we want to influence our contemporaries, particularly our German contemporaries. The question arises: how are we to set about it? There are two kinds of facts which are undeniable. In the first place religion, and next to it, politics, are the subjects which form the main interest of Germany today. We must take these, in whatever form they exist, as our point of departure, and not confront them with some ready-made system such as, for example, the Voyage en Icarie.

Reason has always existed, but not always in a reasonable form. The critic can therefore start out from any form of theoretical and practical consciousness and from the forms peculiar to existing reality develop the true reality as its obligation and its final goal. As far as real life is concerned, it is precisely the political state — in all its modern forms — which, even where it is not yet consciously imbued with socialist demands, contains the demands of reason. And the political state does not stop there. Everywhere it assumes that reason has been realised. But precisely because of that it everywhere becomes involved in the contradiction between its ideal function and its real prerequisites.

From this conflict of the political state with itself, therefore, it is possible everywhere to develop the social truth. just as religion is a register of the theoretical struggles of mankind, so the political state is a register of the practical struggles of mankind. Thus, the political state expresses, within the limits of its form sub specie rei publicae,[as a particular kind of state] all social struggles, needs and truths. Therefore, to take as the object of criticism a most specialised political question — such as the difference between a system based on social estate and one based on representation — is in no way below the hauteur des principes. [Level of principles] For this question only expresses in a political way the difference between rule by man and rule by private property. Therefore the critic not only can, but must deal with these political questions (which according to the extreme Socialists are altogether unworthy of attention). In analysing the superiority of the representative system over the social-estate system, the critic in a practical way wins the interest of a large party. By raising the representative system from its political form to the universal form and by bringing out the true significance underlying this system, the critic at the same time compels this party to go beyond its own confines, for its victory is at the same time its defeat.

Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.

The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions. Our whole object can only be — as is also the case in Feuerbach’s criticism of religion — to give religious and philosophical questions the form corresponding to man who has become conscious of himself.

Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

In short, therefore, we can formulate the trend of our journal as being: self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires. This is a work for the world and for us. It can be only the work of united forces. It is a matter of a confession, and nothing more. In order to secure remission of its sins, mankind has only to declare them for what they actually are.

1 Arnold Ruge (1802-1880) was a young left Hegelian, who collaborated with Marx on the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher before breaking off relations with him. He became a supporter of Bismarck in 1866.

2 The Frankfurt school was founded in 1923. Its initial objective was to study social phenomena. After the war, it became less an institute of social research and more of an intellectual current (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Pollock, Grossman, etc.) that claimed to be influenced by Marx.

3 Lucio Colletti (1924-2001): an Italian philosopher who considered Marx to be a successor to Kant rather than to Hegel. Author of several works, including Marxism and Hegel, and Introduction to Marx’s early writings. At one time a member of the Italian CP, he then moved towards social-democracy and ended his political career as an MP in the Berlusconi government.

4 Moses Hess (1812-1875): a Young Hegelian, cofounder and collaborator with Marx on the Rheinische Zeitung. A founder of "real socialism" in the 1840s.

5 As well as the texts by Marx mentioned already, the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher contained Marx’s letter to the editor of the Allegmeine Zeitung (Augsburg) and two articles by Engels: "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy" and a review of Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present. Marx had also written to Feuerbach in October 1843, hoping that he would contribute, but it seems that Feuerbach was not yet ready to pass from the field of theory to that of political action.

6 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865): French printer, journalist, and member of the National Assembly in 1848. Marx criticised his economic theories in The poverty of philosophy. Charles Fourier (1772-1837): French utopian socialist, who had a considerable influence on the later development of socialist thinking.

7 It is perhaps not accidental that in these essays Lukacs was also one of the first – despite not being acquainted with the EPM at the time – to return to the problem of alienation, which he approached via the concept of reification

8 The "four olds" indicated the "old ideas, culture, customs and habits" which were supposedly the targets of the "Cultural Revolution".

9 Wilhelm Weitling (1808-1871): a tailor and one of the leaders of the early German workers’ movement, advocate of an egalitarian communism. Théodore Dézamy (1803-1850) : one of communism’s first theoreticians. Etienne Cabet (1788-1856): French utopian communist and author of Voyage en Icarie, Roman philosophique et social.


General and theoretical questions: 

Editorial: bombs and strikes in London - what future for humanity?

In 1867 in the preface to the first edition of his famous work Capital Karl Marx observed that the economic conditions of England, the first industrialised country, were the model of future capitalist development in other lands. England was then the “locus classicus” of capitalist relations of production. From here ascendant capitalism would come to dominate the world.

In 1967 the devaluation of the pound sterling made England into another kind of prophetic symbol: this time for the decline of world capitalism and its growing bankruptcy.

The events over the summer of 2005 in London indicated that England is once again a sort of signpost for world capitalism. The London summer was prescient both at the level of imperialist conflict, that is the deadly military contest between national states on the world arena and at the level of the international class struggle, of the conflict between the two main economic classes in society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The terrorist bombings of July 7th in London were claimed by Al Qaeda in retaliation for the participation of British troops in the occupation of Iraq. The explosions on that Thursday morning rush hour brutally reminded the working class that it must pay for capitalism not only in terms of drudgery and poverty but also in terms of blood and gore. The 4 bombs on the London underground and a London bus brought a hideous end to the lives of 52[1] mostly young workers and left hundreds maimed and traumatised. But the outrage had a much wider impact. It meant for example that millions of workers would now have to go to and from work wondering whether their next journey, or that of their loved ones, would be the last. Life in the capital city suddenly became more precarious. The words of the Tony Blair government, of the left wing London mayor Ken Livingstone, and of the media and employers, couldn’t have been more sympathetic. But behind the slogans of “we will not give in to terrorists” and “London stands united” the bourgeoisie let it be known that business was to continue as normal. Workers would be expected to run the risk of further explosions on the transport system in order that they could continue to enjoy their “traditional way of life”.

