The discussion texts we are publishing here are the product of an internal debate within the ICC regarding the significance and direction of the historical phase in the life of decadent capitalism which was definitively opened up by the collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc in 1989: the phase of decomposition, the terminal phase of capitalist decadence.
Divergences with the International Situation Resolution at the 23rd ICC Congress
At the 23rd ICC Congress, I presented a number of amendments to the resolution on the international situation. This contribution will focus on those of my amendments, rejected by the Congress, revolving around the two central divergences I have with the position of the Congress: on imperialist tensions, and on the global balance of class forces between proletariat and bourgeoisie. There is a red thread linking these disagreements, and it revolves around the question of decomposition. Although the whole organisation shares the same analysis of decomposition as the terminal phase of decadent capitalism, when it comes to applying this framework to the present situation, differences of interpretation come to light. What we all agree on is that this terminal phase was not only inaugurated by, but has its deepest roots in the inability of each of the two main classes of capitalist society to implement their opposing solutions to the crisis of decadent capitalism: generalised war (the bourgeoisie) or world revolution (the proletariat). But, from the point of view of the present position of the organisation, there would appear to be a second essential cause and characteristic of this terminal phase, which is the tendency of each against all: between states, within the ruling class, within bourgeois society at large. On this basis, concerning imperialism, the ICC presently tends to underestimate the tendency towards bi-polarity (and thus towards the eventual reconstitution of imperialist blocs), and with this the growing danger of military confrontations between the big powers themselves. On this same basis, the ICC today, concerning the balance of class forces, tends to underestimate the seriousness of the present loss of revolutionary perspective by the proletariat, leading us to think that it can regain its class identity and begin to reconquer a revolutionary perspective, essentially through defensive workers’ struggles.
For my part, while agreeing that the bourgeois each against all is a very important characteristic of decomposition (playing an enormous role in the inauguration of this terminal phase with the disintegration of the post-World War II imperialist world order), I do not agree that it is one of its main root causes. On the contrary, I remain convinced that the stalemate between the two main classes on account of their inability to impose their own class perspective is the essential cause – and not each against all. For me, the ICC is moving away from our original position on decomposition by giving “each against all” a similar causal importance as the absence of perspective. As I understand it, the organisation is moving towards the position that, with decomposition, there is a new factor which did not yet exist in previous phases of decadent capitalism. This factor is the predominance of each against all, of the centrifugal forces, whereas, prior to decomposition, the tendency towards bloc discipline, the centripetal forces, tended to get the upper hand. For me, as opposed to this, there is no major tendency in the phase of decomposition which did not already exist beforehand in the period of decadence. The new quality of the phase of decomposition consists in the fact that all of the already existing contradictions are exacerbated to the hilt. This goes for the tendency of each against all, which also becomes exacerbated to the hilt under decomposition. But the tendency towards wars between leading powers is also exacerbated, as are all the tensions around the move towards new blocs, the attempts by the United States to put down new challengers, etc.
1. The divergences on imperialism
This is why I submitted the following amendment to point 15 of the resolution, recalling the continuing existence of imperialist bi-polarity (the development of a main rivalry between two leading powers), and the dangers this poses for the future of humanity:
“During the period of military blocs after 1945, there were two kinds of war mainly on the agenda:
- an eventual World War III, which would probably have led to the annihilation of humankind
-proxy local wars more or less well controlled by the two bloc leaders.
At present, although World War III is not on the agenda, this does not mean that the tendency towards bipolarity of imperialist antagonisms has disappeared. The rise and expansion of China, which might eventually be able to challenge the United States, is at present the main expression of this (for the moment still clearly secondary) tendency towards the formation of new blocs.
As for the phenomenon of local wars, they have of course continued unabated in the absence of blocs, but have a much stronger tendency to get out of control, given the number of regional and of great powers involved, and the degree and extent of the destruction and chaos they cause. In this context, the danger is greater than before of the use of atomic bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, and of direct military clashes even between the great powers themselves.”
The rejection of this amendment by the Congress speaks for itself. We are turning our back on what is probably the most important single danger of war between the big powers in the coming years: that the United States will use its still existing military superiority against China in an attempt to halt the rise of the latter. In other words, the danger at present is indeed not that of a world war between two imperialist blocs, but of military adventures aimed at either mounting or preventing a challenge to the existing imperialist status quo, and which would be prone to becoming an uncontrollable global conflagration very different from the two world wars of the 20th century. Today’s Sino-American rivalry resembles that at the time of World War I between the rising challenger Germany and the existing world power Britain. The latter conflict led to the decline of both. But this was taking place on a European scale, whereas today, it is happening on a world scale, so that there is no longer any third party (like America in the two World Wars) waiting to step in from outside to reap the benefits. Today, the “no future” will most probably be for everyone. Far from being excluded by our theory of decomposition, the contemporary conflicts between the big powers striking confirm it.
In a reply on our website to a critique of this part of the 23rd Congress resolution by an ICC sympathiser (Mark Hayes), after affirming that “Militarism and imperialist war are still fundamental characteristics of this final phase of decadence,” we add “even if the imperialist blocs have disappeared and are probably not going to form again.” In the same reply, we argue: “The perspective is towards local and regional wars, their spread towards the very centres of capitalism through the proliferation of terrorism, along with growing ecological disaster, and the general putrefaction.” Regional wars, the proliferation of terrorism, ecological disasters: yes! But why do we so carefully exclude from this perspective the danger of military clashes between the great powers? And why do we affirm that imperialist blocs are probably not going to form again? In fact, what we tend to forget is that “each against all” is but one pole of a contradiction, the other pole of which is the tendency towards bipolarity and imperialist blocs.
