Internal debate in the ICC on the international situation

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MH
Internal debate in the ICC on the international situation
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The publication of these discussion texts is obviously very interesting in the context of earlier criticisms of the 23rd Congress resolutions on this forum and the debate on the balance of class forces, with the ICC’s response to my own critique.

I don’t want to comment in detail on the latest texts. I don’t think I agree with everything comrade Steinklopfer says and I don’t disagree with everything the ICC says in response; the format of comments on amendments makes it difficult sometimes to see the main lines of argument, but I do want to make a couple of points to start off a discussion.

First, this internal debate confirms that disagreements were raised at the congress itself about some of the same issues raised by close sympathisers and ex members of the ICC, and that disagreements have continued to be expressed about positions adopted by the Congress inside the organisation.

Second, these disagreements go well beyond an analysis of the international situation to include the balance of class forces, the ICC’s position on decomposition, perspectives for the future and, underlying all of these, the question of the Marxist method.

Some of these disagreements have a marked similarity with my own critique of the positions adopted by the 23rd Congress; specifically:

  • that the ICC’s emphasis, as part of its position on decomposition, on the tendency towards chaos and the near impossibility of blocs re-forming, risks underestimating the danger of a new global imperialist war in the current period, in particular of a confrontation between the US and China;
  • that the ICC’s position on decomposition underestimates the significance of the partial defeat of the post-‘68 upsurge of struggles that took place in the 1980s and the resulting change in the balance of class forces prior to the fall of the Stalinist regimes.

This doesn’t prove of course that either I or comrade S is correct!

Following on from this,  it's worth pointing out that neither the ICC nor comrade S refers to the critical balance sheet of strengths and weaknesses drawn up at its 21st Congress in 2015. One of the specific weaknesses identified was the organisation’s slowness to recognise the setbacks suffered by the workers’ struggles in the 1980s and its underestimation of the effects of globalisation/neoliberal policies  (see Report on Class Struggle). The 23rd Congress continued to insist that the regression in the revolutionary perspective of the workers’ struggles only began in 1989, ie. with the fall of the Stalinist regimes. 

To return to my first point, the ICC’s earlier response to my own criticisms and the issues raised by comrades on this forum must now be seen in the context of the wider disagreements expressed within the organisation at the Congress itself and after, so I think the political significance of these disagreements, and how we should characterise them, is one issue for discussion, and in this context I certainly think comrade S’s criticisms of the ICC’s method, as expressed in the congress resolutions, are as important to consider as disagreements on imperialism and the balance of class forces.

jk1921
I was going to hold off

I was going to hold off commenting on these texts for awhile, but since MH has gotten it started:

I agree with MH regarding the importance on publicizing these debates within the ICC and that they do in fact reflect similar concerns put forward here in the past regarding these issues. At some point, it would be useful to make a more comprehensive statement, but briefly: I find the controversy over whether or not the tendency towards "everyman for himself" is a cause or a feature of decomposition difficult to follow as it seems rather metaphysical in its search for prime movers and first causes, although it seems there are those (perhaps MH) who see more fundamental methodological issues at stake there.

That said, there do appear to be two different conceptualizations of a number of issues at play in the debate. I will say that I think I find myself closer to the ICC in its rebutal to Steinklopfer's assessment of the tendency towards new imperialist blocs forming. I think the counter tendencies agains this in decomposition will outweigh the pressure towards the formation of new blocs, especially if one of those blocs is around China. I would even go further and say that I think both sides overstate the "rise of China" and that we do really seem to have gotten a hold of the underlying tendencies around this phenomenon. When the ICC says the rise of China is a "function of decomposition," it is not entirely clear what is meant, even if it is clear that this is supposed to serve as a qualification suggesting that there is an underlying weakness in the phenomenon--although this seems never to be developed. Is it the fact that Chinese growth in the current period is conditioned on a global restructuring directed and primarily controlled by the west and especially the United States? It is not said.