Imperialism is coming home

This was the single bloodiest attack on London civilians since the Second World War. The comparison with the imperialist carnage of 1939-45 is entirely apt. The London bombings, after 9/11 in New York, March 2004 in Madrid, indicate that once again imperialism is “coming home” to the main metropoles of the world.

Its true that London itself has not had to wait 60 years for the return of military attacks on its citizens. The city was also the target of the bombs of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army[2] for over two decades after 1972. The population had already been given a taste of imperialist terror. But the July 7th atrocities in 2005 were not simply a repetition of this experience; they represented an increased threat indicative of the more deadly current phase of imperialist warfare.

Of course the terrorist bombs of the IRA anticipated the barbarism of the Al Qaeda attack. In a general sense they expressed the tendency in the latter half of the 20th century for terrorism against civilians to become more and more a favoured method of imperialist warfare. But nevertheless, during most of the period in which the IRA bombs were detonated, the world was still divided into two imperialist blocs, under the control of the USA and the USSR. These blocs more or less regulated the isolated secondary imperialist conflicts between states within each bloc, such as the one between Britain and Ireland in the US bloc, and the latter prevented them from weakening the main military front with the USSR and its satellites. This was particularly true of the dimensions of the IRA campaign to eject Britain from Northern Ireland. The scope of this project was, and still is, largely decided by how much financial support it receives from the United States. The IRA terrorist attacks on London were therefore relatively exceptional in the metropoles of the advanced countries at the time. The main theatres of imperialist war fought in proxy by the two blocs were on the periphery of the system: in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East.

Although the IRA blew up defenceless civilians the targets of their bombs corresponded to a more classical imperialist logic. They chose military sites in London like the Chelsea Barracks in 1981, or Hyde Park in 1982 or targeted symbols of economic power like Bishopsgate in the City of London, or Canary Wharf in 1996.[3]

In contrast the Al Qaeda bombs on crowded public transport in London are symptomatic of a more dangerous imperialist situation at the world level and therefore more typical of international trends than those of the IRA were over ten years ago. The imperialist blocs no longer exist to contain and to give some semblance of order to capitalist militarism. Each for himself has become the dominant imperialist motto, proclaimed most violently and bloodily by the United States in the ongoing attempt to maintain its hegemony on the world stage. The unilateral strategy of Washington shown in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and elsewhere has only exacerbated the growing military chaos. The development of the global reach of Al Qaeda and other imperialist warlords in the Middle East is a product of this imperialist free for all that the main imperialist powers, acting against each other, are unable to prevent.

On the contrary, the major powers including Britain have actively contributed to the development of the terrorist threat. They have used it and tried to manipulate it to their own advantage.

British imperialism was determined not to be left out in the US invasion of Iraq. It wanted to protect its own interests in the area and maintain its prestige as a significant military power. Fabricating a pretext for joining the US “coalition” with the famous dossier on imaginary Iraqi weapons of mass destruction British imperialism therefore played a full part in reducing Iraq to its present bloody chaos. The British state has helped to stoke up Al Qaeda’s terrorist campaign against western imperialism. This campaign certainly began before the invasion of Iraq. But the great powers had a hand in the very origins of this terrorist campaign. Britain as well as the United States helped to train and arm Bin Laden’s guerrilla struggle against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.

After July 7th Britain’s major “allies” (in reality, rivals) couldn’t help pointing out that the capital of the country should be known as “Londonistan” – that is, a refuge of various Islamic radical groups connected to terrorist organisations in the Middle East. The British state allowed the presence of these groups, or protected certain individuals in the hope of using them to advance its own status in the Middle East often at the expense of its “allies” amongst the great powers. Britain for example has resisted the demands of the French state for the extradition of Rachid Ramda, a suspect in the 1995 bomb attack on the Paris metro, for ten years! Returning the compliment the French Direction Centrale des Renseignements Generaux, (according to the International Herald Tribune 09.08.05) did not communicate to its British counterparts an intelligence report written in June predicting that a bomb attack would be carried out in Britain by Pakistani sympathisers of Al Qaeda.

Britain’s own imperialist policy, which follows the same “principles” as its rivals – “do unto others before they do it to you”, has helped bring about the terrorist attacks on its own soil.

In this period terrorism is no longer the exception in the war between states and proto-states but has become the method of choice. The growth of terrorism partly corresponds to an absence of stable alliances between the imperialist powers, and is characteristic of a period where each power is trying to undermine and sabotage its rivals.

In this context we shouldn’t underestimate the increasing role of “black operations” or “psy-ops” carried out, or in some way engineered, by the main imperialist powers on their own populations in order to discredit their rivals and provide a pretext for their own military initiatives. While these operations are of course never officially confirmed, there is strong evidence that the blowing up of the Twin Towers, or of the Moscow apartment buildings that led to major imperialist adventures by the United States and Russia respectively, was the secret work of these states themselves. British imperialism is no innocent in this respect either. Its undercover involvement in both sides of the terrorist conflict in Northern Ireland is well known, including the presence of several double-agents in the ranks of the Real IRA the terrorist organisation responsible for the Omagh bombing.[4] More recently, in September 2005, two members of the SAS (British special forces) were arrested in Basra by the Iraqi police while they were, according to some journalists, on a terrorist bombing mission. These undercover operatives were subsequently freed by an armed assault by the British Army on the prison that was holding them. From events like this it is reasonable to assume that British imperialism is itself involved in the daily terrorist carnage in Iraq: probably in order to help justify its own “stabilising” presence as an occupying force. The underlying “principle” of divide and rule behind such terror tactics was first perfected by British imperialism as the oldest colonial power.

The deterioration of imperialist conflict in the direction of terrorism bears the imprint of the final period of capitalism’s decay, the period of social decomposition where the absence of long term perspectives and possibilities predominate at all levels of society.

Indeed the fact that the July 7th attacks were the work of suicide bombers born and brought up in England symbolised the general breakdown in the remaining rules of imperialist warfare. It also showed that the capitalist heartlands as well as the peripheries of the system can generate the sort of irrationality among the young that leads to the most violent and hateful self-destruction. Whether the British state itself was involved in the bombings is too early to say.

