The political confusions of the Communist Workers Organization (UK)

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In ‘The CWO and the Lessons of Regroupment’ published in the International Review, no.9, we saw how the sectarian position adopted by the CWO was leading them towards organi­zational disintegration and a growing isola­tion from the revolutionary movement. We now want to examine how this isolation is reinforcing a number of important theore­tical confusions, which are further signs of the political impasse which the CWO has strayed into. We cannot deal with all the differences we have with the CWO here. In particular, we will have to leave the question of the economic foundations of capitalist decadence to a later date, although we fully recognize the importance of discussing this question within the workers’ movement. Neither will we go into the general question of the organization of revolutionaries, because we have already published a lengthy critique of the organi­zational conceptions of the CWO (in WR, no.6 and RI, nos.27 and 28, entitled ‘The CWO and the Organization Question’). We will concentrate mainly on the questions raised by the CWO’s critique of the ICC (‘The Convulsions of the ICC’, Revolutionary Perspectives, no.4), although we will not restrict ourselves entirely to this text. ‘Convulsions’, which is supposed to be an account of the relationship between the ICC and the CWO in the past and an expose of the ‘counter-revolutionary’ nature of the ICC, is a good starting point for a critique of the CWO’s errors, because it is a significant expression of the growing irresponsibility and incoherence of this group.

Whose convulsions?

We will not attempt to dissect this text in all its details. In effect we have already answered the part of the text which con­stitutes the CWO’s version of the relation­ship between the CWO and the ICC in the article mentioned above which was published in the IR, no.9. This article drew up a balance sheet of the w ole experience and its lessons for the regroupment of revolu­tionaries. And the recent split in the CWO has succinctly shown that it is the CWO and not the ICC whose organizational prac­tices are leading to all kinds of convul­sions. At the same time, it would be futile to try to refute each one of the attacks made on the ICC in this article, many of which are so patently absurd that they can be dispelled by a cursory glance at any ICC publication. For example, the ICC is accused (RP, no.4, p.41-2) of seeing the causes of the defeat of the Russian Revolution not in the reflux of the world revolutionary wave, but in the ideological errors of the Russian workers. And yet every single text the ICC has produced on the Russian question has insisted over and over again that the whole Russian experience can only be understood if it is placed in an international context. See for example, ‘The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution’ in IR, no.3, the platform of the ICC, etc, etc. Wild and unfounded accusations of this sort, made without citing references can only stand in the way of serious discussion between revolutionaries. This kind of irresponsible behaviour also reinforces our contention that the attacks the CWO makes on the positions of the ICC serve mainly to shed light on the CWO’s own aberrations. We will deal with three main areas in this debate:

1. the crisis, intervention, and regroupment.

2. the understanding of the class nature of political organizations.

3. the Russian Revolution and the period of transition.

The crisis, intervention, and regroupment

Many of the accusations leveled at the ICC on these questions have already been dealt with in the article ‘The CWO and the Organi­zation Question’. Therefore we will not go into great detail here. In brief, the CWO asserts the following: the ICC has no vision of the present crisis of capitalism as a process gradually unfolding towards a catastrophic slump and a revolutionary situation. This is because we are adher­ents of Luxemburg’s erroneous theory of the crisis, which unlike the CWO’s theory, is not based “on the operation of the law of value” (a naive assertion since Luxemburg’s accumulation and crisis theory stands firmly on Marx’s understanding of the wage labour system as an expression of the generalized operation of the law of value). Further­more, our mistakes about economics are closely linked to our ‘voluntaristic’ con­ception of organization: “For the ICC, because markets are saturated the crisis is here and will not get more profound, merely more extensive. Thus, for them, the objec­tive conditions for revolution are already with us. What is lacking is the necessary instrument. The ICC, however, believes that it is the necessary instrument and its propaganda will provide the proletariat with the subjective will” (RP, no.4, p.38).

In reply to this gross distortion of our perspective, let us say first of all that to hold Luxemburg’s analysis of the crisis does not mean that the unfolding of this crisis cannot be seen as a process. When we affirm that the world market is satur­ated, we don’t mean that all the markets in the world are absolutely saturated: this would be nonsense, because then no accumu­lation at all could take place. What we do say is that the market is saturated relative to the accumulation requirements of global capital. In a historic sense this inability of the world market to expand in a progressive manner, keeping pace with productive capacity, implies that the objective conditions for the pro­letarian revolution have been with us since 1914. However, this certainly does not mean that revolution is on the cards at any conjuncture. The defeat of the revolu­tionary wave of 1917-23 meant that this perspective had been put off for decades and that mankind was condemned to live through decades of barbarism. Today the re-emergence of the economic crisis and the reawakening of the class struggle all over the world are once again opening up the perspective of revolution. But this does not mean that the crisis has reached its deepest point or that we are on the verge of a revolutionary situation. (See, for example, the arguments against activism and voluntarism contained in the article entitled ‘The First Congress of the ICC’ in IR, no.5.)