On the other hand, I find myself closer to Steinklopfer on the question of the balance of class forces and the social situation at the moment, as I do not share the ICC's broad optimism that whatever social movements we are seeing today, albeit in contorted, recueprated and mutated forms, reflect an underlying subterreanan tendency towards the development of consciousness. On the contrary, I think the situation is quite a bit worse than either side imagines, with decomposition increasingly splitting society into competing "culture war" camps, such that what might look like promising developments on the social front are actually just moments in this logic.

Moreover, I don't think either side has a very convincing explanation for the rise of populism or what it means. Here, I fear that there is a tendency by the ICC to more or less take over the anti-populist analyses (even while correctly stating that anti-populism offers no real alternative for humanity); instead of attempting to situate it in a more global and historical context, as a kind of  "defense mechanism" of the national state against the tendencies towards globalization (itself an attempt to deal with the historic crisis of accumulation) and its resulting political problems, i.e. the fracturing of the national polity. Still, I don't find Steinklopfer's assertion that populism is a moment in the preparation for inter-state war very convincing. The ICC is right here that whatever its underlying meaning, as a result of decomposition, it is ultimately incapable of serving in that role (or even in the one I have ascribed to it above) as it too becomes just another moment in the culture war deterioration of bourgeois political and intellectual life.

MH
on blocs and populism

I'd like to respond to some of jk's comments.

On the likelihood of new imperialist blocs forming - for Steinklopfer this appears to be not just a question of our exact assessment of the current situation but also of basic method; if there is a definite tendency today towards “each against all” at the level of imperialist conflicts we need to see this is only one pole of a contradiction, the other being a continual tendency towards bipolarity.

S is clearly frustrated at what he sees as the ICC's inability to fully grasp these two opposing poles of the contradiction in its analyses, and sees it as a sign of a tendency towards dogmatism.

In fact the ICC itself is led to acknowledge the existence of this bipolar tendency in its own resolution where it refers to the hostility of India and Japan to China which is driving them towards a convergence with the US (IR 164, p.8); fear of China is surely a factor potentially enabling a new US bloc to cohere.

Not only that but it is possible to argue that China, due to its size, position dominating the Eurasian landmass, level of technological development and openly hegemonic appetites, constitutes a ‘bloc’ in itself; the ICC has in the past pointed out that a new global imperialist war need not necessarily take precisely the same form as the past - something I think it now tends to forget...

On the question of populism - yes I tend to agree that Steinklopfer exaggerates the extent to which it is a preparation for war; while we can see populism as a foundation for the rise f Nazism in Germany after WW1, for example, the conditions today, especially in the major capitalist powers, are surely different; it is hard to see how Trump’s ‘America First’ policy (if you can call it that) could form the basis of a serious military strategy to defend its economic interests, which are global, and not least attract foreign allies. 

I’d like to come back on the question of the causes of decomposition and the ICC's method.

MH
decomposition causes and effects

jk921 wrote:
I find the controversy over whether or not the tendency towards "everyman for himself" is a cause or a feature of decomposition difficult to follow as it seems rather metaphysical in its search for prime movers and first causes

Agreed. If you see decomposition as simply “an advanced phase in the decay of the mode of production” (Alf) you could argue it is superfluous to identify a specific cause at all, while if you see it as caused primarily by a change in the balance of class forces (a ‘stalemate’) this implies that a future change in the balance of class forces could – what? At least slow it down? But if it is the result of some centrifugal tendency in capitalist society this seems to me to imply it is independent of the balance of class forces or at least further removed from its effect.

But in a sense I don’t think this is the main issue, afaics S basically argues that the 1980 Polish mass strike was the high point of the post-68 wave of struggles, after which it declined, mainly because the working class in the west was unable to step into the breach and develop its own revolutionary perspective. This seems pretty uncontroversial to me but the ICC continues to insist the wave was only defeated in 1989; up until then it was, despite setbacks, still advancing. Not only that but its eventual defeat was due to the effects of decomposition, ie. not to any weaknesses in the struggles themselves.