The arbitrary horror of imperialist war is thus returning to the heartlands of capitalism where the most concentrated sectors of the working class live. It is no longer confined to the third world but is increasingly hitting the industrial metropoles: New York, Washington, Madrid, London. No longer are the targets nominally economic or military: they are designed to maximise civilian casualties.

Ex-Yugoslavia expressed this tendency for imperialism to return to the capitalist centres in the 1990s. Today England does.

The terror of the bourgeois state

But terrorist bombs weren’t the only mortal threat to Londoners in July 2005. On July 22nd, a young Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was executed by 8 police bullets at Stockwell underground station on his way to work. The police supposedly mistook him for a suicide bomber. Britain, famous for the image of the integrity of Scotland Yard and of the friendly local “bobby” helping old ladies cross the road, has always tried to pretend that its police were the servants of the democratic community, the protectors of the citizens’ legal rights and keepers of the peace. Yet on this occasion the British police now appeared to be essentially no different from the police in any third world dictatorship that openly uses auxiliary “death squads” to carry out the needs of the state. According to the official line of the British police, echoed by the government and media, the execution of Jean Charles was a tragic mistake. However the armed detachments of the Metropolitan police had already been given the directive to “shoot to kill” any suspected suicide bomber after the events of July 7th. And even after the slaying of Jean Charles this policy was defended and maintained in force. Given the near impossibility of identifying or apprehending a suicide bomber before he could detonate his explosives, this directive effectively gave the police leave to shoot practically anyone without warning. At the very least the policy directed from the highest level allowed for such “tragic mistakes” as an inevitable by-product of the strengthening of the state.

We can thus assume that the killing was hardly accidental particularly when we consider that the function of the state and its repressive agencies is not what the former claims it to be: that is, a protector and servant of the population that often has to make difficult choices between defending the citizen and protecting his rights. In reality, the fundamental task of the state is quite different: to defend the established social order in the interests of the ruling class. This means above all that the state must preserve and display its own monopoly of armed force. This is particularly true in time of war where the display of force and the taking of reprisals is vital. In response to such terrorist attacks as July 7th the state’s main priority is not to protect the population – a task which is in any case impractical except for a small number of high functionaries - but to display its power; reassert the superior force of the state with the object of maintaining the obedience of its own population and commanding the respect of foreign powers. In these conditions the apprehension of the real criminals is secondary or irrelevant to the main objective.

Here another analogy with the IRA bombing campaign is useful. In response to the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham and Guildford,[5] the British police arrested, extracted false confessions from and fabricated evidence against 10 Irish suspects and sentenced them to long prison terms. Only some 15 years later did the government admit a “tragic miscarriage of justice” had been made. Was not this rather a reprisal against the population of a foreign power?

Behind the democratic and humanitarian façade of the state, so elaborately constructed in Britain, July 22nd revealed the truth. The essential role of the state as a machine of violence is not to act for or on behalf of the majority of the population but against them.

This was confirmed by a whole series of “anti-terrorist” measures proposed by the Blair government in the wake of the bombings to strengthen the control of the state over the population in general, measures that cannot in any case stop Islamic terrorism. These measures include the introduction of ID cards; the introduction of an indefinite shoot to kill policy; control orders restricting the movements of citizens; the official recognition of the policy of phone tapping and web surveillance; the holding of suspects for up to 3 months without charge and the commissioning of special courts where evidence is given in secret and without juries.

Thus over the summer the state, as it has done before, used the pretext of terrorist outrages to strengthen its repressive apparatus in preparation to use against a much more dangerous foe: the resurgence proletariat.

The workers’ response

On July 21st after the failed bombings of that day only the Victoria and Metropolitan London underground lines were officially closed (on July 7th the entire network was shut down). But the Bakerloo and Northern lines were also closed on that day because of workers action. The underground drivers had refused to take out the trains given the absence of safety and security guarantees. In this action there was a glimpse of the long term solution to the intolerable situation: the workers taking the situation into their own hands. However the trade unions reacted to this spark of class independence as quickly as the emergency services had to the bombings. Under their guidance the drivers would return to work pending negotiations between unions and management while the unions would back any worker who nevertheless refused to drive i.e. leave him to his own devices.

It was in the first weeks of August that the resistance of the working class made a bigger impact. A wildcat strike at London Heathrow Airport was unleashed by workers employed by the catering firm Gate Gourmet that supplies in-flight meals to British Airways. This strike led immediately to “sympathy”, i.e. solidarity, action by airport baggage handlers employed by British Airways; some 1000 workers in all. British Airways flights were grounded for several days and the images of stranded passengers and mass pickets were broadcast around the world.

The British media furiously denounced the insolence of the workers in taking up the supposedly old-fashioned tactic of the sympathy strike. Apparently the workers should have realised that all the experts, lawyers and officials of industrial relations had consigned solidarity action to the history books and made it illegal for good measure.[6] The media tried to denigrate the exemplary courage of the workers by pointing to the poor plight of the airline passengers that their action had caused.

The media also took a more conciliatory line, but one equally hostile to the workers’ cause. The strike was blamed on the uncivilised tactics of the American owners of Gate Gourmet who had announced the mass sackings to the workers by megaphone. Apparently the strike was a mistake: an unnecessary result of poor management, an exception to the normal civilised conduct of industrial relations between unions and management where solidarity action is unnecessary. But the root cause of the strike was not the arrogance of a small employer. In reality the brutal tactics of Gate Gourmet were not that exceptional. Tesco for example, the largest and most profitable supermarket chain in Britain, recently announced the effective end of sick pay for its workers. Nor are mass sackings typically a product of the absence of union involvement. According to the International Herald Tribune 19.08.2005, a spokeswoman for British Airways, Sophie Greenyer, ‘said the company had been successful in the past at cutting jobs and costs by working with the unions. BA had cut 13,000 jobs in the past three years, and £850 million in costs. “We’ve been able to work sensibly with the unions to achieve those savings,” she said.’

It was BA’s continuing determination to cut operational costs that led to the pressure on Gate Gourmet workers’ pay and conditions. In turn, the actions of Gate Gourmet were a deliberate provocation to enable the replacement of existing staff by Eastern European workers on even worse conditions and pay.

The relentless cost cutting by BA is hardly unusual whether in the airline industry or elsewhere. On the contrary intensified competition in increasingly saturated markets is the normal capitalist response to the intensification of the economic crisis.

Therefore the Heathrow strike was not an accident but an instance of workers being forced to defend themselves against increasingly savage attacks by the whole bourgeoisie. The workers appetite for the fight was not the only significant feature of the strike. Even greater importance should be attached to the illegal solidarity action by other airport workers.

These workers risked their own livelihoods to widen the struggle of workers in another company. This expression of class solidarity – albeit brief and embryonic – cleared the suffocating atmosphere of national obedience generated by the bourgeoisie following the terrorist attacks. It was a reminder that the London population was not invoking the “spirit of the Blitz” of the 1940s when Londoners passively endured nightly bombing by the Luftwaffe in the interests of the imperialist war effort.

On the contrary the Heathrow strike was in continuity with a series of struggles that have taken place around the world since 2003 such as the solidarity action of Opel workers in Germany and the sympathy action of Honda employees in India.[7]

The international working class is slowly, almost imperceptibly emerging from a long period of disorientation after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. It is now groping towards a clearer class perspective.

However the difficulties of developing this perspective were made apparent by the swift sabotage of the Heathrow sympathy action by the unions. The Transport and General Workers Union quickly brought the strike of baggage handlers to an end and the sacked workers of Gate Gourmet were then left to await the fate of prolonged negotiations between unions and bosses.

Nevertheless the difficult resurgence of class struggle is particularly significant in Britain. The British working class, after reaching high points of its struggle in the massive public sector strikes of 1979 and the1984/5 miners strike, suffered particularly from the defeat of the latter, which the Thatcher government exploited to the maximum, including the outlawing of sympathy strikes. Therefore the reappearance of such strikes in Britain is all the more welcome.

England was not only the first capitalist country but also witnessed the birth of the first working class and its first political organisation, the Chartists, and provided the site for the International Working Men’s Association. England is no longer the axis of the world economy but it still plays a key role in the industrialised world. Heathrow Airport is the largest in the world. The English working class is still a significant weight on the scales of the world class struggle.

Over the summer England was the location where the stakes of the world situation were laid bare. On the one hand the tendency of capitalism to descend into chaotic barbarism where all social values have been destroyed in a bloody free for all. On the other, the strike at London Airport revealed again the existence of a quite different social principle based on the unlimited solidarity of the producers: the principle of communism.



1. This does not include the 4 suicide bombers who blew them up.

2. The "Provisional Wing" of the IRA was so-called to distinguish it from the more "socialist" "Official IRA", from which the Provisionals were a split. The "Official IRA" played no significant role in the civil war that shook Northern Ireland from the 1970s on.

3. Chelsea Barracks is situated in the heart of London, and was at the time home to the Irish Guards. The bomb attack in Hyde Park targeted a military parade by the royal guard. The City of London is in fact the financial district, an approximately square kilometre area within Central London, which in turn is an area within Greater London. Canary Wharf is a symbolic skyscraper in the new business district built on the site of the old London docks.

It is worth pointing out that one of the IRA’s bloodiest attacks on the other hand – against the Arndale shopping centre in the centre of Manchester in 1996 – corresponded more to the period when the IRA was being used as a tool of US imperialism’s intimidation campaigns against British efforts at independence. In this sense it belongs rather to the new epoch of chaos which has also witnessed the appearance of Al Qaeda.

4. The "Real IRA" was a split from the Provisionals, with the declared aim of continuing the struggle against the British. The group was responsible for a bomb attack in the town of Omagh (Northern Ireland) which killed 29 civilians on 15th August 1998.

5. The justification for these attacks on pubs was that they were frequented by the military.

6. Solidarity strikes were outlawed in Britain during the 1980s by the Thatcher government. The same law has been maintained by the Labour government of Tony Blair.

General and theoretical questions: 

Recent and ongoing: 

The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism, part V

From Marx to the Third International, part III 

In the first article in this series, published in International Review n°118, we showed how the theory of decadence is at the very heart of historical materialism in Marx’ and Engels’ analysis of the evolution of modes of production. It is central to the programmatic texts of the organisations of the workers’ movement. In the second article, which appeared in International Review n°121, we saw how the organisations of the workers’ movement from the time of Marx, through the Second International and its marxist left to the Communist International, made this analysis the foundation of their understanding of the evolution of capitalism in order to be able to determine the priorities for the period. In fact, Marx and Engels always stated very clearly that the perspective of the communist revolution depended on the objective, historical and global evolution of capitalism. The Third International, in particular, made this analysis the general framework for its understanding of the new period that opened with the outbreak of World War I. All of the political currents that formed the International, recognised that the first global war marked the beginning of capitalism’s decadent phase. We continue here our historical survey of the main expressions of the workers’ movement by examining more closely the particular political positions of the Communist International on the national, parliamentary and union questions, for which the system’s entry into its phase of decline had important implications.

The First Congress of the Communist International was held from 2nd to 6th March 1919, at the height of the international revolutionary wave sweeping the great workers’ concentrations of Europe. The young soviet power in Russia had been in existence for barely two years. A major insurrection took place in Bulgaria in September 1918. Germany was at the height of social agitation, workers’ councils were being formed everywhere, a great insurrection had taken place in Berlin between November 1918 and February 1919. A Socialist Republic of Workers’ Councils had even been formed in Bavaria; tragically, it was only to survive from November 1918 to April 1919. A victorious socialist revolution was to break out in Hungary after the congress and resist the assaults of counter-revolutionary forces for six months from March to August 1919. Important social movements, following the atrocities of the war and the difficulties that arose afterwards, were shaking all the other European countries.

