Report on the question of the historic course

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According to the materialist conception of history developed by Marx, the contradictions of the capitalist system lead to a historic alternative: socialism or barbarism; either a struggle leading to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat or the mutual ruin of these contending classes and society itself.

Understanding the development of the class struggle within capitalism – its different historical stages, its advances and retreats, the changing relative strengths of the adversaries – has therefore been of decisive importance for the analyses of the communist vanguard of the proletariat and an intrinsic aspect of the application of the marxist method.

The major changes in the parameters of the world situation in 1989, brought about by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the entry of decadent capitalism into its final phase of social decomposition, led the organisation to take into account the growing difficulties of the proletariat in this new situation, and to modify its analyses of the dynamic of society in relation to the balance of forces between the classes. In point of fact, this analysis, contained in the text on the Historic Course (HC78) from the 3rd Congress of the ICC in 1978[1] was no longer entirely appropriate to a post-1989 world where imperialist rivalries would no longer be channeled into the confrontation of two imperialist blocs and where the resulting capitalist response of another imperialist world war was removed from the historical agenda for the foreseeable future. The texts produced by the ICC immediately after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc such as on “Militarism and Decomposition” (IR64,1991), the “Theses on Decomposition” (IR62, 1990), the article “After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, destabilisation and chaos, (IR61, 1990), already clearly framed the scenario of the world balance of class forces in a different way to the paradigm of the HC78 text.

In the intervening two decades the ICC has elaborated this change of analysis of the balance of class forces, and of what this implies for the dynamic of society, in many texts and articles, particularly in published reports and resolutions on the class struggle for its International Congresses, confirming in particular the increased difficulties and threats to the proletariat created by the period of the social decomposition of capitalism.

In this regard for example, we can point to the report on the class struggle for the ICC 13th Congress in 1999 (IR99) or the report on the class struggle for the 14th Congress in 2001 (IR107) which was subtitled “The concept of the historic course in the revolutionary movement”.

Other articles dealing with the problem of the balance of class forces in the period of decomposition should also be taken into account, such as “Why the proletariat has not yet overthrown capitalism” (IR 103 and 104), and the articles “Understanding the decomposition of capitalism”, that of IR 117 in particular.[2]

However, despite having developed the main theoretical elements to understand what has changed in the balance of class forces the organisation up to now has carried out no specific re-examination of the HC78 text. Obviously a rectification of this anomaly – even if belated – is required if we are to be scrupulously true to our historical method of not only amending or changing our analysis and argumentation in light of major events but also of justifying this change in specific reference to the original analysis. Our political method has never been to abandon previous positions or analyses without publicly settling accounts with what went before, because an ahistorical invariance or monolithism is impossible and a barrier to the clarification of class consciousness. What remains valid in the HC78 text, what has been overtaken by the changed historical context within decadent capitalism, and how the latter has revealed the limitations of the HC78 text must be more explicitly understood and explained, in order that any remaining anachronisms can be revealed and clarified.

A summary of the points of the HC78 text.

Point 1) Revolutionaries need to make predictions. In fact it is a specific capacity and need of human consciousness to predict (cf Marx’s comparison of the instinctive bee with the conscious human architect). Marxism, as a scientific method, like science as a whole,
“by transforming a series of experiences into predictions, and by confronting these predictions with new experiences the researcher can verify (or invalidate) these hypotheses and advance his understanding”[3]

Marxism bases its prediction of the communist revolution on a scientific, materialist analysis of the collapse of capitalism and of the class interests of the revolutionary proletariat.

This general and long term perspective is relatively straightforward for Marxists. The difficulty for revolutionaries comes in making medium term predictions of whether the class struggle is advancing or retreating. In the first place Marxism cannot obviously rely on controlled experiments as laboratory science can.

 Point 2) Moreover the proletarian class struggle is characterised by very different periods of evolution, of extreme troughs and peaks, as a result of the fact that the working class is an exploited class with no power base in the old society and therefore destined for long periods of subjection. The relatively short upsurges of its combat are determined by periods of crisis in capitalism (economic crisis and war).  The proletariat cannot advance from strength to strength as new exploiting classes have been able to do in the past. In fact, the proletariat’s final victory is conditioned by a long series of painful defeats. Hence Marx’s statement in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon of 1852 about the extremely uneven evolution of the class struggle[4]. The existence of such a jagged development of the class struggle was obvious in the past but the length and depth of the counter revolution between 1923 and 1968 has tended to obscure it.

Point 3) Nevertheless, accurate medium-term predictions by revolutionaries for the evolution of the balance of class forces are essential. The consequences of mistakes in this regard are eloquent: the adventurism of Willich-Schapper after the defeats of the 1848 revolutions; the KAPD’s ‘theory of the offensive’ as the revolutionary wave ebbed in the 1920s, Trotsky’s inauguration of the 4th International in 1938 in the depths of the counter revolution.

In contrast to these examples some predictions have been shown to be perfectly valid: Marx and Engels recognising that after 1849 and 1871 a period of working class retreat was inevitable; Lenin’s prediction in the April Theses of 1917 of the flood tide of the world revolution; the Italian left’s identification of the 30s as a period of decisive defeat.

Points 4/5/11) Predicting the direction of the class struggle indicates whether revolutionaries swim with or against the stream. Mistakes or ignorance about what this direction is can be catastrophic. This has been particularly true in capitalist decadence where the stakes, imperialist war or proletarian revolution, are so much higher than in the period of capitalist ascendancy.

Point 6) The opposition and mutual exclusion of the two terms of the historic alternative, war or revolution. While the crisis of decadent capitalism can result in either of these alternatives, the latter do not develop in unison but antagonistically. This point is addressed particularly to Battaglia Comunista and the CWO who saw, and still see, world war and revolution as equally possible in the period since 1968.

Points 7/8) These points are dedicated to showing that the imperialist world wars of the 20th century and particularly that of 1939-45 could only unfold once the proletariat had been defeated, once its revolutionary attempts were crushed and once it had then been mobilised behind the war ideologies of its respective imperialist masters with the help of the treachery of former workers’ parties which had crossed to the other side of the class line.

Point 9) The situation of the proletariat since 1968 is not the same as it was prior to the previous two world wars. It is undefeated and combative, resistant to the mobilising ideologies of the imperialist blocs, and thus provides a barrier to the unleashing of a third world war.

Point 10) All the military and economic conditions for a new world war already exist, only the adhesion of the proletariat is missing, a point also addressed to Battaglia who had other, implausible, explanations for why world war had not broken out yet.

Commentary on the HC78

What remains true in the text.

The first five points of the HC78 text retain all their relevance to the importance and necessity for revolutionaries to forecast the future evolution of the class struggle: the vindication of the need for such predictions from the point of view of the marxist method; the pertinency of the historical examples which show the critical nature of the forecasts of revolutionaries concerning the class struggle and the serious consequences of mistakes in this regard; the arguments against the indifference or agnosticism of Battaglia and the CWO on this question.

The central argument of the text also retains all its validity for the period 1914-1989. With the onset of the period of the decadence of capitalism the conditions of the evolution of the balance of class forces changed fundamentally from those of the period of ascendance.  The tendency of imperialism in the period of decadence to lead to world-wide conflagrations between rival blocs requiring the mobilisation of the working class en masse as cannon fodder broke out with full force in the First World War.  The outbreak of hostilities depended on a political defeat of the main battalions of the world proletariat. The Social Democratic Parties and the trade unions, putrefied by a long process of opportunist and revisionist degeneration, failed at the critical moment in 1914, and, apart from a few exceptions, abandoned internationalism and joined the war effort of their own national imperialisms, dragging the disoriented working class behind it. The experience of the unprecedented slaughter of workers in uniform in the trenches and the misery on the ‘home front’ however led, after a few years, to the recovery of the weight of the proletariat on the scales of the balance of class forces and opened a world revolutionary wave from 1917-1923, which as a consequence obliged the bourgeoisie to bring the war to an end to forestall the contagion of proletarian revolution.

From the First World War onwards therefore the notion of a historic course in the class struggle toward either war or revolution acquired a profound veracity. In order to impose its military response to the crises of capitalist decadence imperialism required the defeat of the revolutionary aspirations of the proletariat and, when these were crushed, its mobilisation behind the interests of the bourgeoisie. Conversely a resurgent proletariat provided a major obstacle to this endeavour and opened the possibility of the proletariat’s solution: communist revolution.

The defeat of the revolution in Russia and in Germany and elsewhere in the 1920s facilitated the course to a Second World War. Contrary to the period that followed the First World War, the period after the Second did not see a reversal of the course, the proletariat having been defeated not only politically but also physically by the unprecedented brutality  and terror of Stalinism and fascism on the one hand and democratic anti-fascism on the other before, during and immediately after the mass carnage. No revolutionary wave emerged from the ruins of the 1939-45 war as it had from the war of 1914-18. This situation of continued proletarian defeat did not however lead to a third world war after 1945, as revolutionaries at the time thought it would. The 1950s and 60s entailed a long economic reconstruction and a protracted Cold War, with proxy local wars. During this period, the proletariat gradually recovered its strength, and the weight of the war ideologies of the 30s receded. With the outbreak of a new world economic crisis, a new resurgence of class struggle began in 1968 which frustrated another imperialist solution of a third world war. But the working class wasn’t able to move from its defensive struggles to a revolutionary offensive. The collapse of one of the two contending imperialist blocs, the Eastern Bloc, in 1989, effectively put an end to the possibility of world war, although imperialist war itself continued to accelerate in a chaotic form under the impulse of the worsening world economic crisis. 

Where the HC78 text is no longer applicable.

To understand this problem we will first quote extensively from a plenary meeting of our international central organ in January 1990:

 “In the period of capitalist decadence, all states are imperialist, and take the necessary measures to satisfy their appetites: war economy, arms production, etc. We must state clearly that the deepening convulsions of the world economy can only sharpen the opposition between different states, including and increasingly on the military level. The difference, in the coming period, will be that these antagonisms which were previously contained and used by the two great imperialist blocs will now come to the fore. The disappearance of the Russian imperialist gendarme, and that to come of the American gendarme, as far as its one-time "partners" are concerned, opens the door to the unleashing of a whole series of more local rivalries. For the moment, these rivalries and confrontations cannot degenerate into a world war (even supposing that the proletariat were no longer capable of putting up a resistance). However, with the disappearance of the discipline imposed by the two blocs, these conflicts are liable to become more frequent and more violent, especially of course in those areas where the proletariat is weakest…

... the trend towards a new division of the world between two military blocs is thwarted, and may even be definitively compromised, by the increasingly deep and widespread phenomenon of the decomposition of capitalist society as we have already highlighted (see International Review No. 57)

In such a context of loss of control of the situation by the world bourgeoisie, it is not likely that the dominant sectors of the world bourgeoisie are today in a position to implement the organisation and discipline necessary for the reconstitution of military blocs…

…This is why it is fundamental to highlight that, if the solution of the proletariat - communist revolution - is the only one that can oppose the destruction of humanity (which constitutes the only ‘response’ that the bourgeoisie can provide to its crisis), this destruction would not necessarily result from a third world war. It could also result from the continuation, up to its extreme consequences (ecological disasters, epidemics, famines, unleashed local wars, etc.) of this decomposition.

The historical alternative ‘Socialism or Barbarism’, as highlighted by marxism, after having materialised in the form of ‘Socialism or World Imperialist War’ during most of the 20th century, has become more specific in the terrifying form of ‘Socialism or Destruction of Humanity’ during the last decades due to the development of atomic weapons. Today, after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, this perspective remains entirely valid. But it should be emphasised that such destruction may come from generalised imperialist war OR from the decomposition of society. (…)

Even if the world war cannot, at the present time, and perhaps definitively, constitute a threat to the life of humanity, this threat may very well come, as we have seen, from the decomposition of society. And this is all the more so since if the unleashing of the world war requires the adherence of the proletariat to the ideals of the bourgeoisie, a phenomenon which is by no means on the agenda at the moment for its decisive battalions, decomposition does not need such adherence to destroy humanity. Indeed, the decomposition of society does not, strictly speaking, constitute a ‘response’ of the bourgeoisie to the open crisis of the world economy. In reality, this phenomenon may develop precisely because the ruling class is not in a position, due to the non-recruitment of the proletariat, to provide its own specific response to this crisis, the world war and the mobilisation for it. The working class, by developing its struggles (as it has done since the late 1960s), by not allowing itself to be enrolled behind bourgeois flags, can prevent the bourgeoisie from unleashing world war. On the other hand, only the overthrow of capitalism can stop the decomposition of society. Just as the struggles of the proletariat in this system cannot in any way oppose the economic collapse of capitalism, so the struggles of the proletariat in this system cannot constitute an obstacle to its decomposition. "

Thus, 1989 marks a fundamental change in the general dynamics of capitalist society in decadence.

Before that date, the balance of power between the classes was the determining factor in this dynamic: it was on this balance of power that the outcome of the exacerbation of the contradictions of capitalism depended: either the unleashing of the world war, or the development of class struggle with, in perspective, the overthrow of capitalism.

After that date, this general dynamic of capitalist decadence is no longer directly determined by the balance of power between classes. Whatever the balance of power, world war is no longer on the agenda, but capitalism will continue to sink into decay, since social decomposition tends to spiral out of the control of the contending classes.

In the paradigm that dominated most of the 20th century, the notion of a "historical course" defined the two possible outcomes of a historical trend: either world war or class clashes. Once the proletariat had suffered a decisive defeat (as on the eve of 1914 or as a result of the crushing of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23), world war became inevitable. In the paradigm that defines the current situation (until two new imperialist blocs are reconstituted, which may never happen), it is quite possible that the proletariat will suffer a deep defeat without this having a decisive consequence for the general evolution of society. One may wonder, of course, whether such a defeat could have the consequence of permanently preventing the proletariat from raising its head. We would then have to talk about a definitive defeat that would lead to the end of humanity. Such a possibility cannot be ruled out, particularly given the increasing weight of decomposition. This threat is clearly indicated by the 9th Congress Manifesto: "Communist Revolution or Destruction of Humanity". But we cannot make a prognosis in this direction, neither in relation to the current situation of weakness of the working class, nor even if this situation worsens further. This is why the concept of the "historical course" is no longer able to define the dynamic of the current world situation and the balance of power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the period of decomposition. Having become a concept inadequate for this new period, it has to be abandoned.

To conclude: the HC78 text, while preserving all its veracity from the point of view of method and the analysis of the period 1914–1989,  is now limited, firstly, by having been overtaken by major and unprecedented historic events; secondly by its tendency to identify the notion of historical course and the notion of the evolution of the balance of power between classes as the same, whereas they are not identical. In particular, the HC78 text speaks of the historical course to describe the different moments of class struggle in the 19th century when, in fact:

- an increase in workers' struggles did not mean the prospect of a revolutionary period at a time when proletarian revolution was not yet on the agenda, nor could it prevent a major war from breaking out (for example, the war between France and Prussia in 1870 when the power of the proletariat was rising);

- a major defeat of the proletariat (such as the crushing of the Paris Commune) did not result in a new war.

In a way, this tendency to mistakenly identify the historical course with the balance of class forces in general is similar to the imprecise way the concept of opportunism has been used. For some time, there was, within the ICC and more broadly in the political milieu, an identification between opportunism and reformism. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, even if such an identification was already a mistake, it was based on a reality: indeed, at that time, one of the major manifestations of opportunism was constituted by reformism. But with the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence, reformism no longer has its place in the workers’ movement: organisations or currents that advocate the replacement of capitalism by socialism through progressive reforms of the current system necessarily belong to the side of the bourgeoisie, while opportunism continues to constitute a disease that can affect, and carry away, proletarian organisations.

We have tended, on the basis of what the working class experienced during the 20th century, to identify the notion of the evolution of the balance of power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat with the notion of a “historical course”, whereas the latter indicates a fundamental alternative outcome, the world war or revolution, a sanction of this balance of power. In a way, the current historical situation is similar to that of the 19th century: the balance of power between classes can evolve in one direction or another without decisively affecting the life of society. Similarly, this balance of power or its evolution cannot be described as a "course". In this sense, the term "defeat of the proletariat", if it retains all its operational value in the current period, can no longer have the same meaning as in the period before 1989. What is important, on the other hand, is to take into account and study constantly, the evolution of the balance of power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat: can we consider that this evolution is in favour of the proletariat (which does not yet mean that there can be no turning back) or that we are in a dynamic of the weakening of the class (knowing that this dynamic can also be reversed).

In a more general and long term sense dispensing with the concept of the “historic course” brings into sharper relief  the need of revolutionary marxists to make a more profound historical study of the entire evolution of the proletarian class struggle in order to better understand the criteria for evaluating the balance of class forces in the period of capitalist decomposition.


[1] Published in the International Review 18

[2] This article notes the indifference of other groups of the communist left to this question, and their peremptory dismissal of the analyses of the ICC as ‘non-marxist’, which indicates they can, as yet, make no theoretical contribution to this vital question of the evolution of the balance of class forces… particularly as they have forgotten the famous first line of the Communist Manifesto and thus an essential precept of historical materialism.

In regard to the parasites the article remarks on the attack of the police-like “Internal Fraction of the ICC”  (today the IGCL) on the ICC report on the class struggle from the 14th ICC Congress, and its analysis of the effect of capitalist decomposition on the class struggle, as an ‘opportunist’ and ‘revisionist’ ‘liquidation of the class struggle’, even though the stooges of this group agreed with this analysis when they were members of the ICC only a short while before. Organisational treachery goes hand in hand with political idiocy in the parasitic milieu.

[3] “The historic course”, IR 18

[4] “Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day – but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer [hangover] takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticise themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite immensity of their own goals – until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:

Hic Rhodus, hic salta!”