This obviously has implications for our view of how serious things are today. If you underestimate the failure of the struggles of the 1980s, and emphasise instead the impact of an event outside the direct struggle – the collapse of the blocs – then I think you risk underestimating the difficulties facing a recovery of struggles in the current period; this seems to be precisely what S is warning against.

jk1921 wrote:
I do not share the ICC's broad optimism that whatever social movements we are seeing today, albeit in contorted, recuperated and mutated forms, reflect an underlying subterranean tendency towards the development of consciousness. On the contrary, I think the situation is quite a bit worse than either side imagines

I tend to agree. And I don’t think the ICC’s position is consistent: if you think the working class suffered a defeat because of the effects of decomposition, and if decomposition can't be stopped, then surely the conditions for any recovery of the struggle today must be significantly worse than in 1989? Ironically the ICC accuses S of falling into “deep pessimism” but you could argue he is simply being more consistent in applying the ICC’s own position. 

jk1921
MH wrote:

MH wrote:

Agreed. If you see decomposition as simply “an advanced phase in the decay of the mode of production” (Alf) you could argue it is superfluous to identify a specific cause at all, while if you see it as caused primarily by a change in the balance of class forces (a ‘stalemate’) this implies that a future change in the balance of class forces could – what? At least slow it down? But if it is the result of some centrifugal tendency in capitalist society this seems to me to imply it is independent of the balance of class forces or at least further removed from its effect.

The issue of "centrifugal" vs. "centripetal" tendencies in society today is interesting. There is a certain interpretation of the theory of decomposition that would see pretty much everything today as influenced by centrifugal forces--the pulling apart of society under the weight of the rot resulting from either class to impose its solution to the crisis. This would tend to see pretty much everything today as a function of a downward spiral into darkness--the rise of all kinds of reactionary ideologies, a step backwards in social-cultural progress, etc. (there is a tendency in the ICC to see populism this way).

I think for me this is a little too one-sided. These centrifugal tendencies do exist, but there are also centripetal tendecies towards a kind of reconstruction of bourgeois society around the multi-cultural metropole with an accompanying ideology of "neoliberal progressivism" that doesn't nealty fit this narrative. This results from the underlying tendencies of capitalism itself as much as decomposition, I think. So maybe it is better to conceive of the main feature of this period as something more like "polarization." Of course, the "progressive" side of that--represented today by liberal anti-populism, but also by a semi-populist new social democracy, can itself become an active factor in a kind of decomposition in its tendency towards various forms of extremism--identitarianism, conspiracism, anti-institutionalism, etc. that ultimately does not really escape the centrigugal tendencies. Perhaps it is useful to think of the issue of the opposition between the tendencies towards "every man for himself" and bloc formation in the same way?

Alf
Just a point of clarification

In order to make sure we don’t discuss at cross purposes, I want to take up one point in MH’s last post.

“But in a sense I don’t think this is the main issue, afaics S basically argues that the 1980 Polish mass strike was the high point of the post-68 wave of struggles, after which it declined, mainly because the working class in the west was unable to step into the breach and develop its own revolutionary perspective. This seems pretty uncontroversial to me but the ICC continues to insist the wave was only defeated in 1989; up until then it was, despite setbacks, still advancing. Not only that but its eventual defeat was due to the effects of decomposition, ie. not to any weaknesses in the struggles themselves.

This obviously has implications for our view of how serious things are today. If you underestimate the failure of the struggles of the 1980s, and emphasise instead the impact of an event outside the direct struggle – the collapse of the blocs – then I think you risk underestimating the difficulties facing a recovery of struggles in the current period; this seems to be precisely what S is warning against”.

I think that MH tends to repeat the same misinterpretation that we already replied to in the response to S, where we indeed emphasise that the third wave of struggles since 1968 stagnated – even before the collapse of the blocs – above all because of a “weakness in the struggle itself”:

“While the ICC noted many important advances in this wave of struggles (the tendencies towards self-organisation and the confrontation with rank and file unionism in France and Italy, for example), this vital step of politicisation was not taken, and the third wave began to run into difficulties. At the 8th congress of the ICC in 1988, there was an animated debate between those comrades who felt that the third wave was moving forward inexorably, and what was then a minority who stressed that the working class was already suffering from the impact of decomposition in terms of atomisation, loss of class identity, the ideology of every man for himself in the form of corporatism etc – all of which were the result of the inability of the class to develop a perspective for the future of society”. 