The tendency towards each against all, and the tendency towards bipolarity, both exist permanently and simultaneously in decadent capitalism. The general tendency is for the one to get the upper hand over the other, so that one is primordial and the other secondary. But neither of them ever disappear. Even at the high point of the cold war (when the world was divided into two blocs remaining stable over decades) the tendency towards each against all never fully disappeared (there were military confrontations between members of the same bloc on both sides). Even at the high point of each against all, and the overwhelming superiority of the United States (after 1989) the tendency towards blocs never fully disappeared (the Balkan and eastern European policy of Germany after its unification). Moreover, the domination of the one tendency can quickly pass over to the other, since they are not mutually exclusive. The imperialist each against all of the 1920s, for instance (mitigated only by the fear of the proletarian revolution) transformed itself into the bloc constellation of World War II. The bipolarity of the post-war era quickly transformed itself into an unprecedented each against all in 1989. All of this is not new. It is the position the ICC has always defended.
The main obstacle to the tendency towards imperialist bipolarity in decadent capitalism is not each against all, but the absence of a candidate strong enough to mount a global challenge to the leading power. This was the case after 1989. The reinforcement of the bipolar tendency in recent years is therefore above all the result of the rise of China.
At this level, we have a problem of assimilation of our own position. If we think that each against all is a major cause of decomposition, the very idea that the opposite pole, that of bi-polarity, is presently regaining strength, and might someday even gain the upper hand, necessarily appears to be a putting in question of our position on decomposition. It is true that, around 1989, it was the falling apart of the eastern bloc (making its western counterpart redundant), which inaugurated the phase of decomposition, triggering off the biggest explosion of “each against all” in modern history. But this each against all was the result, not the cause, of deeper lying developments: the stalemate between the classes. At the heart of these developments there was the loss of perspective, the all prevailing “no future” which characterises this terminal phase. More recently, the contemporary wave of political populism is another manifestation of this fundamental lack of perspective on the part of the whole ruling class. This is why I proposed the following amendment to point 4 of the resolution:
“Contemporary populism is another clear sign of a society heading towards war:
- the rise of populism itself is not least a product of the growing aggressivity and destruction impulses generated by present day bourgeois society
- since, however, this ‘spontaneous’ aggressiveness is not in itself sufficient to mobilise society for war, todays populist movements are needed to this end by the ruling class.
In other words, they are at once a symptom and an active factor of the drive towards war”.
This amendment was also rejected by the congress. In the words of the amendment commission:
“We do not disagree with the fact that populism is part of a growing climate of violence in society, but we think there is a difference of conception about the march towards war which does not correspond to the general approach of the resolution.” This is very true. The intention of the amendment was to modify, indeed correct the resolution on this point. (The amendment commission, by the way, gave the same argument for its rejection of the amendment to point 15, see above). It wanted not only to ring the alarm bells in relation to the growing danger of war, but also to show that the particular irrationality of populism is only one part of the irrationality of the bourgeois class as a whole. This irrationality is already a major feature of decadent capitalism, long before decomposition: the tendency for growing parts of the ruling class to act in a manner damaging to its own interests. Thus, all the main European powers emerged weakened from the First World War, and the challenge to the whole rest of the world by Germany and Japan in the Second World War already had something of a suicidal running amok. But this tendency was not yet an all-prevailing one. In particular, the United States profited both economically and militarily from its participation in both world wars. And it could even be argued that, for the western bloc, the Cold War turned out to have a certain rationality, since its policy of military containment and economic strangulation contributed to the collapse of its eastern counterpart without a world war. As opposed to this, in the phase of decomposition, it is the world’s leading power itself, the United States, which is in the vanguard of creating chaos, of running amok, and it is difficult to see how anyone could benefit from wars between the US and China. Irrationality and “no future” are the two sides of the same coin, a major tendency of decadent capitalism. In this context, when some of the populist currents in continental western Europe now advocate preferentially doing business in future with Russia or China, and are ready to break with their preferred “Anglo-Saxon” enemies (the United States and Britain), this is clearly an expression of “no future”. But, in opposing them, the rationality of the likes of Angela Merkel consists in the recognition that, if the polarisation between America and China continues to accentuate like at present, that Germany would have no choice but to take the side of the US, knowing that it would, under no circumstances, allow Europe to fall under “Asian” domination.
2. The divergences on the balance of class forces
Moving on to the part of the resolution on the class struggle, fundamentally the same divergence about the application of the concept of decomposition becomes apparent. A key part of the resolution is point 5, since it deals with the problems of the class struggle in the 1980s – the decade at the end of which the phase of decomposition begins. Summarising the lessons of this decade, it concludes as follows:
“But worse still, with this strategy of divide the workers and encouraging ‘each for themselves’, the bourgeoisie and its trade unions were able to present defeats of the working class as victories.
Revolutionaries must not underestimate the Machiavellianism of the bourgeoisie in the evolution of the balance of class forces. This Machiavellianism can only continue with the aggravation of attacks on the exploited class. The stagnation of the class struggle, then its retreat at the end of the 80s, resulted from the capacity of the ruling class to turn certain manifestations of the decomposition of bourgeoisie society, especially the tendency towards ‘each for themselves’, against the working class.”
Point 5 is right to underline the importance of the negative impact of “each for themselves” on the workers’ struggles at the time. It is also right to underline the Machiavellianism of the ruling class in promoting this mentality. What is striking, however, is that the problem of lack of perspective is absent from this analysis of the difficulties of the class struggle. Which is all the more remarkable since the 1980s have gone down in history as the “no future” decade. It is the same approach we have already encountered concerning imperialism. Events are analysed above all from the point of view of each against all, to the detriment of the problem of lack of perspective. In order to correct this, I proposed the following amendment, to be added at the end of the point:
“However, these confrontations with the trade unions in no way reversed, or even brought to a halt, the regression at the level of the revolutionary perspective. This was even more the case in the 1980s than in the 1970s. The two most important and massive workers’ struggles of the decade (Poland 1980, the British miners) resulted in an enhanced prestige of the trade unions involved”.