At the same time, following the treason of Social-Democracy, which took the side of the ruling class at the outbreak of war in August 1914, the revolutionary forces were in the process of reorganisation. New formations, emerging from the difficult process of decantation sought to safeguard the principles and the greatest achievements of the old parties. The conferences of Zimmerwald (September 1915) and Kienthal (April 1916), by regrouping all the opponents of the imperialist war, had contributed forcefully to this decantation and enabled the foundations of a new International to be laid.

In the previous article we saw how, following the outbreak of the First World War, this new International made capitalism’s entry into the new historic period its framework for understanding the tasks of the hour. We are now going to examine how this framework was worked out, explicitly or implicitly, in the elaboration of programmatic positions; we will also show how the speed of events and the difficult conditions of the time did not allow revolutionaries to draw out all the political implications of capitalism’s entry into its decadent phase as regards the content and the forms of the struggle of the working class.

The union question

When the First Congress of the Third International was held in March 1919, the first questions to confront the nascent communist organisations were those concerning the form, the content and the perspectives of the revolutionary movement which was developing just about everywhere in Europe. To the extent that the tasks of the hour were no longer progressive conquests in the framework of the development of ascendant capitalism, but the conquest of power faced with a mode of production that had shown its historic bankruptcy at the turn of century with the outbreak of World War I,[1] the form taken by the class struggle evolved to correspond with its new content and objective. If organisation in unions – essentially economic organs regrouping a minority of the working class – was adapted to the objectives of the movement in the ascendant phase of capitalism, they were not adapted to the seizure of power. That is why the working class, starting with the mass strikes in Russia in 1905,[2] created the soviets – or workers’ councils – which are organs regrouping all the workers in struggle, whose content is both economic and political[3] and whose fundamental objective is to prepare for the seizure of power: “All that is needed is to find the practical form to enable the proletariat to establish its rule. Such a form is the soviet system with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Dictatorship of the proletariat – until now these words were Latin to the masses. Thanks to the spread of the soviets throughout the world this Latin has been translated into all modern languages; a practical form of dictatorship has been found by the working people. The mass of workers now understands it thanks to Soviet power in Russia, thanks to the Spartacus League in Germany, and to similar organisations in other countries…” (“Opening remarks” to the First Congress of the Communist International, in Founding the Communist International, proceedings and documents of the First Congress: March 1919, Pathfinder, p.47).

Basing itself on the experience of the Russian revolution and the widespread appearance of workers’ councils in all the insurrections in Europe, the Communist International, at its First Congress, was strongly aware that large-scale working class struggles would no longer take place in the union framework but in that of the new unitary organs, the workers’ soviets: “Victory can be considered assured only when not only the urban workers, but also the rural proletarians are organised, and organised not as before – in trade unions and cooperative societies – but in soviets” (Lenin’s speech on the theses on bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat at the First Congress of the CI, ibid, p.163). Besides, the main lesson drawn by the First Congress of the Third International is that, in Lenin’s words, “spreading the soviet system is a most important task”: “But I think we should not present the problem in this way after nearly two years of revolution; we should rather adopt concrete decisions because for us, and particularly for the majority of the western European countries, spreading the soviet system is a most important task (…) I want to make the practical proposal that a resolution be adopted in which three points shall be specifically mentioned. First: One of the most important tasks confronting the western European comrades is to explain to the people the meaning, importance, and necessity of the soviet system (…) Third: We must say that winning a communist majority in the soviets is the principal task in all countries in which Soviet government is not yet victorious” (ibid p.160-163).

Not only did the working class create new organs of struggle – the workers’ councils – adapted to the new objectives and content of the struggle in the decadence of capitalism, but the First Congress also made it clear to revolutionaries that the proletariat must also confront the unions, which had passed, lock, stock and barrel, into the camp of the bourgeoisie, as is evident from the reports of the delegates from the different countries. Thus Albert, the delegate from Germany said in his report that: “What is significant for us is that these factory councils completely eclipsed the trade unions, which until then had been highly influential in Germany, but had been in league with the scab unions, had forbidden the workers to strike, consistently opposed their public actions, and stabbed them in the back at every opportunity. Since November 9 these trade unions have been completely bypassed. Since then, all struggles for better wages have been led without and even against the trade unions, which had not won a single one of the workers’ wage demands” (“Report on Germany”, ibid, p.56). It was the same with Platten’s report on Switzerland: “The Swiss trade union movement suffers the same diseases as the German (…) The Swiss workers recognised early on that they could better their material conditions only by proceeding directly into struggle, regardless of the union statutes, under the direction not of the old trade union federation but of leadership they elected themselves. A workers’ congress was held and a workers’ council formed (…) The workers’ congress was founded despite the opposition of the trade union federation…” (“Report on Switzerland”, p.60-61). This reality, of an often violent confrontation between the workers’ movement organised in councils and the unions, which had become the last rampart to safeguard capitalism, is an experience which runs through the reports of all the delegates to one degree or another.[4]

The reality of the powerfully counter-revolutionary role of the unions was news to the Bolshevik Party: in his report on Russia, Zinoviev could still say that “The second form of worker’ organisation in Russia is the trade unions. They developed differently here than in Germany: they played an important revolutionary role in the years 1904-1905, and today are marching side by side with us in the struggle for socialism (…) A large majority of trade union members support our party’s positions, and all decisions of the unions are made in the spirit of those positions” (“Report on Russia”, ibid, p.64). Similarly, Bukharin, as writer and co-reporter on the platform which was to be voted, said “Comrades, it is my task to analyse the theses that we have proposed (…) If we were writing only for Russians, we would take up the role of the trade unions in the process of revolutionary reconstruction. However, judging by the experience of the German Communists, this is impossible, for the comrades there tell us that the position occupied by their trade unions is the complete opposite of the one taken by ours. In our country, the trade unions play a vital role in the organisation of useful work and are a pillar of Soviet power. In Germany, however, it is just the opposite” (ibid, p.121 and 128). This is hardly surprising when we understand that the unions did not really make their appearance in Russia until 1905 and that they were carried along in the wake of the soviets. When the movement ebbed after the failure of the revolution, the unions also tended to disappear; the relative weakness of the Tsarist state did not allow it to integrate them into itself, contrary to what occurred in the Western countries. At the time of the revolutionary wave in 1917, they were once again in the wake of the soviets.