The ICC has pointed out over and over again that the present crisis of the system is going to be a long, drawn-out, uneven, gradual process. This is because capitalism has discovered ways of palliating the effects of a saturated market: statification, fiscal measures, the war economy, local wars, etc. And thus of staving off a sudden 1929-type collapse. Precisely because the crisis is unfolding in this way the proletariat will be given the opportunity to temper its strength over a whole series of struggles, through which it will develop the subjective awareness necessary for a political assault on the whole system. This will be a hard and painful process, in which the class will gain an understanding of its situation in the bitter school of the struggle itself. Unless the class develops its subjective understanding in this way, the intervention of revolutionaries will remain relatively ineffectual. Nothing could be further from our position than the idea that all that is necessary today is for the ICC to leap in and ‘demystify’ the class and lead it to revolution. This would be an absurd pretense from an organization which groups a mere handful of revolutionaries inter­nationally. In any case, it simply is not our role to ‘save’ the class; nor will it be the role of the party tomorrow. In fact, it is because the CWO has a conception bordering on voluntarism and substitutionism that it projects this conception everywhere else on others. For them, in an objectively revolutionary situation, “the communists will hope by their example and propaganda, to steer this activity in the direction of communism” (RP, no.4, p.38). The point is that communists do not ‘steer’ the working class towards communism. Neither today nor tomorrow does the communist organiza­tion have the task of organizing, demysti­fying, nor steering the class. The commu­nist organization is an active factor in the self-organization and self-demystifica­tion of the working class. This has been asserted 1001 times in all our writings on the question of organization (see, for example, the section on organization in the ICC platform).

Following from this it is clear that con­trary to the CWO’s claim (RP, no.4, p.38), the ICC is not engaged in an opportunistic adventure of trying to set itself up as a party before the objective conditions for the actual constitution of a party have been reached. The party of tomorrow will emerge during the course of the proletar­iat’s long and difficult ascent towards a revolutionary consciousness. But what the CWO has persistently failed to under­stand is that the party is not an automatic or mechanical product of the class struggle; its foundations have to be elaborated con­sciously and methodically by the revolu­tionary fractions which precede it. And as soon as the possibility for this work is opened up by the resurgence of class struggle, revolutionaries are faced with the responsibility of beginning the process which will lead to the formation of the party, even though this is an extremely long and arduous task. In concrete terms, this means working for the regroupment of revolutionaries on a world scale today. The CWO, however, does not think that the time for such regroupment is now (RP, no4, p.38). And, in fact, not only does the CWO choose to passively wait for an inter­national revolutionary organization to come out of nowhere, its present sectarian role is forcing it to militate against any attempt at principled regroupment today. Which only goes to emphasize that revolu­tionaries today have the choice of being an active factor in the process which will lead to the constitution of the party -- or of being a barrier against it, an obstacle in the way of the revolutionary movement. There is no third way.

The class nature of political organizations

History is therefore freed from its mass nature, and Criticism, which has a free attitude to its object, calls to history: ‘You ought to have happened in such and such a way!’(Marx-Engels, The Holy Family)

According to the CWO, the ICC’s errors on the crisis and intervention are “dividing lines”, but not class lines. Where we really stand revealed as a faction of capi­tal is on the positions we are alleged to hold on the Russian Revolution, and on the period of transition; the lessons of which derive mainly from the Russian experience.

In concrete terms they (the ICC) are capitalist because: a) they regard state capitalist Russia after 1921 and the Bolsheviks as defensible; b) they main­tain that a state capitalist gang, such as was the Trotskyist Left Opposition, was a proletarian group; c) they advocate that the workers in the revolution medi­ate with the capitalist classes of the peasantry and the international bour­geoisie” (RP, no.4, p.42-3).