 

The last point is key. The onset of decomposition is not an event outside the class struggle but the product of a social stalemate, one side of which is the proletariat’s difficulties in raising its defensive struggles to the political level.

MH
are there political differences or not?

Alf wrote:
I think that MH tends to repeat the same misinterpretation that we already replied to in the response to S, where we indeed emphasise that the third wave of struggles since 1968 stagnated – even before the collapse of the blocs – above all because of a “weakness in the struggle itself”:

 

“While the ICC noted many important advances in this wave of struggles (the tendencies towards self-organisation and the confrontation with rank and file unionism in France and Italy, for example), this vital step of politicisation was not taken, and the third wave began to run into difficulties. At the 8th congress of the ICC in 1988, there was an animated debate between those comrades who felt that the third wave was moving forward inexorably, and what was then a minority who stressed that the working class was already suffering from the impact of decomposition in terms of atomisation, loss of class identity, the ideology of every man for himself in the form of corporatism etc – all of which were the result of the inability of the class to develop a perspective for the future of society”. 

 

The last point is key. The onset of decomposition is not an event outside the class struggle but the product of a social stalemate, one side of which is the proletariat’s difficulties in raising its defensive struggles to the political level.

I appreciate Alf’s clarification, and I’m all for avoiding talking at cross purposes, but I’m left wondering; if so much of this is down to ‘misinterpretations’, what exactly was the point of the ICC publishing this as an "internal debate"?

Comrade S is clearly convinced there are real differences; they talk about “major divergences” at the congress on a range of issues. The ICC on the other hand seems to be quite conciliatory in its response, attempting to smooth over differences between opposing positions - even to the extent of taking issue with the views of its own congress amendments commission.

So there seem to be real differences here, even about whether there are real differences. What is anyone outside the organisation meant to make of this?

jk1921
MH wrote:

MH wrote:

I tend to agree. And I don’t think the ICC’s position is consistent: if you think the working class suffered a defeat because of the effects of decomposition, and if decomposition can't be stopped, then surely the conditions for any recovery of the struggle today must be significantly worse than in 1989? Ironically the ICC accuses S of falling into “deep pessimism” but you could argue he is simply being more consistent in applying the ICC’s own position. 

Accusing someone of "pessimism" does not seem a proper critique in itself. It is a characterization of an analysis that says nothing about the underlying validity of the analysis itself--its method, metrics, reasoning, rigor, etc. It seems more like a description of a mood than a political orientation. I have suggested that the ICC has shown a "broad optimism" in its evaluation of a number of social movements. Of course, this does not apply to any that have shown a populist orientation (Yellow Vests, etc.) which are dealt with by dismissing them as not belonging to the proletariat, but to some other class (petty bourgeoisie), which the working class gets mistakenly drawn behind. Are they are not seen then as the result of the weaknesses of the proletariat, but as products of decomposition? Is there even a distinction to be made here?

But I think where I see the premature optimism is in the idea that the emergence of politicized elements interested in the communist left is in some way proof of a subterreanean maturation of consciousness. The idea that the existence of a miniscule minority of revolutionaries can serve as their own proof of the validity of their theory seems self-referential and rife with circular logic--espeically when we are talking about the very small numbers we see today. This phenomenon could be down to any number of things. We need a different metric to break out of the opposition between "deep pessimism" and "broad optimism."

jk1921
Alf wrote:

Alf wrote:

The last point is key. The onset of decomposition is not an event outside the class struggle but the product of a social stalemate, one side of which is the proletariat’s difficulties in raising its defensive struggles to the political level.

This is right. Decomposition does not come ex nihilio from the economic base, but is a result of the political stalemate between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Neither side can put forward their historic solution to capialism's crisis--world war or world revolution. But, I think it is also the case that the two sides are not equal in the stalemate. While the bourgeoisie had not been able to put forward its historic solution or world war, it has other measures it can take to try to blunt the effects of the crisis on accumulation and gain the upper hand in the class struggle. For the last 30 odd years, this has been done by the switch from Keyensian-Fordist demand mangement to neo-liberal, just-in-time, flexible accumulation. The results of this strategy on the class struggle have not been negligible in the bourgeoisie's favor, even allowing for--according to some (ICT) something like the "recomposition of the proletariat."