The congress rejected this amendment. The argument given for this by the Amendments Commission (AC) was:
“The regression in the revolutionary perspective began with the fall of the Stalinist regimes in 1989. Poland 1980 did not have the same characteristics as the sectional struggle of the miners in Britain in 1984-5. In Poland, there was a dynamic of the mass strike, with the geographic extension of the movement and self-organisation in sovereign general assemblies (MKS) in a Stalinist country, before the foundation of the Solidarnosc union. Poland 1980 was the last movement of the second wave of struggles. Because of the loss of acquisitions, we need to reread our analyses of the third wave of struggles”.
This at least has the merit of being clear: before 1989, there was no regression in the revolutionary perspective. But how does it correlate with our analysis of decomposition? According to this analysis, it was the inability of the two main classes to advance their own solutions which caused and led to the phase of decomposition. If the latter begins in 1989, what caused it must already have existed beforehand: the absence of perspective – whether from the bourgeoisie or from the proletariat. The Amendments Commission, but also point 5 of the resolution itself, cite Poland as proof that there was no regression in the perspective before 89. But, if anything, Poland proves the opposite. The first wave of struggles of a new and undefeated generation of the proletariat, beginning 1968 in France and 1969 in Italy, produced a new generation of revolutionary minorities. The ICC itself is a product of this process. As opposed to this, the wave of struggles of the late 1970s, culminating in the mass strike 1980 in Poland, produced nothing of the kind. And what followed, in the 1980s, was a crisis affecting the whole of the existing proletarian political milieu. None of the big workers’ struggles of the 1980s produced either a political élan in the class as a whole, or a revolutionary élan among its revolutionary minorities anything like that of the previous decade. Ignoring this, the resolution presents things as if each for themselves was the main weakness, carefully separated from the question of the perspective. This approach of the Congress is also underlined in the rejection of another amendment formulation I made, and which said that “Already before the world historic events of 1989, the class struggle was ‘treading on the spot’ at the level of combativeness and regressing in relation to the revolutionary perspective”. The argument of the Amendments Commission. “This amendment introduces the idea that there was a continuity between the difficulties of the class struggle in the 1980s (treading on the spot) and the rupture provoked by the collapse of the eastern bloc.” So, there is no “continuity’? One can of course argue as such. But has this anything to do with our analysis of the stalemate between the classes being the cause of decomposition? 1989 was indeed a rupture, but one with a prehistory of class struggle, as well as of imperialist struggle. Although this idea of “each for oneself” as being central to decomposition, something like on a par with the absence of perspective, is not (or not yet?) the official position of the organisation, I would argue that it is at least implicit in the argumentation of this resolution.
In point 6 of the resolution, the events around 1989, and their connection with the class struggle, are dealt with like this:
“As the third wave of struggles began to wear out in the late 1980s, a major event in the international situation, the spectacular collapse of the Eastern bloc and the Stalinist regimes in 1989, dealt a brutal blow to the dynamics of class struggle, thus changing the balance of forces between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the benefit of the latter in a major way. This event loudly announced the entry of capitalism into the final phase of its decadence: that of decomposition. When Stalinism collapsed, it did one last service to the bourgeoisie. It allowed the ruling class to put an end to the dynamic of class struggle which, with advances and setbacks, had developed over two decades.
Indeed, insofar as it was not the struggle of the proletariat but the rotting of capitalist society on its feet that put an end to Stalinism, the bourgeoisie was able to exploit this event to unleash a gigantic ideological campaign aimed at perpetuating the greatest lie in history: the identification of communism with Stalinism. In doing so, the ruling class dealt an extremely violent blow to the consciousness of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie's deafening campaigns on the so-called ‘bankruptcy of communism’ have led to a regression of the proletariat in its march towards its historical perspective of overthrowing capitalism. They were a major blow against its class identity”.
Here, the dramatic events of 1989 appear to have nothing to do with the global balance of class forces. This assumption, however, stands in contradiction, not only with our theory of decomposition, but also with our theory of the historic course. According to the ICC, it was the eastern bloc, after 1968, which, because it was falling more and more behind on most other levels, needed to seek a military resolution of the Cold War. Attacking in Europe with “conventional” means of warfare (where the balance of forces was not so unfavourable to it), the Warsaw Pact would have to pin its hopes on its western foe (out of fear of MAD - “Mutually Assured Destruction”) not daring to retaliate at the nuclear level. But, during the 1979s and 80s, the eastern bloc was unable to play this card, and one of the main reasons was that it could not rely on the compliance of its “own” working class. This however would be essential for warfare on such a scale. At this level, the mass strike 1980 in Poland was a massive vindication of our analysis. Soviet troops, mobilised at the time near the border in preparation of an invasion of Poland, mutinied, the soldiers refusing to march against their class sisters and brothers in Poland. But Poland 1980 demonstrated not only that the proletariat was an obstacle to world war, but also that it was unable to go beyond this blocking of its opponent in order to advance its own revolutionary alternative. The working class in the west would have had to jump into the breach. But in the 1980s it was unable to do so. The stage was thus set for the stalemate ushering in the phase of decomposition at the end of the decade. The resolution is perfectly right that the collapse of Stalinism 1989, and the maximum use made of this by bourgeois propaganda, was the main blow against the combativeness, the class identity, the class consciousness of the proletariat. What I contest is the affirmation that this was not prepared before by the stalemate between the classes, and in particular by the weakening of the presence of the perspective on the side of the proletariat. Apparently without realising it, the resolution itself admits the existence of this link between 1989 and beforehand when it writes (point 6) that the bourgeoisie was able to exploit this event “insofar as it was not the struggle of the proletariat but the rotting of capitalist society on its feet that put an end to Stalinism.”