This remarkable passage clearly shows that the CWO does not know how to assess the class nature of a political organization. The statement that the ICC ‘defends’ Russia after 1921 is a bewildering jumble of con­fusions. Firstly it obscures the whole problem of assessing the degeneration of the revolution by confounding the state with the party, as though these two were iden­tical all along. (This confusion reappears in their text on the Russian Revolution, as we shall see.) More important, the statement is caught up in the idea (so dear to the Trotskyists) that revolutionaries have to project themselves back into the past and take up positions on questions which had not yet been clarified by the revolutionary movement (the question of the defence or non-defence of Russia was not settled until well after the revolution was dead). For marxists, the commu­nist programme is the living product of the past struggles of the working class, a synthesis of all the lessons the class has learned through decades of defeats, errors, and victories. It is something which emerges out of the historical process, and revolutionaries are at all times a part of that process. It is impossible for revolutionaries to stand outside that process and look at past events in terms of ‘what they would have done’ if they had been around. Such a question has no meaning, because revolutionaries today could not know what they know without the class having gone through the experience of struggle and becoming conscious of the lessons of those experiences by participa­ting in them. Revolutionaries can only possess the clarity they have today because of the errors and defeats of the past. It is no good trying to undo yesterday’s defeats by wishing ourselves back into the past. The very question of ‘what would you have done’ is based on an idealist vision of the development of revolutionary con­sciousness, because it sees communist clarity as existing in a timeless vortex outside of the real, historical movement of the class. Certainly revolutionaries can look back to the past and identify those fractions or tendencies which best expressed the needs of the proletariat at the time, and criticize the errors and confusions of other tendencies. But they do this to clarify the lessons for the present, not to engage in a childish game of shadow­boxing against the betrayers of the past.

Again, the CWO’s statement assumes that when revolutionaries understand that a previous proletarian organization could commit profound errors or even crimes, they are somehow ‘defending’ those crimes. In other words, if the ICC asserts that the Bolshevik Party, though degenerating in 1921, was not yet a bourgeois organization, then we must ‘defend’ all the counter­revolutionary actions and policies of the Bolsheviks of that period: Kronstadt, Rapallo, the United Front, etc, etc. Here again, our unequivocal condemnation of these policies can be found in any rele­vant ICC text.

The CWO’s problem is that it does not under­stand the criteria for judging the actual passage of a proletarian organization into the camp of the bourgeoisie. This applies both to their assessment of the Bolshevik Party and of the ICC. The ‘judging’ of the death of a proletarian organization is not up to revolutionaries alone. It is some­thing that can only be settled in the light of major historical events -- world wars and revolutions -- which leave absolutely no doubt about which side of the class line an organization is on. It cannot be a question of totting up political positions in a random way, because history has shown that a revolutionary organization can make a vital contribution to the workers’ movement even when it holds profoundly erroneous positions on crucial questions. This was the case with the Bolsheviks in 1917 (national liberation, for example) and with the Italian Left (Bilan) in the 1930s, which maintained an erroneous position on the question of the party and the unions, and even on the exact analysis of the Russian state. But when a former proletar­ian organization openly abandons an inter­nationalist position, it can be definitively declared dead to the working class. That is why revolutionaries said that Social Demo­cracy in 1914, or Trotskyism in 1939, had passed once and for all into the camp of capital since they both helped mobilize the class into a world imperialist carnage. That is also why the adoption of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ meant the definitive abandonment of the international revolution by the Communist Parties and showed that they had become defenders of national capital and nothing else.

According to the CWO, the Bolsheviks’ crushing of the Kronstadt insurrection “placed the Bolsheviks beyond the pale and made of the party a counter-revolutionary organization” (RP, no.4, p.22). At first sight it would seem that the physical supp­ression of a workers’ uprising would be enough to show that a party was no longer part of the proletariat. But we have to bear in mind that the Kronstadt revolt was a completely unprecedented event: the workers’ uprising against the ‘workers’ state’ and the Communist Party which con­trolled it. By suppressing the revolt, the Bolsheviks certainly hastened their own demise as a revolutionary party, but they were not abandoning an already established proletarian principle like opposition to imperialist war. On the contrary, their response to the uprising was the logical culmination of the ideas defended by the whole workers’ movement at the time: the identification between the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the party’s assumption of state power. The Kronstadt revolt led to such disarray in the revolutionary movement (the Communist Left included) precisely because the move­ment lacked the criteria for understanding such a situation. In contrast to this, the theory of socialism in one country was an explicit rejection of everything that the Bolsheviks had stood for in 1917, and was denounced as such by the revolutionary fractions of the period. However criminal was the Bolsheviks’ response to the Kron­stadt revolt, we do not think that it was the anal proof of their passage into the bourgeois camp.1 The Kronstadt events were a brutal sign of the depth and serious­ness of the process of regression and de­generation of the October Revolution and the Bolshevik Party. But the revolution and the party, both inside and outside Russia, still contained living forces of the proletariat capable of class reactions; these class reactions were shown in the last, unequal but decisive combat: inter­national revolution or national interest (“socialism in one country”). If Kronstadt is taken as the definitive death knell, it becomes impossible to understand the meaning of the violent struggles which shook the Bolshevik Party, the Communist International and the entire international revolutionary movement to its foundations from 1921-1927. In the end, the CWO’s verbal radicalism about 1921 only serves as a pretext for ignoring later events and as a way of saving themselves the trouble of analyzing and understanding these events.

We also think that the characterization of the Left Opposition as a “state capitalist gang” from the very beginning is a gross oversimplification, but we cannot go into that here. (The question is dealt with in Part II of ‘The Communist Left in Russia, 1918-1930’ in the International Review, no. 9.) Rather we want to deal with the assertion that because the ICC says that the Bolsheviks were still within the pro­letarian camp after 1921, or that the Left Opposition of 1923 was a proletarian current, this makes the ICC a bourgeois group.

As we have said, revolutionaries do not denounce an organization as bourgeois until it has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt, by directly abandoning the international terrain of the working class, that it is an expression of the national capital. A group may have any number of confusions, but if it calls for revolutionary defeatism against imperialist wars, if it defends the pro­letariat’s autonomous struggle against the national capital, it must be considered part of the working class movement. There can be no doubt that the ICC does defend this internationalist perspective. Thus, even if the question of ‘1921’ were a class line it would not constitute a sufficient reason for calling the ICC counter-revolu­tionary. Similarly even if the ICC had dangerous confusions on the problems of the period of transition, it is only during a revolutionary upheaval, when all the class frontiers on this issue are clearly drawn, that it is possible to say that a group’s confusions on this question had finally led it into the enemy camp. To make such a judgment in advance is to abandon the possibility of convincing a proletarian organization of the error of its ways and as long as an organization remains a prol­etarian one it is capable of correcting its mistakes, or at least of producing fractions who will adopt a revolutionary position.

But in any case, the question of ‘1921’ cannot by definition be a class line (we also think that it is the CWO, not the ICC, which has major confusions on the transi­tion period as we shall show later on). Revolutionaries elaborate communist posi­tions, class frontiers, on the basis of the past experience of the class not in order to make retrospective judgments about the past, but in order to draw up basic guidelines for the present and future struggles of the class. Thus the question of the defence or non-defence of Russia has, through a series of crucial events, become a class line which has been written in blood. This is because it is directly linked to the key question of internation­alism. World War II showed once and for all that a position of defence for the USSR could only lead to the defence of imperia­list war. In the early 1920s this question had still to be clarified in the workers’ movement, but later on the non-defence of the USSR became the cornerstone of any revolutionary perspective.

But while there can be no room for ambigu­ity on this basic question, it is impossible to see how the problem of the exact date of the passage of the Russian state and/or the Communist Parties into the counter­revolution can be a class line today. The CWO makes no attempt to explain their asser­tion that a group which considers the ‘end’ of the CPs to be (say) 1926 or 1926, or considers the 1923 Left Opposition to have had a proletarian character, is therefore defending capitalism today. Does it mean that such a group is calling for united fronts with the CPs and the Trotskyists or for the defence of Russia today?

Of course it doesn’t. The denunciations of the bourgeois character of the CPs, of Trotskyism, and of Russia today are real class lines which derive from an under­standing of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. They are class lines because they have a direct influence on the posi­tions revolutionaries will take up now and in the future in the crucial moments of the class struggle. But whether we con­sider that the CPs died in 1921, 1923, 1926, or 1928 is entirely irrelevant to the de­fence of this class line today. Can one imagine, for example, the workers’ councils of tomorrow spending as much energy debating the final passage of the CPs into the enemy camp as they will spend discussing ways of smashing the Communist Parties reactionary influence within the working class? No, to make a class line out of every point of historical interpretation simply diverts attention from the real problems facing the class struggle and serves to debase the very concept of a class line. Unless you define class lines according to extremely strict criteria, you end up drawing them wherever you feel like it, or wherever the require­ments of your little sect demand it. After all why restrict the class line to the date of Bolshevism’s final demise? Why not pin a class line on the definitive passage of anarcho-syndicalism into the bourgeois camp, or demand organizational separation on the question of when Blanquism ceased to be part of the workers’ movement, or whether or not Pannekoek was right to leave the Dutch Social Democratic Party in 1907? Why not indeed pins a class line on any issue you want to, especially if it serves to make you the ‘one and only’ defender of the complete communist programme...?

Since the CWO has no clear criteria for assessing the class nature of an organiza­tion, its assertions about the ICC are entirely without consistency. In ‘Convul­sions’ it remains unclear as to whether the groups of the International Current were ever part of the proletariat, and yet we find the assertion that “the future members of the CWO received many positive ideas from Revolution Internationale” (RP, no.4, p.36). Positive ideas? From a counter­revolutionary organization? And if the Current was once proletarian, but subse­quently passed into the bourgeois camp, when and why did this happen? And if the ICC’s position on the state in the period of transition (viz that the state and the dictatorship of the proletariat are not identical), and on ‘1921’ makes it counter­revolutionary today, why does the CWO accept (see RP, no.5) the precursors of the ICC -- Bilan and Internationalisme -- as communist organizations when both de­fended a position on the state in the transition period which is actually the source of the ICC’s present (majority) position? (And as for the demise of the Communist International, it was a tradition of the Italian Left to situate it in 1933!) What fundamental events in the class struggle since the 1940s have finally clarified the question of the state in the period of transition, so that anyone who holds the position of Bilan and Internationalisme today is a counter-revolution­ary? Perhaps the CWO considers that this fundamental event is none other than the appearance of the CWO, which has settled all the problems once and for all……? But in reality questions as crucial as this can only be definitively settled by the revolutionary struggle of the entire world class.

The period of transition

The CWO’s errors on the period of transition are closely linked to their misunderstand­ing of the Russian Revolution, and the extent of their confusions on both questions has been painfully exposed in their recent magnum opus on the Russian Revolution – ‘Revolution and Counter-revolution in Russia, 1917-23’ (RP, no.4). The heart of their confusion can be summed up in their reaction to the ICC’s assertion that:

the law of value is a product of the entire capitalist world and cannot in any way, shape, or form be eliminated in one country (even one of the highly developed countries), or in any group of countries” (‘The Degeneration of the Russian Revolution’ in the IR, no.3). This is too much for the CWO. For them this can only mean that the ICC defends state capitalism or self-management during the revolution (RP, no.4, p.40). The CWO, how­ever, fails to confront the question at issue. Can the law of value be abolished in one country or not? Can a communist mode of production be built in one country or not? They give no firm answer here. But elsewhere they do indeed appear to believe that wage labour, the law of value, in short capitalism can actually be abolished within national confines. The article of Revolutionary Perspectives published in Workers’ Voice, no. 15 talks about the construction of ‘communist economies’ in individual proletarian bastions, and in general the CWO appear to believe that if a proletarian bastion cuts itself off from the world market and eliminates the forms of wages and money, then it has established a communist mode of production.

Let us be quite clear about this. Money, wages, etc, are simply expressions of the operation of the law of value; and the law of value in turn is an expression of an insufficient development, a fragmentation of the productive forces; in sum an expres­sion of the domination of scarcity over human productive activity. The elimination of certain aspects through which the law of value operates does not mean the elimination of the law of value itself. This can only come about in a society of abundance. And such a society can only be built on a world scale. Even if the workers inside a revolutionary bastion eliminated money and exchange within that bastion, and directly distributed all that they produced to the population, we would still have to call the mode of production inside that bastion a mode of production still regulated by the law of value, because everything the workers did or were capable of doing would be largely determined by their relationship to the capitalist world outside. The workers would remain under the domination, the exploitation of global capital; they would simply be socializing the misery allowed them by the capitalist blockade, because a communist mode of production can never be established by ‘enclave’ but only on a world scale. To call such misery, with its starvation, bread queues, inevitable black markets, etc, etc, a ‘communist’ economy would be to lie to the working class and divert it from its struggle. In such a situation it is not a question of ‘defending’ state capitalism and/or self-management: it is a question of calling capitalism capitalism, and thus of clarifying the content of the proletariat’s struggle against capitalism, both inside and outside the bastion. In other words, the watchword of revolutionaries will be: continue to fight against the capitalists, expropriate the bourgeoisie, attack the wages system; but never entertain the illusion that this attack can be completed inside one isolated bastion. Only the international extension of the revolution can answer the problems posed in one bastion, and therefore every­thing must be subordinated to this task.

The extension of the revolution is funda­mentally a political task. The CWO casti­gate the ICC for stressing that the politi­cal tasks of the revolution precede and precondition the economic programme of the proletariat. For them these two phases are simultaneous. “At no stage in the re­alization of communism can the political tasks be separated from the economic: both must be carried out simultaneously...” (Platform of the CWO). Unfortunately, this position reveals a fundamental misunder­standing of the very nature of the prole­tarian revolution. As an exploited, prop­ertyless class, the working class cannot have any economic basis upon which to safe­guard its revolution. The only guarantees the revolution of the proletariat can have are essentially political ones: the capacity of the class to organize itself and to consciously struggle for its goals. The proletariat cannot win a position of stren­gth ‘within’ capitalism by gradually taking over industry and then grabbing political power: first it must smash the political apparatus of the bourgeoisie, establish its political domination over society, and then struggle for the realization of its social programme: the construction of a classless society. The CWO appear to agree that the proletariat must first seize political power before being able to transform the relations of production, because they denounce ‘self-management’ as a capitalist mystification. This is all well and good; but the CWO’s defence of this principle seems to stop at national frontiers. For them, once the proletariat has seized power in one country, the political and economic tasks suddenly become simultaneous, and communist social relations can be built within the framework of a still capitalist world market! But the capitalist economy is a world economy, and the proletariat is a world class. That means that the mini­mum precondition for the creation of commu­nist social relations is the conquest of power by the proletariat on a world scale. Contrary to the CWO’s assertion (RP, no.4, p.34), isolated proletarian bastions cannot be “made safe for communism” by a series of economic measures. The only way the revolution can be “made safe” is through the political self-activity of a class which is consciously striving to impose its power throughout the world. There is absolutely nothing else for the class to fall back on; which is why the Russian Revolution could not leave the class any so-called ‘material gains’ despite the falsifications of the Trotskyists to the contrary.

However, a lingering wish to find some kind of economic guarantee has indeed led the CWO into presenting a picture of the Russian Revolution which does not escape many of the assumptions of Trotskyism, which in turn are the assumptions of the Bolshevik Party in decay. They thus present a completely distorted picture of Russia in the years 1917-1921. The fact that under the pressure of economic isolation and collapse the Soviet state was pushed into the suspension of wage and monetary forms (the War Communism period) is seen as a “step towards the disbanding of capitalism and the beginnings of communist construc­tion” (RP, no.4, p.13). Here we see the confusions of the CWO spelled out in a nutshell. For them War Communism was indeed ‘communism’ in some form; this is underlined by the fact that they insist that capitalism was restored in Russia in 1921 (RP, no.4, p.25).

Someone who never vacillated in his support for the Bolsheviks, Victor Serge, had this to say about War Communism:

“‘War Communism’ could be defined as follows: firstly, requisitioning in the countryside; secondly, strict rationing for the town population, who were classified into categories; thirdly, complete ‘socialization’ of production and labour; fourthly, an extremely complicated and chit-ridden system of distribution for the remaining stocks of manufactured goods; fifthly, a mon­opoly of power leading towards the single Party and the suppression of dissent; sixthly, a state of siege and the Chekha” (Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Chapter 4).

We have said it many times before and we will say it again now: capitalism was never abolished in Russia, and War Communism did not represent the abolition of capitalist social relations. Even if the economic measures imposed during that period had been the direct result of mass working class self-activity, this would not have eliminated the capitalist nature of the Russian econ­omy after 1917. But the fact is that nearly all the economic measures of War Communism were not imposed by the self-activity of the class -- which would at least have made them measures tending to­wards the strengthening of the political power of the workers -- but by a body that was more and more separating itself from the class: the state. And here we can see that the CWO’s inability to grasp the problem of the state in the period of tran­sition is leading them to an apologia for state capitalist measures.

For the CWO the state in Russia from 1917-­1921 was a “proletarian state”; ergo, the measures of nationalization and statifica­tion undertaken in this period were intrin­sically communist measures:

Many people see the Nationalization Decrees as being the logical expression of state capitalism, when in actual fact they expressed the rupture of the Bolsheviks, under the impact of events, from state capitalism. The early attempt by the state to control capital was abandoned by what the class was demanding, ie expropriation or nationa­lization. The workers and the Bolsheviks were clear that this was not nationali­zation in any capitalist sense(RP, no.4, p. 10).

Furthermore, since the state was a prole­tarian state, the incorporation of the factory committees and the workers’ mili­tias into the state apparatus were nothing but positive for the class (pp. 6-8 in RP, no.4). Even the identification of the party with the state is not seen as a danger: “At this time, ie early 1918, it is meaningless to try to make distinctions between party, class and soviets ... when a majority of the class has created state organs in which a party which has won the class’ support has a clear majority, then it is formalistic to demand ‘who is in power’” (RP no.4, p.4).

Since, despite a few criticisms here and there, the CWO present most of what went on in Russia in the 1917-1921 period as a Good Thing, it becomes rather hard to see from this why the Russian workers should have begun to revolt against this state regime in the 1920-21 period. Despite their obsession about the Kronstadt revolt, no­thing in the CWO’s analysis really gets to grips with what the Kronstadt workers were actually rebelling against: which, for the most part, were precisely the so-called ‘communist measures’ of the ‘proletarian’ state! And the implications of the CWO’s analysis for a future revolution are posi­tively disturbing. For if the economy set up in one bastion is indeed a communist one, what right will the workers there have to go on struggling, since exploitation has been ‘abolished’? And if the state is a true expression of the communist aspirations of the working class, how can the class object to subordinating itself to such a state? A hint of the direction in which the CWO appears to be travelling is given by their statement that “Labour discipline in itself, provided it is carried out by the class’ own organs is no ultimate sin” (RP, no.4, p.10). Perhaps. But what exactly are the “class’ own organs”? Sov­narkoms? Vesenkhas? The Red Army? The Cheka? The CWO is silent on these questions. Because they refuse to even consider the problem of the state in the period of tran­sition as it has been raised by the ICC and by previous fractions such as Bilan and Internationalisme, the CWO remain stuck to many of the mistakes of the workers’ move­ment at the time of the Russian Revolution. Hardly any of the lessons about the state afforded by the Russian Revolution are understood by them. For the CWO as for the Bolsheviks: statification by the ‘proletarian’ state equals real socializa­tion; the organs of the class should be merged into the state; and, as it more and more appears from the CWO’s writings, the party presents itself as a candidate for state power.

For us, if there is one fundamental lesson of the Russian Revolution, it is that revo­lutionaries can only identify with and participate in the autonomous struggles of the class, both before and after the seizure of power. The proletarian class struggle will continue during the period of transi­tion: it is in fact the dynamic factor leading to the abolition of class society. Communists must never abandon their posts in the class struggle, even if that struggle leads the class up against the ‘socialized’ economy or the ‘Commune-State’. Never again must the class subordinate its struggle to an outside force such as the state or delegate the direction of that struggle to a minority, no matter how revo­lutionary.

The ICC’s defence of the autonomy of the class even against the transitional state is interpreted by the CWO to mean that we advocate that “the class does not hold state power, but instead lends its support to an all-class state” (RP no.4 .42). In fact the ICC recognizes the inevitability of the class holding state power during the transition period but reaffirms the marxist thesis that this state is at best a necessary evil which the proletariat has to regard with distrust and vigilance. In order to wield state power, the class has to ensure that at all times it holds power over the state, so that it can prevent this state becoming an instrument of other classes against the proletariat. And because, as Engels said, the proletariat “does not use (the state) in the interests of freedom” we refuse to characterize the transitional state as the organ of communist transformation. “From the Paris Commune, revolutionaries drew, among others, a lesson of the utmost importance: the capitalist state can neither be captured nor used: it must be demolished. The Russian Revolution deepened this lesson in a decisive way: the state, however much it is a ‘soviet’ or ‘workers’ state cannot be the organizer of communism... Philosophically the idea of the state as emancipator is pure Hegelian idealism, unacceptable to historical materialism” (G. Munis, Parii-Etat, Stalin­isme, Revolution).

The CWO accuses us of harbouring counter­revolutionary intentions concerning the state’s policies towards the peasants and the world bourgeoisie. They remind us that the peasants are not ‘neutral’, as though the ICC maintained illusions in the commu­nist aspirations of the peasantry. And because we recognize the inevitability of concessions to the peasantry during the transition period, we are suspected of wanting to sell out the interests of the workers to the peasant hordes who haunt our anachronistic dreams of a complete re-run of 1917. What the ICC actually says about the peasants is that the peasant problem cannot be solved in one night, and certainly not within one proletarian bastion; nor, although it might be unavoidable at times, will pure violence solve the peasant prob­lem. The only solution to this problem is the global development of the productive forces towards a classless society. On the way to that goal the proletariat will have to find some way of co-existing with the peasants, of exchanging goods with them; and in political terms this relationship will take place through a state of soviets under the control of the working class.

The only alternative to some kind of ‘com­promise’ with the peasants is the immediate forced collectivization of the peasantry. The CWO decline to say whether this is their policy; but it would certainly be the purest folly for the working class to attempt such a project. In fact in previous texts the CWO do appear to sanction the idea of exchange between the workers’ councils and the peasants: in other words mediations. (See Workers’ Voice, no.15, ‘The Period of Transition’). Have the CWO tripped up on their own class line?

The ICC is also accused of “advocating” that the workers “mediate with the international bourgeoisie” during the revolution. The ICC “advocates” nothing of the sort. Once the proletariat has taken power in one area we advocate the extension of the revolution across the world, the prosecution of the world civil war against the bourgeoisie. Because we are not fortune-tellers we do not ‘know’ that the revolution will break out simultaneously in all countries; and although the most probable reaction of the world bourgeoisie to a single proletarian bastion will be to impose an economic blockade, we do not, like the CWO, pontifi­cate on the absolute impossibility of some negotiations or even barter taking place between the proletarian bastion and sectors of the world bourgeoisie. Even during the height of the revolutionary crisis in Europe (1918-20) the Bolsheviks were forced to have some dealings with the international bourgeoisie, and in a wider sense no war in history has ever seen a complete absence of negotiation between enemies. The world civil war itself is unlikely to be an excep­tion, despite the utter irreconcilability of the contending parties. Rather than making hazardous predictions about the impossibility of such negotiations, we have to be able to distinguish tactical negotia­tions from class betrayals. A proletarian bastion can survive certain limited, ad hoc concessions to the international bourgeoisie, providing the workers understand what they are doing, prepare for the consequences, and above all providing the world revolu­tion is in the ascendant. For example, the Brest-Litovsk treaty did not mean the end of the revolution in Russia, despite Buk­harin’s warnings to the contrary. In a period of deep revolutionary crisis this or that capitalist might be forced to offer terms which are reasonably favourable to the proletarian bastion. A bastion faced with starvation would have to soberly weigh up the consequences of any such deals, but it would be absurd for it to refuse even to consider any deals at all.

In the period of decadence any organ thrown up by the class which attempts to become an instrument of permanent negotiation with capital becomes integrated into capital. This does not mean, however, that a prole­tarian organ, such as a strike committee, immediately becomes bourgeois the moment it is mandated by the workers to enter into tactical negotiation with the bosses; as long as its primary function remains the extension and deepening of the struggle it remains an organ of the proletariat. The same can be said for the organs of a pro­letarian power during the world civil war. As long as they are basically organs for the extension of the revolution they can survive temporary negotiations with the enemy on, say, the withdrawal of armies, food and medical supplies, etc. The inte­gration of these organs into world capital only comes about when they enter into permanent, institutionalized trade and diplomatic relations with the bourgeois states, and objectively abandon any attempt to spread the world revolution. But for this to happen the whole world revolution­ary movement would have had to have entered a deep reflux; such class transformations do not happen overnight.

In light of the Russian Revolution, we can draw certain guidelines concerning the relationship between a proletarian bastion and the outside world, guidelines which will be much more useful than mere asser­tions that ‘such things can’t happen’:

a) if the soviet power undertakes any negotiations with the world bourgeoisie they must be under the vigilant control of the whole working class of that bastion.

b) measures taken to ensure survival in a hostile world must always be subordin­ated to the needs of the class struggle both inside the bastion and even more important, outside the bastion. The international needs of the working class must always take precedence over the requirements of a single soviet power.

c) as part of the principle of the impos­sibility of forming fronts with the bourgeoisie, the soviet power can never form ‘tactical’ alliances with one imperialist power against another.


The theoretical errors of the CWO have impor­tant consequences for their work as a revolutionary group today. All of their theor­etical shibboleths tend to reinforce their isolation and sectarianism. Their view of the crisis and regroupment underscores their pessimism about the possibility of unifying the revolutionary movement at this juncture. Their method of judging other proletarian organizations, their invention of novel class lines, is more and more leading them to the sterile position that they are the only revolutionary group in the world, and this can only serve to prevent them from contributing to the living process of dis­cussion and regroupment that is going on today.

Recently there have been signs that the CWO is at last waking up to some of the dangers of its isolationism. In various letters it has played down the accusation of the ICC being counter-revolutionary, and instead has been insisting that it is the ICC, not they, who broke off the discussion. However inaccurate this interpretation may be, we can only welcome a re-evaluation of their previous stance. We insist that differences within the revolutionary movement can only be clarified through an open, public, and honest debate. The criticisms we have made here of the CWO are quite uncompromising, but we have always recognized that we are addressing ourselves to the confusions of a revolutionary organization which still has the possibility of developing in a positive direction. We therefore urge the CWO to abandon its previous attitude to debate, and to respond to the critique we have made here, understanding that such a resumption of the dialogue does not take place for its own sake, but as a moment in the regroupment of revolutionaries, in the reconstitution of the international organization of the pro­letariat.

C.D. Ward

1 And it certainly does not support the CWO’s contention that 1921 also marked the death of entire Communist International, although perhaps this idea is consistent with the CWO’s assertion that the CI was revolutionary when it “reflected the proletarian character of the state in Russia” (RP, no. 4, p. 17);in other words, contrary to the idea that the CI died when it became an instrument of Russian state policy, the CWO consider that it was an organ of the Russian state from the very beginning!

Life of the ICC: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Political currents and reference: