The hidden legacy of the left of capital (V): Debate - a brutal conflict for the bourgeoisie, an indispensable means for clarification for the proletariat

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This article is part of the series The hidden legacy of the left of capital in which we are proposing how to come to grips with something that is difficult for numerous groups and militants of the Communist Left: it's not only a question of breaking with all the political positions of the parties of capital (populist, fascist, right, left, extreme-left) but it is also necessary to break with their organisational methods, their morality and their way of thinking. This rupture is absolutely necessary but it is difficult because we live daily with the ideological enemies of the liberation of humanity: bourgeoisie, petty-bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat. In this fifth article of the series, we are looking at the vital question of debate[1].

The proletariat, the class of debate

Debate is the source of life for the proletariat, a class which isn't an unconscious force struggling blindly and motivated by the determinism of objective conditions. It is on the contrary a conscious class whose combat is guided by an understanding of the necessities and possibilities on the road to communism. This comprehension doesn't arise from absolute truths formulated once and for all in the Manifesto of the Communist Party or in the privileged spirit of brilliant leaders but it is a product "of the intellectual development of the working class (which must come from) common action and discussion. Events and the ups and downs of the struggle against capital, defeats more so than its successes, can only make the combatants feel the insufficiencies of all their panaceas and lead them to a fundamental understanding of the real conditions of workers' emancipation"[2].

Revolutionary proletarians stand upon the gigantic debates of the masses. The autonomous and self-organised action of the working class is based on debate in which hundreds of thousands of workers, youth, women, retired, actively participate. The Russian revolution of 1917 was based on a permanent debate of thousands of discussions in localities, the streets, tramways... The days of 1917 have left us with two images that well illustrate the importance of debate for the working class: the blocked tramway because its occupants, driver included, decided to stop and discuss a topic; or a window to the street from which a speaker launches a speech gathering a crowd of hundreds of people coming together to listen and speak.

May 68 was also a permanent debate of the masses. There is a flagrant contrast between discussions of workers in the strikes of May during which there was talk of how to destroy the state, how to create a new society, of union sabotage, etc., and that of a student "assembly" in Germany in 1967, controlled by "radical" Maoists during which it took three hours to decide how to organise a demonstration. "We talk to each other and we listen to each other" was one of the most popular slogans of May 68.

The movement of 2006 and 2011 (struggle against the CPE in France and the Indignados movement in Spain[3]) were founded on the living debate of thousands of workers, youths, etc., and on unrestricted discussion. In occupied places "flying libraries" were organised, recalling an action that appeared with great force during the Russian revolution of 1917, as John Reed underlined in Ten Days Which Shook the World: "All of Russia learnt to read, and they read (political economy, history) because people desired knowledge. In all towns, big or small, on the front, each political fraction had its journal (sometimes it even had several). Pamphlets were distributed in their hundreds of thousands by thousands of organisations and were spread into the army, the villages, the factories and the streets. The thirst for learning which had been repressed for so long took on a real delirious form with the revolution. From the first six month from the Smolny Institute alone trains and trucks loaded with literature saturated the country. An insatiable Russia absorbed all printed matter as the warm sand absorbs sea water. And this wasn't from fairy stories, falsified history, diluted religion and corrupt and cheap novels but social, economic and philosophical theories, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol and Gorky"[4].

If debate is the vital nerve of the working class it is even more so for its revolutionary organisations: “Contrary to the Bordigist standpoint, the organisation of revolutionaries cannot be 'monolithic'. The existence of disagreements within it is an expression of the fact that it is a living organ which does not have fully formed answers which can be immediately applied to the problems arising in the class. Marxism is neither a dogma nor a catechism. It is the theoretical instrument of a class which through its experience and with a view towards its historic future, advances gradually, through ups and downs, towards a self-awareness which is the indispensable precondition for emancipating itself. As in all human thought, the process whereby proletarian consciousness develops is not a linear or mechanical process but a contradictory and critical one: it necessarily presupposes discussion and the confrontation of arguments. In fact, the famous 'monolithism' or 'invariance' of the Bordigists is a decoy (as can be seen in the positions taken up by the Bordigist organisations and their various sections); either the organisation is completely sclerotic and is no longer affected by the life of the class, or it's not monolithic and its positions are not invariant."[5].

Why do they talk of "debate" whereas in reality it's a battle?