This difference in the heritage of workers’ experience would, with the change in the dynamic of the revolutionary wave and the isolation of Russia (at this point no-one had yet said that the Bolshevik Party was the spearhead of the counter-revolution), weigh on the International’s ability to draw out and unify all the proletariat’s lessons and experiences internationally. The strength of the revolutionary movement, which was still considerable at the time of the First Congress, as well as the convergence of the experiences of all the delegates from the most developed capitalist countries on the union question, made this question one that remained open. Comrade Albert thus concluded on the union question for the praesidium as co-reporter on the platform of the CI as follows: “I come now to a very important question that the platform does not deal with, that of the trade union movement. We spent a lot of time on this question. We interviewed delegates from each country about their trade union movement, and concluded that since the proletariat’s situation in each country is completely different, it is impossible at this time to include in the platform an international position on this question (…) These are all conditions that vary from one country to the next, and we therefore believe it is impossible to offer the workers a clear international policy. For that reason we cannot resolve the question today. We must leave it up to each national organisation to develop a position on it” (ibid, p.144-145). In reply to the idea of revolutionising the unions, put forward by Reinstein, former member of the American Socialist Labor Party who was considered to be the delegate for the United States,[5] Albert, delegate of the German Communist Party replied: “It would be easy to say they must be revolutionised, with revolutionary leaders replacing the Yellow ones. But that is not so easy to do, because all organisational structures in the unions are adapted to the old state apparatus and because a council system cannot be established on the basis of craft unions” (p. 144-145).

The end of the war, a certain “victory” euphoria in the victorious countries and the bourgeoisie’s ability, with the unshakable support of the Social-Democratic parties and the unions, to unleash a ferocious repression on social movements, at the same time as granting important economic and political concessions to the working class – such as universal suffrage and the eight hour day – made it possible, little by little, to stabilise the socio-economic situation in each country. This caused a progressive decline in the intensity of the revolutionary wave, which had emerged precisely in reaction to the atrocities of the war and its consequences. This exhaustion of revolutionary élan and the end of the deterioration of the economic situation, weighed very heavily on the revolutionary movement’s ability to draw the lessons of all the experience of struggle at the international level and to unify its understanding of all the implications of the change in the historic period for the form and content of the proletarian struggle. With the isolation of the Russian revolution, the Communist International was dominated by the positions of the Bolshevik Party which was increasingly forced, under the terrible pressure of events, to make concessions in order to try to gain time and to break out of the vice in which it was held. Three significant events in this regression took place between the First and the Second Congress of the Communist International (July 1920). Shortly before its Second Congress in 1920, the CI created a Red Trade Union International, in competition with the International of “yellow” trade unions in Amsterdam (linked to the treacherous Social-Democratic parties). In April 1920 the Executive Commission of the CI dissolved its Amsterdam Bureau for Western Europe, which polarised the radical positions of the parties in Western Europe against some of the orientations it defended, particularly on the union and parliamentary questions. And, lastly, Lenin wrote one of his worst works in April-May 1920, Left wing communism, an infantile disorder in which he incorrectly criticised those he called the “leftists”, and who were precisely those expressions of the left which expressed the experiences of the most concentrated and advanced bastions of the European proletariat.[6] Instead of pursuing the discussion, the confrontation and unification of the different experiences of the proletarian struggle internationally, this turn in perspective and position opened the door to a withdrawal to the old positions of the radical Social-Democrats.[7]

Despite the increasingly unfavourable course of events, the Communist International showed in its Theses on the union question, adopted at the Second Congress, that it was still capable of theoretical clarification. Thanks to the confrontation of experiences of struggle in all countries and the convergence of the lessons on the counter-revolutionary role of the unions, it gained the conviction that, despite the contrary experience in Russia, they had passed to the side of the bourgeoisie during World War I: “During the war most of the trade unions proved themselves to be part of the military apparatus of the bourgeoisie, assisting the exploitation of the working class and spilling the blood of the proletariat in the interests of capitalist profit. In the same way and for the same reasons international Social-Democracy showed itself, with few exceptions, to be an organisation serving the interests of the bourgeoisie and restraining the proletariat, rather than a weapon of the revolutionary proletarian struggle” (“The Trade Union Movement, Factory Committees and the Third International” in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the first four Congresses of the Third International, Hessel, p.106). Similarly, and contrary to their experience in Russia, the Bolsheviks accepted that from now on the unions would play an essentially negative role, constituting a powerful brake on the development of the class struggle since they were contaminated by reformism in the same way as Social-Democracy.

However, the terrible pressure of events – the reversal in the revolutionary wave, the socio-economic stabilisation of capitalism and the isolation of the Russian revolution – led the CI, under the impetus of the Bolsheviks, to hold on to the old radical Social-Democratic positions rather than complete the political deepening necessary to understand the changes in the dynamic, content and form taken by the class struggle in the decadent phase of capitalism. Unsurprisingly, we can see a clear regression in the programmatic theses which were adopted at the CI’s Second Congress, despite the opposition of many communist organisations and not least of the representatives of the most advanced fractions of the Western European proletariat. So, without any argumentation and in complete contradiction to the general orientation developed at the First Congress and to the concrete reality of the struggle, the Bolsheviks defended the idea that “Though, during the war, the trade unions influenced the working masses in the interests of the bourgeoisie, they are now instruments for the destruction of capitalism” (ibid, p.107)! This assertion was immediately strongly qualified[8] but the door was now open to all the tactical expedients of “re-conquering” the unions, putting their backs to the wall or developing a united front tactic, etc., all on the pretext that communists are still a minority, that the situation is more and more unfavourable, that it is necessary to “be with the masses”, etc.