Still, it is also the case that this had not done away with the historic crisis and it has not really arrested the tendencies ascribed to decomposition and may even be accelerating it--the splintering of society into two hostile blocs, ideological and political instability, the questioning of historic instiutions, the emergence of populism and extremist identiarianism, etc. The proletariat, on the other hand, has no other cards to play, other than to develop its struggle through the subterreanean maturation of consciousness. But has the bourgeoisie's neo-liberal strategy hampered that? What are the relative weights of the switch to neo-liberalism vs. decomposition is explaining the balance of class forces today?

KT
Taking a position

A brief taking of positions on the debates and positions of the Congress texts:

  • On the level of inter-imperialist tensions.

If the dichotomy between centrifugal tendencies, “every man for himself” and its opposite, the tendency towards the formation of new blocs, towards a new “bi-polarity”,  is a false one because both tendencies exist simultaneously and historically, this does not mean that one or other of these tendencies is not the more dominant. It seems evident to me that the tendency towards every ‘man for himself’ is and has been for some decades the over-arching tendency – despite early efforts (First Gulf War) to maintain the former Western bloc. Comrd S acknowledges this reality but asserts that this could change. His amendments want to reflect this possibility. For the majority of the ICC, such an emphasis would detract from the reality of the present dynamic – would point in one direction when all the action is in another - and it was rejected, a position I agree with. Despite the attempts of China to advance and develop its imperialist options, it’s the still-dominant USA which is the main disrupter of international relations, dismantling the old bloc structures, while China’s rise is tending to repulse potential allies. In this sense, I agree with the following explanation and perspective of the majority:

In this situation, the danger of war reflects this process of fragmentation. We certainly cannot rule out the possibility of military clashes between the US and China, but neither can we discount increasingly irrational outbreaks pulling in India against Pakistan, Israel against Iran, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, etc. But this is precisely the meaning, and the terrible threat, of every man for himself as a factor aggravating decomposition and endangering the very future of humanity. We continue to think that this tendency is not only far in advance of the tendency towards the reformation of blocs, but is in direct conflict with it.

  • On the level of the class struggle

The rise of populism is not a sign of a preparation for global war as cmrd S asserts but a sign of prolonged social blockage to which neither of the major classes can present a solution.

A proletariat disoriented, discombobulated, shorn of its class identity and facing increasing atomization is certainly and worryingly a candidate for mobilization for war. But it is absolutely not the same thing as saying such a position has already been reached. Indeed, part of the rise of populism – which is not, like fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, the product of a physical defeat and political mobilization of the proletariat – is fueled by the combative but directionless anger against the status quo, against elites, and so on. The fact that this too – and its ‘liberal’ opposition - is a blockage towards the reformation and widespread assimilation of proletarian class consciousness does not in itself indicate that this process is unattainable and that global war is on the agenda.

***

Observing social evolution over the past 30 years, It’s hard not have some sympathy for the approach of comrd S: a proletariat displaying only sporadic resistance and few episodes of class organization and consciousness; the descent of large parts of the planet into war and decay; the rebound of decomposition onto the very heartlands of capital: how is it possible to overstate the proletariat’s submission and capital’s march to destruction through war? Yet a misinterpretation of reality in the early 1950s – at the time of the Korean War – by the comrades of the communist left around Internationalisme led, for the best of motives but with disastrous results for the organization of revolutionaries, to the dismemberment and dispersal of a precious proletarian force. The same theoretical error, albeit in different circumstances, should not be repeated today.

Finally: what to make of the publication of this discussion? Difficult, really: there’s little to compare it to. No other organisation  of the proletarian milieu devotes anything like as much time and energy to publishing and polemicizing with sympathisers voicing different analyses and, crucially, dissenting members as the ICC. It’s a sign of the organisation’s life and vigour.