However, militants who have been in bourgeois political parties have themselves experienced that this "debate" is a farce and an evident source of suffering. In all bourgeois parties, whatever their colours, the debate takes the form of a "battle with cudgels", the famous painting by Goya in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The electoral debates are just rubbish, full of insults, accusations, dirty laundry, traps and underhand coups. These are spectacles of denigration and the settling of accounts conceived as boxing-matches where reality and truth count for nothing. The sole stake is to see who wins and who loses, who can con and lie the best, who can manipulate feelings with the most cynicism[6].

In bourgeois parties, "free expression" is pure humbug. Things can be said up to a point but not beyond calling into question the dominance of the "leadership". When this threshold is overstepped a campaign of lies is organised against those who have dared to think for themselves and this when they are not directly marched out of the party. These practices have taken place in all the parties where the tormenters and their victims both use it. Rosa Diez, a leader of the Basque PSOE, has thus been the target of a virulent campaign of accusations by informers from within her party "comrades". She wouldn't align with the orientation, in force at that time, for collaboration with Basque nationalism and they made her life impossible up to her quitting the party. She then founded the UYPD (which attempted to hold a centrist position, then taken up by Ciudadanos) and, when rivals and opponents appeared in her own boutique they dealt out the same fate, even reaching new depths of sadism and cynicism that would have made Stalin shudder.

In general debate is avoided in bourgeois parties, whatever their complexity. Stalin forbade debate, profiting from a serious error of the Bolshevik Party in 1921: the prohibition of fractions, a measure put forward by Lenin as a false response to Kronstadt[7]. Trotskyism equally blocks debate within itself and practices the same type of exclusion and repression. The attempt to expel the Left Opposition happened inside a Stalinist prison (!)[8] as witnessed in the book of Anton Ciliga [9], quoted in previous articles in this series: "To the ideological struggle in the Trotskyist ‘Collective’, was added an organisational conflict which, for some months, relegated ideological questions to a second level. These conflicts characterise the psychology and habits of the Russian Opposition. Both right and the centre give to the ‘Bolshevik militants’ the following ultimatum: either they dissolve themselves and stop their publication or they will be expelled from the Trotskyist organisation.

"In effect the majority thought that there was no need to have a sub-group within the Trotskyist fraction. This principle of the ‘monolithic fraction’ was basically the same as that which inspired Stalin for the whole of the party".

In the congresses of such organisations, no-one listens to the presentations which consist of boring displays where one thing and its opposite are affirmed at the same time. Sectoral conferences are organised, seminars and many other events which are nothing but public relations operations.

"Debate" in these organisations arises when it's a question of turfing out the clique in power and replacing it with it with a new one. This can be for various reasons: factional interests, deviations regarding the defence of the national interest, bad election results... From here the "debate" breaks out which turns out to be a struggle for power. On some occasions "debate" consists of when a faction invents a convoluted and contradictory "theses" and is violently opposed to that of rivals, resorting to ferocious criticisms through words, incendiary adjectives ("opportunist", "abandonment of Marxism", etc.) and other sophisticated pretexts. The "debate" becomes just a succession of insults, threats, airing dirty washing in public, accusations...  punctuated now and again by diplomatic acts of approval in order to "show" the wish for unity and that one appreciates one's rival who are "comrades" after all[10]. There finally comes a moment when equilibrium between the contending forces is established making the "debate" a sum of "opinions" that everyone defends as their property, which results in no clarification but rather a chaotic sum of ideas or "conciliatory" texts where opposed ideas sit one with the other[11].

Thus we can conclude that "debate" in bourgeois organisations (whatever their place on the political chess-board which ranges from the extreme-right to the extreme-left) is a farce and a means of launching personal incendiary attacks, which can cause serious psychological consequences for the victims and which shows the striking cruelty and a complete absence of moral scruples of the persecutors. Finally, it's a game in which sometimes the persecutors become victims and vice-versa. The terrible treatment that they have suffered can be inflicted on many others once they have obtained power.

The principles and means of proletarian debate

Proletarian debate is fundamentally different. Debate within proletarian organisations responds to radically different principles than those we have just seen in bourgeois parties.

The class consciousness of the proletariat (i.e., the self-developed knowledge of the ends and means of its historic struggle) alone gives birth to an unlimited and unhindered debate: "Consciousness cannot develop without fraternal, public and international debate" as we affirmed in our text: The culture of debate, a weapon of the class struggle[12]. Communist organisations, which express the most advanced and permanent effort for the development of consciousness in the class, need debate as a vital arm: "... among the first demands (that these) minorities express is the necessity for debate, not as a luxury but as an imperative need, the necessity to take others seriously and listen to what they say; it is also necessary that the process is not brutal but an arm of discussion, nor should it be an appeal to morality or to the authority of theoreticians", as the text continues.

In a proletarian political organisation, debate must be the opposite of the repugnant methods that we've denounced above. It's a matter of finding common ground of a shared truth where there are no winners or losers and where the only triumph is that of common clarity. Discussion is based on arguments, hypotheses, analysis, doubts... Errors are part of the route which leads to operational conclusions. Accusations, insults, the personalisation of comrades or organisational structures must be categorically forbidden because it's not a question of who says it, but what is being said.

Disagreements are necessary moments in coming to a position. Not because there's a "democratic right" but a duty to express them when one isn't convinced by a position or when one senses it is insufficient or confused. In the course of a debate positions are confronted and sometimes there are minority positions which, with time, become that of the majority. Such was the case with Lenin with his April Theses which, when he presented it on arrival in Russian in 1917, was a minority position within a Bolshevik Party that was dominated by opportunist deviations imposed by the Central Committee. Through an intense discussion, widely participated in by all the militants, the party became convinced of the validity of Lenin's positions and adopted them[13].

The different positions expressed within a revolutionary organisation are not fixed postures which are the property of those who defend them. In a revolutionary organisation, "divergences do not express the defence of personal material interests or particular pressure groups, but they are the translation of a living and dynamic process of the clarification of problems which are posed to the class and as such are destined to be re-absorbed with a deepening of the discussion and in the light of experience" ("Report on the Structure and Functioning of the Revolutionary Organisation", quoted above).

In proletarian organisations there can be no "enlightened minds" that must be followed without question. It is clear that there can be comrades with greater capacities or who possess a greater mastery in certain domains. There are certainly militants whose devotion, conviction and enthusiasm contains a certain moral authority. However, none of all that confers on them a particular privileged status which makes this or that militant a "brilliant leader", a specialist expert on this or that question or a "great theoretician". "There's no supreme saviour, no god, no Caesar, no tribune, producers save yourselves and let's decree common salvation", are words from the battle hymn of the Second International.

More precisely, as noted in the text on Structure and Functioning, Within the organisation there are no 'noble' tasks and no 'secondary' or 'less noble' tasks. Both the work of theoretical elaboration and the realisation of practical tasks, both the work in central organs and the specific work of local sections, are equally important for the organisation and should not be put in a hierarchical order (it's capitalism which establishes such hierarchies)”. 

In a communist organisation it is necessary to fight against any tendency to follow blindly, an error consisting of aligning oneself, without thinking, to the position of a "clear militant" or to a central organ. In a communist organisation, every militant must maintain a critical spirit, not to take anything as read but analyse what the subject is including that coming from the "leadership", the central organs or the "most advanced militants". This is the opposite of the state of things which exists in bourgeois parties and most particularly in their representatives on the left. In these latter organisations blind following and the most extreme respect for the leaders are the norm; and in fact these tendencies already existed in the Trotskyist Opposition: "The letters of Trotsky and Rakovsky, which dealt with the question of the agenda, were smuggled into the prison and gave rise to numerous comments. The hierarchical and submissive spirit in front of the leaders of the Russian Opposition never ceases to amaze. One phrase or a speech from Trotsky was a hallmark. Further, as much as the Trotskyists of the right and left gave these phrases a true meaning, everyone interpreted them in their own way. The complete submission to Lenin and Stalin which reigned in the party was equally present in the Opposition but in relation to Lenin and Trotsky: all the rest was the work of the Devil" (Anton Ciliga, Op. Cit., Page 273).

A very dangerous idea exists which it is necessary to formally reject: there are "expert" militants who, once they have spoken "have said everything", one "couldn't say it better" and others limit themselves to taking notes and keeping quiet.

This vision radically repudiates a proletarian debate which is a dynamic process during the course of which many efforts are made, including some erroneous, in order to confront problems. The superficial vision, rooted in the mercantile logic of only seeing the "product" or the final result without distinguishing it from everything that led to its elaboration, of only focusing on the abstract and timeless value of exchange, leads one to think that everything comes from "brilliant" leaders. Marx did not share this point of view. In a letter addressed to Wilhem Blos in 1877, he wrote: "Neither of us (Marx and Engels) cares a straw for popularity. Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves — originating from various countries — to accord me public honour, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity, nor did I ever reply to them, save with an occasional snub. When Engels and I first joined the secret communist society, we did so only on condition that anything conducive to a superstitious belief in authority be eliminated from the Rules"[14].

During the course of a debate, hypotheses and opposed positions are formulated. Some approximations are made, some errors committed and there are some clearer interventions; but the global result doesn't come from the "most far-seeing militant", rather a dynamic and living synthesis of all of the positions integrated into the discussion. The finally adopted position is not that of those were "right", and it does not imply any antagonism to those who were "wrong"; it is a new and superior position which collectively helps to clarify things.

The obstacles to the development of proletarian debate

Evidently, debate isn't easy within a proletarian organisation. It doesn't evolve in a world apart but it must bear all weight of the dominant ideology and the conception of debate that it carries with it. It is inevitable that "forms of debate" which belong to bourgeois society and which assails us every day through the spectacles of its parties, its television and its rubbish programmes, social networks, electoral campaigns, etc., have infiltrated into the life of proletarian organisations. A constant struggle has to be undertaken against this destructive infiltration. As our text on the culture of debate cited previously shows:

Since the spontaneous tendency within capitalism is not the clarification of ideas but violence, manipulation and the winning of majorities (best exemplified in the electoral circus of bourgeois democracy), the infiltration of this influence within proletarian organisations always contains the germs of crisis and degeneration. The history of the Bolshevik Party illustrates this perfectly. As long as the party was the spearhead of the revolution, the most lively, often controversial debate was one of its main characteristics. As opposed to this, the banning of real fractions (after the Kronstadt massacre of 1921) was a paramount sign and active factor of its degeneration”. 

This text pointed to the poisonous heritage which Stalinism left in the ranks of the workers and which weigh on communists, a good number of whom began their political life in Stalinist, Maoist or Trotskyist organisations and think that the " These militants were brought up politically to believe that exchange of arguments is equivalent to ‘bourgeois liberalism’, that a ‘good communist’ is someone who shuts his mouth and switches off his mind and emotions. The comrades who today are determined to shake off the effects of this moribund product of the counter-revolution increasingly understand that this requires the rejection not only of its positions but also its mentality.”  

In fact, we must fight the mentality which falsifies debate and which festers from every pore of the bourgeois world and particularly vulgar Stalinism and all its appendices, notably those who feign a greater "openness" such as the Trotskyists. It is necessary to be clear and decisive in the defence of a position but that doesn't mean arrogance and brutality. A discussion can be combative but that doesn't mean quarrelsome and aggressive. We can call a spade a spade but one can't deduce from that that one should be insulting and cynical. It is not necessary to look for conciliation and compromise but that shouldn't be confused with sectarianism and a refusal to listen to the arguments of others. Once and for all, we must open up a route out of the milieu of confusion and distortion that Stalinism and its avatars maintain.

Individualism: the enemy of debate

Although the bureaucratic collectivism of the bourgeois parties, with their monolithism and brutal constraints, constitute an obstacle to debate, it's necessary to protect oneself against what appears as its opposition whereas, in reality, it is its complement. We refer here to the individualist vision of debate.

This consists of everyone having "their own opinion" and this "opinion" is private property. Consequently, to criticise the position of a comrade becomes an attack: their "private property" has been violated because it belongs to them. To criticise this or that position of this or that comrade would be the equivalent of stealing from them or taking their food.

This vision is seriously false. Knowledge doesn't give rise to "personal reasonableness" or to the "intimate conviction" of each individual. What we think is part of a historical and social effort linked to labour and the development of the productive forces. What each person says is only "original" if it is involved in a critical manner in a collective effort of thought. The thought of the proletariat is the product of its historic struggle at the world level, a struggle which doesn't limit itself to its economic combats but which, as Engels said, contains three interconnected dimensions: economic, political and ideological struggle.

Every proletarian political organisation is linked in the critical historical continuity of a long chain going from the Communist League (1848) up to the small existing organisations of the Communist Left. In this historic line, positions, ideas, appreciations and the contributions of each militant are involved. While each militant aim to extend knowledge still further, they don't consider this an individual effort but one with the objective of taking as far as possible the clarification of positions and orientations for the whole of the organisation of the proletariat.

The idea that "everyone has their opinion" is a serious obstacle to debate and is complementary to the bureaucratic monolithism of bourgeois parties. In a debate, where everyone has their opinion, the result can either be a conflict between victors and vanquished or it can be a sum of different, useless, contradictory opinions. Individualism is an obstacle to clarity and, as in a monolithic party, the question of "here's my opinion, take it or leave it", means that there is no debate when each person puts forward their "own opinion".

For the development of an international proletarian debate

Proletarian debate has a historic nature; it welcomes the best of scientific and cultural discussion which has existed in the history of humanity: “Fundamentally, the culture of debate is an expression of the eminently social nature of mankind. In particular, it is an emanation of the specifically human use of language. The use of language as a means of exchange of information is something which humanity shares with many animals. What distinguishes mankind from the rest of nature at this level is the capacity to cultivate and exchange argumentation (linked to the development of logic and science), and to get to know each other (the cultivation of empathy, linked among other things to the development of art)”.

The culture of debate has its roots in primitive communism but made some vital advances in Ancient Greece: "Engels for instance refers to the role of the general assemblies of the Greeks of the Homeric phase, of the early Germanic tribes or of the Iroquois of North America, specifically praising the culture of debate of the latter”.

Debate arose in response to practical necessity. In Greece, it develops through the comparison of different sources of knowledge. Different ways of thinking, modes of investigation and their results, production methods, customs and traditions are compared with each other. They are found to contradict, to confirm or to complete each other. They enter into struggle with each other or support one another, or both. Absolute truths are rendered relative by comparison”.

Our text on the Structure and Functioning of the Organisation sums up the fundamental principles of proletarian debate:

  • “rejection of any disciplinary or administrative measure on the part of the organisation with regard to members who raise disagreements: just as the minority must know how to be a minority inside the organisation, the majority must know how to be a majority, and in particular it must not abuse the fact that its position has become the position of the organisation and annihilate debate in any way, for example, by compelling members of the minority to be spokesmen for positions they don't adhere to;
  • the whole organisation is interested in discussion being as wide-ranging and as clear as possible (even when it deals with divergences of principle which can only lead to an organisational separation): it's up to both the minority and the majority to do all they can (obviously without this paralysing or weakening the tasks of the organisation) to convince each other of the validity of their respective analyses, or at least to allow the greatest possible clarity to emerge on the nature and significance of these disagreements.
  • To the extent that the debates going on in the organisation generally concern the whole proletariat they should be expressed publicly”

The proletariat is an international class and for that its debate must have an international and centralised nature. If debate is not an addition of individual opinions, it can no more be the sum of a range of local opinions. The strength of the proletariat is its unity and consciousness which aims to express itself at the world level.

International debate, integrating the contributions and experiences of the proletariat of all countries is what gives clarity and a global vision which makes the proletarian struggle stronger.


C. Mir, 11 July 2018


[2]  Preface to the German edition of 1890 of the Communist Manifesto, Engels.

[3]  See and our international leaflet distributed in 2011 "From indignation to hope".

[4]  Ten days that shook the world, chapter one, John Reed

[5] International Review no. 33 (January 1982).

[6]  See our article in Spanish "Electoral debate is the opposite of a real debate".

[7]   In the garrison of Kronstadt, close to Saint Petersburg, sailors and workers rose up. Soviet power brutally repressed this movement which signified a very important step towards the degeneration of the proletarian bastion of Russia (see In a false conclusion from these events, the Bolshevik Party, now in full opportunist degeneration, decided at its Tenth Congress to temporarily forbid fractions within the party.

[8]  An "isolation" prison in Verkhneuralsk on the Ural River.

[9]  The Russian Enigma

[10]  In the war of succession in the Spanish conservative Popular Party (PP), the six candidates proclaimed daily that they were "friends".

[11]  A recent example of this was the celebration of the last party congress of the ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Left Republic of Catalonia, an independentist party) during which the leadership imposed a "conciliatory" line with central Spanish government. However it allowed its rank-and-file to "radicalise" its intervention with a hotchpotch of "independent" and "disobedient" amendments which referred to both "autonomy" within Spain and independence from it.

[12]  See, International Review no. 131, fourth quarter, 2007.

[13]  See "Lenin's April Thesis, signpost to the proletarian revolution"  in International Review no. 89


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