The evolution of the position on the union question, which we have briefly outlined above, was similar in many details for the other political positions of the Communist International. Having made important advances and theoretical clarifications, it regressed with the retreat in the revolutionary wave internationally. It is not for us to set ourselves up as judges of history and award good and bad marks but to understand a process in which each took part with their strengths and weaknesses. Faced with growing isolation and under the pressure of the retreat in social movements, each party tried to adopt an attitude and positions determined by the specific experience of the working class in each country. The predominant influence of the Bolsheviks in the Communist International, the active factor in its constitution, was gradually transformed into a hindrance to clarification, crystallising its positions essentially on the experience of the Russian revolution alone.[9]

The parliamentary question

The position on parliamentary politics, like that on the union question, developed from a tendency towards clarification, including the theses on parliamentarism adopted at the second congress of the CI to a second period marked by a tendency to withdraw from these theses.[10] But even more than the union question, which we have concentrated on in this article, the parliamentary question was seen in the framework of the evolution of capitalism from its ascendant to its decadent phase. So, we can read in the theses of the Second Congress that: “The struggle for communism, however, must be based on a theoretical analysis of the character of the present epoch (the culminating point of capitalism, its imperialist self-negation and self-destruction, the uninterrupted spread of civil war etc.) …The attitude of the Third International to parliament is determined not by new theoretical ideas, but by the change in the role of parliament itself. In the preceding historical epoch parliament was an instrument of the developing capitalist system, and as such played a role that was in a certain sense progressive. In modern conditions of unbridled imperialism parliament has become a weapon of falsehood, deception and violence, a place of enervating chatter. In the face of the devastation, embezzlement, robbery and destruction committed by imperialism, parliamentary reforms which are wholly lacking in consistency, durability and order lose all practical significance for the working masses… At the present time parliament cannot be used by the Communists as the arena in which to struggle for reforms and improvements in working-class living standards as was the case at certain times during the past epoch. The focal point of political life has shifted fully and finally beyond the boundaries of parliament. … The comparative unimportance of this question [revolutionary parliamentarism] should always be kept in view. Since the focal point of the struggle for state power lies outside parliament the questions of proletarian dictatorship and mass struggle for its realisation are, obviously, immeasurably more important than the question of how to use the parliamentary system” (“The Communist Party and Parliament” in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos p.97-99, our emphasis in bold). Unfortunately these theses were not coherent with their own theoretical underpinnings since, despite these clear statements, the Communist International did not draw out all the implications inasmuch as it required all the Communist Parties to make “revolutionary” propaganda in the parliamentary tribune and elections.

The national question

The Manifesto adopted by the First Congress of the Communist International was particularly clear-sighted on the national question, announcing that in the new period opened by the First World War: “The national state which gave a mighty impulsion to capitalist development has become too narrow for the further development of productive forces”. In consequence “This renders all the more precarious the position of small states, hemmed in by the major powers of Europe and scattered through other sections of the world”. To the extent that the little states were themselves constrained to develop their own imperialist policies: “These small states, which have arisen at different times as fragments chipped from bigger ones, as so much small change in payment for various services rendered and as strategic buffers, retain their own dynasties, their own ruling cliques, their own imperialist pretensions, their own diplomatic intrigues (…) the number of small states has increased; out of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, out of portions of the former Czarist empire, new states have been carved, which were no sooner born than they flung themselves at one another’s throats over the question of state boundaries”. Taking account of these weaknesses in the context of a system which had become too narrow for the expansion of the productive forces, national independence was described as “illusory”, leaving the small nations no choice but to play the game of the great powers and sell themselves to the highest bidder in the world inter-imperialist relations: “their phantom independence rested on the selfsame thing as the equilibrium of Europe: the uninterrupted antagonism between the two imperialist camps. The war has disrupted this equilibrium. By giving at first an enormous preponderance to Germany, the war compelled the small states to seek their salvation under the magnanimous wings of German militarism. After Germany was crushed, the bourgeoisie of the small states, together with their respective patriotic “Socialists,” turned their faces to the victorious Allied imperialism and began seeking guarantees for their continued independent existence in the hypocritical points of the Wilsonian program (…) The Allied imperialists are meanwhile preparing such combinations of small powers, both old and new, as would be bound to themselves through the hold of mutual hatreds and common impotence” (Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the World).

This clarity was unfortunately abandoned from the Second Congress onwards with the adoption of the Theses on the national and colonial questions since it was no longer considered that all nations, however small, were forced to conduct an imperialist policy and tie themselves to the strategy of the great powers. In fact nations were divided into two groups “…an equally clear distinction between the interests of the oppressed, dependent and subject nations and the oppressing, exploiting and sovereign nations…” (“Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions”, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, p.77) implying that “Every party that wishes to belong to the Communist International has the obligation (…) of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds (…) Those Party members who fundamentally reject the conditions and Theses laid down by the Communist International are to be expelled from the Party” (“Theses on the Conditions of Admission to the Communist International”, p.94 and 97). Furthermore, and contrary to what was correctly stated in the Manifesto of the First Congress, the national state was no longer considered as “too narrow for the further development of productive forces” since “Foreign domination obstructs the free development of social forces; its overthrow is therefore the first step toward a revolution in the colonies” (“Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Questions”, in Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, p.220). At this level we can see that the abandonment of the deepening of the implications of the analysis of the entry of the capitalist system into decadence progressively leads the Communist International to the slippery slope of opportunism.


We have no wish to claim that the Communist International had a full and complete understanding of the decadence of the capitalist mode of production. As we will see in the next article, the Third International and all its component parties were, to one degree or another, certainly conscious that a new epoch had been born, that capitalism had served its time, that the task of the hour was no longer the winning of reforms but the conquest of power, that the capitalist system had become obsolete and that the class which represented it, the bourgeoisie, had become reactionary, at least in the central countries, etc. It was one of the weaknesses of the CI that it was not able to draw out all the lessons of the new period, which had opened with the First World War, on the form and the content of the proletarian struggle. Rather than the strength and weakness of the CI and its component parties, this weakness was above all the fruit of the general difficulties encountered by the movement as a whole: the profound division of revolutionary forces at the moment of the treason of Social-Democracy and the necessity for rebuilding them in the difficult conditions of the war and the immediate post-war period; the division between the victorious and defeated countries which did not provide favourable conditions for the generalisation of the revolutionary movement; the rapid regression of the movements and struggles as each country showed a greater or lesser ability to stabilise the economic and social situation after the war; etc. This weakness could only grow and it fell to the left fractions which detached themselves from the CI to continue the work that remained to be carried out.


1. “The Second International did its share of useful preparatory work in preliminarily organising the proletarian masses during the long, ‘peaceful’ period of the most brutal capitalist slavery and most rapid capitalist progress in the last third of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. To the Third International falls the task  of organising the proletarian forces for a revolutionary onslaught against the capitalist governments, for civil war against the bourgeoisie of all countries for the capture of political power, for the triumph of socialism!” (Lenin, November 1914).

2. See our recent articles on this subject in International Review n°120 (“The revolutionary nature of the working class. 100 years ago: the 1905 revolution in Russia, part 1”) and International Review n°122 (“The soviets open a new period in the history of the class struggle”).

3. “In the epoch of capitalist decay the economic struggle of the proletariat is transformed much more quickly into political struggle than in the epoch of peaceful capitalist development. Any large-scale economic conflict can develop into open revolutionary struggle, directly confronting the workers with the question of revolution” (“The trade union movement, factory committees and the Third International” thesis 7, in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the first four Congresses of the Third International introduced by Bertil Hessel, p.109). “Workers’ struggles for wage increases, even where successful, do not result in the anticipated rise in living standards, because the rising prices on all consumer goods cancel out any gains. The living conditions of workers can only be improved when production is administered by the proletariat instead of the bourgeoisie” (“Platform of the Communist International”, ibid p.42).

4. Thus Feinberg’s report for Britain insists that: “The trade unions relinquished gains won in long years of struggle, and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress [TUC] concluded a ‘civil peace’ with the bourgeoisie. But life – the intensified exploitation, the food price increases – forced the workers to defend themselves against the capitalists, who were taking advantage of the ‘civil peace’ to further their own exploitative ends. The workers had no choice but to demand higher wages and to back up this demand with strikes. The TUC General Council and the leaders (until then) of the movement, who had promised the government that they would keep the workers in check, sought to restrain the movement and disavowed the strikes. But the strikes went ahead ‘unofficially’.” (“Report on Britain”, ibid, p.106-107). Similarly, concerning the United States, Reinstein’s report showed: “I would only stress here that the American capitalist class was practical and shrewd enough to create for itself a useful and efficient lightning rod by developing a large antisocialist union organisation under the leadership of Gompers… Gompers… is more like an American Zubatov. [Zubatov was the organiser of the “yellow unions” on behalf of the Tsarist police] He was and remains a determined opponent of the socialist perspective and of socialist goals. And yet he passes for a representative of a large workers’ organisation, the American Federation of Labor, which is founded upon the myth of harmony between capital and labor and which cripples the power of the working class and thus prevents it from successfully fighting back against capitalism in America” (“Report on the United States”, ibid, p.76). Kuusinen, the delegate for Finland, spoke in the same sense in the discussion on the platform of the CI: “An objection could be raised to the passage where the revolutionary unions and cooperatives are discussed. In Finland we have neither revolutionary unions nor revolutionary cooperatives, and we very much doubt even the possibility of there being any in our country. The structure of unions and cooperatives there convinces us that after the revolution the new social order could be better established without these unions than with them, even if they were founded on a new basis” (ibid p.132).

5. See p.140-141 Founding the Communist International, proceedings and documents of the First Congress: March 1919. This delegate proposed a resolution for the platform expressing this view, which was rejected by the congress.

6. Lenin went so far as to writeFrom all this follows the necessity, the absolute necessity, for the Communist Party, the vanguard of the proletariat, its class-conscious section, to resort to changes of tack, to conciliation and compromises with the various groups of proletarians, with the various parties of the workers and small masters”.

7. “…the second and immediate objective, which consists in being able to lead the masses to a new position ensuring the victory of the vanguard in the revolution, cannot be reached without the liquidation of Left doctrinairism, and without a full elimination of its errors” (Lenin, in Left-wing communism, an infantile disorder).

8. The following thesis continues “The old trade-union bureaucracy and the old forms of trade-union organisation are obstructing this change in every possible way.

9. “The Second Congress of the Third International considers as not correct the views regarding the relations of the Party to the class and to the masses, and the non-participation of the Communist Parties in bourgeois parliaments and reactionary unions (which have been emphatically repudiated in the special resolutions of the present Congress), which are defended in full by the KAPD and also partially by the “Communist Party of Switzerland”, by the organ of the East European secretariat of the Communist International Kommunismus in Vienna, and by several of our Dutch comrades; also by certain Communist organisations in Britain, as for instance the Workers’ Socialist Federation, and by the IWW in America, the Shop Stewards’ Committees in Britain, etc.” (“Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Communist International” in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, p.141-142).

10. Having gone into some detail on the union question, we cannot do the same for the parliamentary question in the framework of this article on decadence. We refer French speaking readers to our collection of articles Mobilisation électorale – demobilisation de la classe ouvrière republishing two studies of the question which appeared in Révolution Internationale n°2, February 1973, entitled “Les barricades de la bourgeoisie” and in Révolution Internationale n°10, July 1974, entitled “Les élections contre la classe ouvrière”. The latter appeared in English in World Revolution n°2, November 1974, as “Elections: the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie”.


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: