The report on the question of the historic course from the 23rd ICC Congress, which we are publishing here, confirms a significant change of analysis in relation to the one elaborated in a basic ICC text from 1978 entitled “The historic course” (International Review 18).
Briefly, this change in analysis flows directly from the modification of the world situation that followed the fall of the eastern imperialist bloc, which led in turn to the disintegration of the western bloc. In this new situation, which marked the definite entry of the world into capitalism’s period of decomposition, it was necessary to analyse the consequently significant change in the evolution of the balance of forces between the classes; in particular the fact that the alternative between revolution and the destruction of humanity through world war was no longer posed in the same terms, given that, with the disappearance of the imperialist blocs, world war was no longer on the agenda.
By making the necessary change in our analysis, we were adopting the method of Marx and the marxist movement since its inception, which consists of changing positions, analyses and even the programme as a whole as soon as it no longer corresponds to the march of history; this is fully in line with the goals of marxism as a revolutionary theory. The most celebrated example of this is the important modifications which Marx and Engels made to the Communist Manifesto itself, summarised in the later prefaces they added to this fundamental text, in the light of the historic changes that had taken place.
“Marxism is a revolutionary world outlook which must always strive for new discoveries, which completely despises rigidity in once-valid theses, and whose living force is best preserved in the intellectual clash of self-criticism and the rough and tumble of history” (Rosa Luxemburg, An Anti-critique)
Rosa’s insistence, in this period, on the necessity to reconsider prior analyses in order to remain faithful to the nature and method of marxism as a revolutionary theory was directly linked to the profound significance of the First World War. The 1914-18 war marked a turning point in capitalism as a mode of production, its passage from a period of ascent and progress to a new period of decadence and collapse which fundamentally changed the conditions and the programme of the workers’ movement. But only the left wing of the Second International began to recognise that the previous period had definitely ended and that the proletariat was now entering into the “epoch of wars and revolution” as the Third International was to call it. The opportunist right of Social Democracy had falsely claimed that the first inter-imperialist war was a war of national defence like the limited, minor wars of the 19th century – and thus joined forces with the imperialist bourgeoisie – while the centrist wing argued that the war was just a temporary aberration and that things would go back to normal after the cessation of hostilities. The representatives of these two currents ended up fighting against the revolutionary proletarian wave which put an end to the First World War, whereas the leading figures of these proletarian uprisings such as Rosa, Lenin and Trotsky, in the newly formed Communist parties, preserved the “honour of international socialism” by setting aside the outmoded formulae of social democracy, which were now being used to justify the counter-revolution.
The unprecedented changes marked by the end of the Cold War in 1989 were not of the same breadth of those of 1914. But they did mark a significant step in the development of capitalist decadence, coinciding with the emergence of its final phase, the phase of social decomposition. While the turning point of 1989 did not change the programme of the working class, which retains its validity throughout the decadence of capitalism, it did imply a major change with regard to the conditions within which the class struggle had evolved up until then, in the seven decades between 1914 and 1989. The report we are publishing here is a contribution to the critical effort to develop a marxist analysis of this major turning point in world history.
In 1989, at the time of these world-shaking events, the ICC was already analysing, in various texts, the very important changes taking place. In the Theses on Decomposition (IR 62, 1990) and the text “Militarism and Decomposition” (IR 64, 1991), the ICC predicted that the ensuing period would be dominated by an accelerated putrefaction, the descent into chaos of a dying system, still suffering the violent and destructive contradictions of capitalist decadence but in a new form and context. The resurgence of the proletarian class struggle, which had begun in 1968 and which had prevented a third world war from being unleashed, would now come up against new difficulties and a long period of retreat and disorientation, even though the aggravation of the world economic crisis would in the future push the proletariat to take up the struggle again.
Furthermore, the collapse of the eastern bloc had put an end, perhaps definitively, to the division of the world into two armed camps, which had been the principal way that the world imperialism had operated in its decadent phase. The first and second world wars, as well as the events that preceded and followed them, showed that capitalism could no longer evolve thanks to colonial expansion as in the 19th century, and that what remained for the rival imperialisms was to attempt to carry out a new division of the world market to their own advantage, through the massacre of war. And this attempt was articulated through a tendency towards the grouping of various countries behind the two most powerful gangsters, a process fully confirmed after 1945. After the 1914-89 period dominated by the division of the world into two rival imperialist blocs, the tendency towards the formation of blocs ceased to be the dominant one in inter-imperialist relations, and each power would from now on follow its own blood-soaked path in a world of “every man for himself”.
The report examines and reaffirms this analysis following the modifications after 1989. But it extends it further.
In 2015, the 21st ICC Congress launched a long-term project of reviewing 40 years of its existence, of “making as lucid an examination as possible of our strengths and weaknesses; of what was valid in our analyses and what errors we have made in order to arm ourselves to overcome them”. (“40 years after the foundation of the ICC”, IR 156)
The report on the question of the historic course from the 23rd Congress is a consequence of this specific effort and pushes forward the analysis already contained in the texts produced 30 years ago, re-examining point by point the original text on the historic course from 1978. In doing so, it concludes that the very term “historic course” can no longer be considered as adequate for covering the conditions pertaining to all historical periods of the class struggle. It applies to the period from Sarajevo in 1914 to the collapse of the USSR in 1989, but not to the periods before and after this. In drawing this conclusion, the report underlines a very important distinction between two different concepts:
- On the one hand, the concept of the historic course, applicable to the period from Sarajevo to the fall of the Berlin wall (including its different phases) and which concerns the dynamic of society during this period, indissolubly linked but not identical to the balance of forces between the classes
- On the other hand, the concept of the balance of forces between the classes, which is applicable to all periods of the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat.
These two concepts - historic course and balance of forces between the classes – are thus neither identical nor synonymous, but the 1978 text doesn’t clearly make this distinction.
We are a happy to say that, prior to its publication, the report has already stimulated a public debate (a number of contributions to our online forum on the question since July), since its main conclusions already figured in the Resolution on the International Situation from the 23rd Congress which had already been published. This is not the time to make a balance sheet of this debate which is only just beginning. But it needs to develop. Critical debate is an essential part of the marxist effort to develop a new understanding as we negotiate the “rough and tumble of history”.