The workers’ struggles of the late 1960s ended the counter-revolution, not only because they were massive, spontaneous and often self-organised, but also because they broke out of the ideological stranglehold of the Cold War according to which one had either to be on the side of “communism” (the eastern bloc) or of “democracy” (the western bloc). With the workers’ combat of the 60s appeared the idea of a struggle against the ruling class both east and west, of marxism against Stalinism, of a revolution by means of workers’ councils leading to real communism. This first politicisation (as the resolution points out) was successfully countered by the ruling class during the 1970s. In the face of the ensuing de-politicisation, the hope in the 1980s was that the economic struggles, in particular the confrontation with the trade unions, could become the crucible of a re-politicisation, perhaps even at a higher level. But although there were indeed massive struggles during the 80s, although there were indeed confrontations with the unions, and even with radical base unionism, mainly in the west, but also, for example, in Poland against the new “free” trade union, they failed to produce the hoped-for politicisation. This failure is already recognised by our theory of decomposition, since it defines the new phase as one without perspective, and this absence of perspective as the cause of the stalemate. Proletarian politicisation is always political in relation to a goal beyond capitalism. Because of the centrality of the idea of a kind of stalemate between the two main classes for our theory of decomposition, the differences of evaluation of the struggles of the 1980s are of particular relevance for the estimation of the class struggle up to this day. According to the resolution, the proletarian combat, despite all the problems it came up against, was basically developing positively until, in 1989, it was stopped in its tracks by a world historic event which was fundamentally exterior to it. Since the effects of even the most overpowering of such events are bound to wear off with time, we should be quite confident in the ability of the class to resume its interrupted journey along the same path. This path is that of its political radicalisation through its economic struggles. Moreover, this process will be accelerated by the deepening of the economic crisis, which at once obliges the workers to struggle and makes them lose their illusions, opening their eyes to the reality of capitalism. It is thus that the resolution advocates the model of the 1980s as the way forward. Referring to the mass strike of 1980, it says:
“This gigantic struggle of the working class in Poland revealed that it is in the massive struggle against economic attacks that the proletariat can become conscious of its own strength, affirm its class identity which is antagonistic to capital, and develop its self-confidence”.
The resolution is perhaps thinking of these economic struggles when it concludes point 13 with a quotation from our Theses on Decomposition:
"Today, the historical perspective remains completely open. Despite the blow that the Eastern bloc’s collapse has dealt to proletarian consciousness, the class has not suffered any major defeats on the terrain of its struggle (...) Moreover, and this is the element which in the final analysis will determine the outcome of the world situation, the inexorable aggravation of the capitalist crisis constitutes the essential stimulant for the class struggle and development of consciousness, the precondition for its ability to resist the poison distilled by the social rot. For while there is no basis for the unification of the class in the partial struggles against the effects of decomposition, nonetheless its struggle against the direct effects of the crisis constitutes the basis for the development of its class strength and unity".
Perfectly true. But the proletarian struggle against the effects of the capitalist crisis has not only an economic, but also a political and a theoretical dimension. The economic dimension is indispensable: a class unable to defend its immediate interests would never be able to make a revolution. But the two other dimensions are no less indispensable. This is all the more the case today, when the central problem is the lack of perspective. Already in the 1980s, the main weakness of the class was not at the level of its economic struggles, but at the political and theoretical levels. Without a qualitative development at these two levels, the defensive economic struggles will have growing difficulties in remaining on a proletarian terrain of class solidarity. This is all the more the case today since we have reached a stage where the de-politicisation which was such a major characteristic already in the 1980s is being replaced by different versions of putrid politicisation such as populism and anti-populism, anti-globalisation, identitarian causes and inter-classist revolts. It was on the basis of the advance of all of these putrid politicisations in recent years that I put forward at the congress the following analysis of the present balance of class forces:
“However, these first proletarian reactions did not succeed in reversing the world wide reflux of combativeness, class identity and of consciousness in the class since 1989. On the contrary, what we are presently experiencing is not only the prolongation, but even the deepening of this reflux. At the level of class identity, the modification of the discourse of the ruling class is the clearest indication of this regression. After years of propaganda about its alleged disappearance in the old capitalist heartlands, today it is the populist right which has ‘rediscovered’ and ‘rehabilitated’ the working class as the ‘true heart of the nation’ (Trump)”.
“At the level of the revolutionary perspective, the way in which even the classical institutional representatives of the ruling order (such as the International Monetary Fund) make capitalism responsible for climate change, environmental destruction or the growing income gulf between rich and poor, shows the degree to which the bourgeoisie, as a ruling class, is, for the moment, sitting securely and confidently in its saddle. As long as capitalism is considered as part of (the contemporary form, so to speak) ‘human nature’, this anti-capitalist discourse, far from being an indication of a maturation, is a sign of a further retreat of consciousness within the class”.
The Congress rejected this analysis of the deepening of the retreat since 1989. Nor did it share my concern of recalling that the defensive struggles, in themselves, are anything but a guarantee that the proletarian cause is on the right track:
“However, the degree to which the economic crisis can be the ally of the proletarian revolution, and the stimulus of class identity, depends on a series of factors, the most important of which is the political context. During the 1930s, even the most militant, radical and massive defensive struggles (factory occupations in Poland, unemployed protests in the Netherlands, general strikes in Belgium and France, wildcat strikes in Britain (even during the war) and the United States, and even a movement taking an insurrectional form (Spain) were unable to reverse the regression of consciousness within the class. In the present phase, partial defeats of the class, including at the level of its class consciousness, are anything but excluded. They would, in turn, hamper the rôle of the crisis as the ally of the struggle of the class.
But unlike the 1920/30s, such defeats would not lead to counter-revolution, since they have not been preceded by any revolution. The proletariat would still be able to recover from such defeats, which would be much less likely to have a definitive character”. (Rejected amendment, end of point 13)
This question of whether or not there is a further weakening of the proletariat at the level of the present balance of class forces was one of the two major divergences at the Congress concerning the class struggle. The other one concerned the subterranean maturation which the resolution claims is presently taking place within the class. This refers to an as yet not visible, underground maturation of consciousness, the famous “Old Mole” referred to by Marx. The divergence at the Congress was not about the general validity of this concept of Marx – which we all share. Nor was it about whether or not such a process can take place even when the workers’ struggles are in retreat – we all affirm that it can. The question under debate was whether or not such a process is taking place right now. The problem here is that the resolution is unable to give any empirical evidence in support of this claim. Either its postulate is a product of wishful thinking, or else of a purely deductive logic, according to which, what ought to be taking place – according to our analysis – can be assumed to be taking place. The evidence given is threadbare: the continuing existence of revolutionary organisations, the existence of contacts of these organisations. Although the Old Mole burrows underground, it leaves traces of its industriousness on the surface. Criticising the inadequacy of the indications given in the resolution, I put forward:
“In this sense, the qualitative development of class consciousness by revolutionary minorities does not, in itself, give us an indication of what is happening momentarily at the level of subterranean maturation within the class as a whole – since this can take place both during a revolutionary and a counter-revolutionary phase, both during phases of development and of reflux of the class as a whole .By the same token the emergence of small minorities and of young elements in search of a class perspective and Left Communist positions is also possible even during the darkest hours of the counter-revolution, since they are first and foremost the expression of the revolutionary nature of the proletariat (which never disappears as long as the working class still exists).It would be different if a whole new generation of revolutionary militants begins to appear. But it is still too early to make any judgement about this possibility now”. (Rejected amendment).
And I proposed the following criteria:
“It is, by definition, not easy to detect a subterranean maturation outside of periods of open struggle: difficult, but not impossible. There are two indicators of the underground activities of the old mole which we should particularly watch out for
a) the politicisation of broader sectors of the searching elements of the class such as we witnessed in the 1960/70s
b) the development of a culture of theory and a culture of debate (such as began to nascently express themselves from the anti-CPE to the Indignados) as fundamental manifestations of the proletariat as the class of consciousness and of association. On the basis of these two criteria, there is a high degree of probability that we are presently passing through a phase of ‘subterranean regression’ (where the Old Mole has taken a temporary break), characterised by a renewed strengthening of suspicion of political organisations, by the enhanced attraction of petty bourgeois politics, and by a weakening of theoretical endeavour and of culture of debate”.
Without its goal beyond capitalism, the workers’ movement cannot effectively defend its class interests. Nor can the economic struggles in themselves – indispensable as they are – suffice to regain revolutionary class consciousness (including its dimension of class identity). In fact, in the quarter of a century which followed 1989, the most important single factor of the proletarian class struggle was not that of the economic defence struggles, but the theoretical and analytical work of revolutionary minorities, above all in developing a deep understanding of the existing historical situation, and a profound and convincing rehabilitation of the reputation of communism. This may seem a strange evaluation, given that the revolutionary minorities are a mere handful of militants, compared to the several billion who comprise the world proletariat as a whole. However, in the course of history, tiny minorities have regularly developed, without any mass participation, ideas capable of revolutionising the world, capable of eventually “conquering the masses”. One of the main weaknesses of the proletariat in the two decades after 1989 was in fact the failure of its minorities to accomplish this work. The historic groups of the Communist Left have a particular responsibility for this failure. The result was that, when a new generation of politicised proletarians began to appear (such as the Indignados in Spain or the different “Occupy” movements in the wake of the “finance” and the “Euro” crises after 2008), the existing proletarian political milieu was unable to arm them sufficiently with the political, theoretical weapons they would have needed in order to be oriented and to feel inspired to face the task of inaugurating the beginning of the end of the proletarian reflux.
Reply to comrade Steinkopfler on the International Situation Resolutions of the 23rd ICC Congress
The discussion texts we are publishing here are the product of an internal debate within the ICC regarding the significance and direction of the historical phase in the life of decadent capitalism which was definitively opened up by the collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc in 1989: the phase of decomposition, the terminal phase of capitalist decadence. One of the key ideas in the orientation text we published in 1991, the Theses on Decomposition, is that history never stands still: just as the period of capitalist decadence has its own history, so too does the phase of decomposition, and it is essential for revolutionaries to analyse the most important changes or developments that take place within it. This is the motivation behind comrade Steinklopfer’s text, whose starting point is the recognition – at the present time unique to the ICC – that we are indeed living through the phase of decomposition, and that its roots lie in a social stalemate between the two major classes in society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, neither of whom, in the face of a now permanent economic crisis, have been able to impose their perspective on society: for the bourgeoisie, world imperialist war, for the proletariat, world communist revolution. But in the course of the debate on decomposition, which encompasses the evolution of imperialist rivalries and the balance of forces between the classes, divergences have appeared which we think have matured to the point where they can be published externally. In our view, comrade Steinklopfer's current position tends to weaken our understanding of the meaning of decomposition, but this is something which we will have to demonstrate through an open confrontation of ideas.
The comrade’s contribution begins by arguing that – implicitly at least, as he puts it later on – the ICC is revising its position on the causes of decomposition; that along with the social stalemate, a root cause of decomposition is also the growing tendency of every man for himself: “from the point of view of the present position of the organisation, there would appear to be a second essential cause and characteristic of this terminal phase, which is the tendency of each against all: between states, within the ruling class, within bourgeois society at large”.
The consequence of adding this second cause is then summarised: “On this basis, concerning imperialism, the ICC presently tends to underestimate the tendency towards bi-polarity (and thus towards the eventual reconstitution of imperialist blocs), and with this the growing danger of military confrontations between the big powers themselves. On this same basis, the ICC today, concerning the balance of class forces, tends to underestimate the seriousness of the present loss of revolutionary perspective by the proletariat, leading us to think that it can regain its class identity and begin to reconquer a revolutionary perspective essentially through defensive workers’ struggles”.
Comrade Steinklopfer also seems to think that he is alone in considering that “there is no major tendency in the phase of decomposition which did not already exist beforehand in the period of decadence. The new quality of the phase of decomposition consists in the fact that all of the already existing contradictions are exacerbated to the hilt”.
Before replying to the comrade’s criticism of our position on imperialist conflicts and the state of the class struggle, we think it’s necessary to say that neither of his descriptions of the organisation’s general understanding of decomposition is accurate.
The Theses on Decomposition already present this phase as “the conclusion, the synthesis of all the successive contradictions and expressions of capitalist decadence”: we can add that it is also the “conclusion” of some key features of capitalism’s existence from the beginning, such as the tendency towards social atomisation which Engels, for example, pointed out in his Conditions of the English Working Class in 1844.
As early as 1919, the Communist International, at its First Congress, noted that.
“Human culture has been destroyed and humanity is threatened with complete annihilation. There is only one force able to save humanity and that is the proletariat. The old capitalist ‘order’ has ceased to function; its further existence is out of the question. The final outcome of the capitalist mode of production is chaos. This chaos can only be overcome by the productive and most numerous class – the working class”.
And indeed this judgment was entirely justified when we consider the state of the central countries of capitalism in the wake of the First World War: millions of corpses, millions of refugees, economic breakdown and hunger – and a deadly pandemic. A similar nightmare haunted Europe and much of the globe in the immediate aftermath of the second imperialist war. But if we look at the situation of capitalism for most of the period between 1914 and 1989, we can see that the tendency towards complete chaos was to a large extent held in check (even, as comrade Steinkopfler also recognises, it never disappears completely) by the capacity of the ruling class to impose its solutions and perspectives on society: the drive towards war in the 1930s, the post-1945 carve up of the planet and the formation of blocs, a long period of economic recovery. With the protracted economic crisis from the end of the 1960s and the growing stalemate between the classes, the tendency towards fragmentation and chaos at all levels is unleashed to the point where it takes on a new quality. Contrary to comrade Steinklopfer’s assertion, we do not conclude from this that has retrospectively become a “cause” of decomposition, but it certainly does become an active factor in its acceleration. It is this understanding of the qualitative change operating in the phase of decomposition which we think is missing from comrade Steinkopfler’s text.
We also want to make it clear that, just as signs of decadence became increasingly apparent before World War One (state capitalism, corruption of unions, arms race between great powers…), so the ICC noted the signs of decomposition prior to 1989: the victory of the Mullahs in Iran, the Paris terrorist attacks of 1986, the war in Lebanon, and the difficulties facing the class struggle, of which more below. So the collapse of the eastern bloc was by no means a bolt out of the blue, but the product of a long prior development.
The divergence on imperialist antagonisms
Regarding the concrete differences at the level of imperialist antagonisms, we were certainly late in understanding the significance of the rise of China, but over the last few years we have clearly integrated this factor into our analysis both of global imperialist rivalries and the evolution of the world economic crisis. We do not reject the idea that even in a world dominated by every man for himself at the imperialist level, we can see a definite tendency towards “bipolarisation”, i.e. for the rivalries between the two most powerful states to become a major factor in the world situation. In fact, this has always been our position, as we can see from the orientation text on “Militarism and Decomposition”, written at the beginning of the new phase, where we affirmed that “the present situation implies, under the pressure of the crisis and military tensions, a tendency towards the re-formation of two new imperialist blocs”. We then assessed the possibility of other powers (Germany, Russia, Japan…) posing a challenge to the US and becoming a candidate for the role of a new bloc leader. In our view, at that stage, none of these contenders had the necessary “qualifications” to play this role, and we concluded that it was very likely that new imperialist blocs would never be reformed, while insisting that this by no means meant an attenuation of imperialist conflicts. On the contrary, these conflicts would take the form of an increasingly chaotic free for all, in many ways a more dangerous threat to humanity than the previous period where national or regional conflicts were to some degree held in check by the discipline of the blocs. We think that this prognosis has largely been borne out, as we can see most obviously in the current multi-sided conflicts in Syria and Libya.
Of course at this stage, as we have said, we underestimated the possibility of China emerging as a major world power and as a serious contender to the US. But China’s rise is itself a product of the phase of decomposition and while it does provide definite evidence for the tendency towards bipolarisation, there is a big difference between the development of this tendency and a concrete process leading towards the formation of new blocs. If we look at the two major poles, the increasingly aggressive attitudes of both of them tends to undermine this process rather than reinforce it. China is profoundly distrusted by all its neighbours, not least Russia, which often aligns with China in matters of immediate interest (such as the war in Syria) but is terrified of becoming subordinated to China as a result of the latter’s economic strength, and is one of the fiercest opponents of Beijing’s “Silk Road” initiative. America meanwhile has been busily dismantling nearly all the old bloc structures it had previously used to preserve its “New World Order” and so resist the slide towards “every man for himself” in international relations. It more and more treats its allies in NATO as enemies, and in general - as comrade Steinklopfer himself states quite firmly - has become one of the main factors aggravating the chaotic character of imperialist relations today.
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.
The divergence on the class struggle
As we have seen, comrade Steinklopfer suggests that the resolution on the balance of forces from the 23rd Congress is no longer concerned with the problem of revolutionary perspective, and that this factor has disappeared from our understanding of the causes (and consequences) of decomposition. In fact, the question of the politicisation of the class struggle and the bourgeoisie’s efforts to prevent its development is at the heart of the resolution. The tone is set in point one of the resolution, which talks about the revival of the class struggle at the end of the 60s and the reappearance of a new generation of revolutionaries: : “Faced with a dynamic towards the politicisation of workers' struggles, the bourgeoisie (which had been surprised by the May 1968 movement) immediately developed a large-scale and long-term counter-offensive in order to prevent the working class from providing its own response to the historical crisis of the capitalist economy: the proletarian revolution”. In other words: for the working class politicisation essentially means posing the question of revolution: this is exactly the same issue as that of the “revolutionary perspective”. And the resolution goes on to show how, faced with the waves of class struggle in the period between 1968 and 1989, the ruling class used all its resources and mystifications to prevent the working class from developing this perspective.
Regarding the question of the struggles in Poland, which play a central part in comrade Steinklopfer’s argument: there is no disagreement between us that Poland 1980 was a key moment in the evolution of the balance of class forces in the period opened up by the May 1968 events in France. The comrade is right to say that, unlike May 68 and the ensuing international wave of class movements whose epicentre was in western Europe, the struggles in Poland did not give rise to a whole new generation of politicised elements, a number of whom (from 68 onwards) found their way to the positions of the communist left. But it nevertheless posed a profound challenge to the world working class: the question of the mass strike, of the autonomous organisation and unification of the workers as a power in society. The Polish workers raised themselves to this level even if they were unable to resist the siren songs of trade unionism and democracy at the political level. The question, as we said at the time, paraphrasing Luxemburg on the Russian revolution, was posed in Poland but could only be resolved internationally, and above all by the politically more advanced battalions of the class in western Europe. Would the workers of the west take up the gauntlet and develop both self-organisation and unification in the context of offering the perspective of a new society? The ICC contributed a number of texts in the early 80s to evaluate this potential.
More specifically, would the new wave of struggles which began in Belgium in 1983 be able to take up the gauntlet? 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. Thus – and here we must take issue with a formulation by the Amendments Commission for the class struggle resolution of the 23rd congress, which comrade Steinklopfer refers to in his text – there is indeed a continuity between the difficulties of the class in the 80s (the influence of decomposition) and the retreat of the post-89 period (where we saw a huge regression at the level both of consciousness and of combativity). But in our view here again comrade Steinklopfer underestimates the qualitative change brought about by the events of 1989, which had the appearance of descending on the working class from the heavens, even if they had in reality long been fermenting within bourgeois society. They brought about a retreat in class consciousness and combativity which would be much deeper and longer lasting than we suspected, even if we were able to predict it in the immediate aftermath of the collapse.
Populism and war mobilisation
There is thus no disagreement about the fact that the working class has in recent decades been going through a long process of disarray, characterised by a loss of class identity and of its perspective for the future. We also agree that certain movements that took place during this period of general retreat pointed to the possibility of a revival of the struggle, both at the level of combativity, and of consciousness about the impasse of capitalism society: as comrade Steinklopfer puts it, in these movements we saw “the development of a culture of theory and a culture of debate (such as began to nascently express themselves from the anti-CPE to the Indignados) as fundamental manifestations of the proletariat as the class of consciousness and of association”.
However we disagree strongly with two of the comrade’s conclusions about the present difficulties of the class:
- That the rise of populism is the expression of a society gearing up for war
- That we are now witnessing not a subterranean maturation of consciousness but a veritable “subterranean regression”.
First, we do not think that populism is the product or expression of a clear course towards war by the ruling class of the major capitalist countries. Certainly it is a product of aggravated nationalism and militarism, of that nihilistic violence and racism which oozes out of the decomposition of this system. In this sense of course it has many similarities with the fascism of the 1930s. But fascism was the product of a real counter-revolution, a historic defeat suffered by the working class, and directly expressed the capacity of the ruling class to mobilise the proletariat for a new world-wide imperialist war. Populism, on the other hand, is the result of the stalemate between the classes, which implies a lack of perspective not only on the part of the working class, but also of the bourgeoisie itself. It expresses a growing loss of control by the bourgeoisie of its political apparatus, an increasing fragmentation both within each nation state and at the level of international relations. If the rise of populism really meant that the bourgeoisie has recovered the possibility of marching the working class off to war, we would have to conclude that the concept of decomposition as we have defined it so far is no longer valid. It would imply that the bourgeoisie now has a “perspective” to offer society even if it is a totally irrational and suicidal one.
Comrade S’s amendment argues that “Contemporary populism is another clear sign of a society heading towards war:
- the rise of populism itself is not least a product of the growing aggressivity and destruction impulses generated by present day bourgeois society
- since, however, this ‘spontaneous’ aggressiveness is not in itself sufficient to mobilise society for war, todays populist movements are needed to this end by the ruling class.
In other words, they are at once a symptom and an active factor of the drive towards war”.
In other words, phenomena such as Brexit in the UK or Trumpism in the US are not, first and foremost, a result of the bourgeoisie’s loss of control of its political (and increasingly, its economic) apparatus, a concentrated expression of the short-termism and fragmentation of the ruling class. On the contrary: the populist factions are the best representatives of a bourgeoisie which is really uniting behind the mobilisation for war.
Given this vision of where things are headed, it is not surprising that comrade Steinklopfer sees little in the way of the bourgeoisie’s drive towards war: despite the nascent expressions of the revolutionary nature of the class in 2006 and 2011, today we cannot even discern signs of a subterranean maturation of consciousness, which might imply that the bourgeoisie does not have all the cards stacked in its favour.
Certainly, as the comrade reminds us, we have always argued that proletarian consciousness can develop in depth – largely, but not entirely, as the result of the work of revolutionary organisations – even in a period of counter-revolution when it is severely limited in its extent, as we saw with the work of the Italian and French Fractions of the Communist left in the 30s and 40s. But if it goes on even in such periods, what is the meaning of the term “subterranean regression”? Would it not imply that the situation today is even worse than it was in the 1930s? It’s not clear from the comrade’s text how long this process of subterranean regression has been going on: if we saw a general development of consciousness among the young generation in 2006 and 2011, it would be logical to argue that these movements had been preceded by an “underground” process of maturation. In any case, we agree that on the level of open struggles and the extent of class consciousness, these advances were, as with virtually every upward movement of the class, followed by a phase of retreat and regression: for example, a few years after the Indignados movement, which had been particularly strong in Barcelona, some of the same young people who in 2011 had taken part in assemblies and demonstrations which had put forward clearly internationalist slogans, were now falling into the absolute dead-end of Catalan nationalism.
But this doesn’t prove that the Old Mole itself decided to have a rest, either in 2012 or earlier. The period 2006-2011 was accompanied by the emergence of a politicised minority which showed a lot of promise but to a large extent foundered in the swamps of anarchism and modernism, so that their net contribution to the real development of the revolutionary milieu was extremely limited. The searching minorities who have been developing in the last few years, for all their youth and inexperience, seem to start at a higher level than the ones we encountered a decade earlier: they are in particular, more aware of the terminal nature of the capitalist system and the necessity of renewing with the tradition of the communist left. In our view, such advances are precisely the product of a subterranean maturation.
According to comrade Steinklopfer, the fact that recent movements which are already situated on the terrain of “reforming” bourgeois society, such as the demonstrations around the climate question, often claim to be locating the problem at the level of the system, of capitalist society itself, expresses no more than the confidence of the ruling class, which can afford to blow hot air about the need to go beyond capitalism precisely because it has no fear whatever of the working class taking such discourse seriously. But it is no less plausible that this anti-capitalist speechifying is a typical anti-body of bourgeois society, which has a profound need to derail any incipient questioning of its fundamental bases. In other words: as the apocalyptic nature of this system becomes more and more evident, it becomes increasingly necessary for bourgeois ideology to prevent an authentic understanding of its roots and of the real alternative.
At the end of comrade Steinklopfer’s text, it is hard to see where the revival of class identity and the revolutionary perspective will come from and we are left with an impression that he has fallen into a deep pessimism. The comrade is not wrong to point out that the economic struggles, the immediate resistance to attacks on living standards, aren’t sufficient in themselves to generate a clear revolutionary consciousness, but they nevertheless remain absolutely vital if the working class is to regain a sense of itself as a distinct social force, above all in a period where growing unrest with the state of capitalist society is being pushed towards a host of interclassist and openly bourgeois mobilisations. In the 1930s, amid all the hype about the revolutionary conquests of the Spanish workers, the comrades of Bilan stood almost alone in asserting that in such conditions the smallest strike around economic demands (above all in the war industries controlled by the CNT!) would be a first step towards the working class finding the way back to its own terrain. The recent strikes around the question of pensions in France, and in a number of countries around health and safety at work at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, were much less “newsworthy” than the Fridays for Climate of the Black Lives Matter marches, but they make a real contribution to a future recovery of class identity while the latter can only stand in its way.
We agree with comrade Steinklopfer of course that recovering class identity and developing a revolutionary consciousness are inseparable: for the working class to really understand what it is, it must also understand what it must be historically, as Marx put it: the bearer of a new society. And we also agree that the organisations of the communist left have an indispensable role in this dynamic process. The comrade leaves us with a very severe judgement on the actual role these organisations have played in the last decade and more:
“In the course of history, tiny minorities have regularly developed, without any mass participation, ideas capable of revolutionising the world, capable of eventually ‘conquering the masses’. One of the main weaknesses of the proletariat in the two decades after 1989 was in fact the failure of its minorities to accomplish this work. The historic groups of the Communist Left have a particular responsibility for this failure. The result was that, when a new generation of politicised proletarians began to appear (such as the Indignados in Spain or the different ‘occupy’ movements in the wake of the ‘finance’ and the ‘Euro’ crises after 2008), the existing proletarian political milieu was unable to arm them sufficiently with the political, theoretical weapons they would have needed in order to be oriented and to feel inspired to face the task of inaugurating the beginning of the end of the proletarian reflux”
It is not at all clear from this how, and with what theoretical contributions, the organisations of the communist left could have armed the new generation to the point where they could have avoided the retreat that followed the movements of 2011. But there seems to be a methodological problem behind this judgment. The organisations of the communist left must certainly make a severe critique of the errors they made in the face of the “new generation of politicised proletarians”, errors above all of an opportunist nature. This criticism is necessary above all because it takes place in a realm of circumstances which small revolutionary groups can directly effect: the regroupment of revolutionaries, the steps needed to construct a vibrant and responsible revolutionary milieu and thus to lay the foundations of the party of the future. But it would appear to be verging on substitutionism to suggest that our theoretical/political efforts alone could have halted the reflux that followed after 2011, which was essentially a continuation of a process which had been in full force since 1989. Future discussions will determine whether there is a real divergence on the question of organisation here.
ICC, August 24, 2020
 Platform of the Communist International https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/1st-congress/platform.htm
 International Review 64, 1991, https://en.internationalism.org/content/3336/orientation-text-militarism-and-decomposition
 See in particular points 10-13 of the “Resolution on the international situation, imperialist conflicts, life of the bourgeoisie, economic crisis”, ttps://en.internationalism.org/content/16704/resolution-international-situation-2019-imperialist-conflicts-life-bourgeoisie
 See for example: International Review 26, 1981: “A breach is opened in Poland”, https://en.internationalism.org/content/3106/perspectives-international-class-struggle-breach-opened-poland