Polemic: In the light of the events in Poland -- the role of revolutionaries

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In a world growing sombre with the threat of famine and war, the mass strikes of the Polish workers are a lightning flash of hope.

Compared to the ebullient period of the late sixties and early seventies, when the idea of revolution was rescued from the dustbin by the international reawakening of the class struggle, the rest of the seventies seemed grim and dis­quieting. The class struggle -- at least in the major capitalist countries -- entered into a pha­se of retreat; and as the world economy visibly disintegrated, the realisation grew among all classes that the only light at the end of capi­talism's tunnel was the sinister glare of ther­monuclear bombs.

Amongst the young generations of the working class and other oppressed strata, the banners of total revolt, which they had raised in those early years, gave way to apathy and cynicism. Many discontented young workers drifted into nihilistic violence, while considerable numbers of yesterday's student rebels opted for the quieter pastures of organic living and whole meal bread-baking. The revolutionary communist movement, which had been born out of this first wave of social struggles, reached a certain point of development and maturity, but it has remained strikingly small and has little direct impact on the class struggle. In response to this ob­jective situation, some revolutionary currents wandered off into individualism and theories about the integration of the proletariat into the bourgeois order. Others sought to compen­sate for their lack of confidence in the class, for their political isolation, by indulging in dreams about the all-knowing party which, like Jesus descending from the clouds in glory, will save the proletariat from its innate sinfulness.

But, looking beneath the surface -- which has always been the hallmark of the Marxist method -- it was possible to discern another process unfolding in this period. True, the proletarian struggle was going through a reflux, but a re-flux is not the same as a crushing defeat. Behind the apparent apathy, millions of proleta­rians have been thinking soberly and seriously, asking themselves questions like: Why aren't we winning anything anymore when we go on strike? Why do the unions act in the way they do? Is there anything that can be done about the threat of war? For most, such questions have been posed in an incoherent, unorganized manner, and the initial conclusion many workers came to was that it might be better not to rock the boat, that it might be wiser to wait and see whether this crisis showed any signs of letting up. But a minority of workers did begin to pose such ques­tions in a more organized way, and came to much more radical conclusions. Thus, the appearance of workers' discussion circles in countries like Italy, where the economic and social crisis is extremely well advanced, was an expression of something far broader and deeper, of a subterranean process of reflection that was going on in the whole class. Above all, as the entire population was increasingly feeling the blows of unemployment and inflation, the discontent that was accumulating in the entrails of society necessarily bore with it the potential for immen­se and unforeseen explosions of the class strug­gle -- especially as it became clearer that the bourgeoisie was incapable of doing anything about the crisis of its system. The years 1978-­79 thus saw both a marked deepening of the cri­sis and the first signals of a reaction against it by the proletariat of the advanced countries: the US miners' strike, the steelworkers' strike in West Germany, the British ‘winter of discon­tent' which precipitated the fall of the Labor Government. That a new phase in the class strug­gle had opened up was made clearer by the violent battles in Longwy and Denain, the self-organization of the Italian hospital workers and Dutch dockers, the protracted and militant strike of the British steelworkers. But the recent mass strikes in Poland -- because of their huge scale, their level of self-organization, their interna­tional repercussions, their obviously political character -- have confirmed beyond any doubt that, despite all the bourgeoisies saber-rattling, despite the real dangers of world war, the wor­king class can still act in time to prevent the capitalist system from dragging us all into the abyss.

The aim of this article is not to draw out all the lessons of this immensely rich experience, nor to describe the present situation in Poland, which continues to be marked by extreme ferment and instability, even if the workers' aspira­tions are to some extent being channeled into the false solutions of democracy and ‘indepen­dent' trade unionism. For broader and more up‑to-date accounts, we refer the reader to the leading article in IR 23, the editorial in this IR, and to the territorial publications of our Current. Our intention here is to examine how the Polish events clarify a question, which is nearly always the main bone of contention within today's revolutionary movement, just as it has been in the past: The nature and function of the organization of revolutionaries.

It is true that the groups in today's revolutio­nary movement haven't all come to the same con­clusions about other aspects of the Polish events -- far from it. It has been particularly diffi­cult for a number of revolutionary groups to avoid the temptation of seeing the ‘independent' trade unions as some sort of proletarian expres­sion, especially because they appear to be in continuity with genuine organs of working class struggle -- the strike committees. This difficul­ty has above all been encountered by the groups furthest from the solid roots of the left commu­nist tradition. Thus the ex-Maoists of Le Bol­chevik in France go around shouting ‘Long live the free trade unions of the Polish workers', while the American Marxist Workers Committee (also ex-Maoist) sees them as a positive gain of the struggle, even if their lack of revolu­tionary leadership exposes them to the danger of corruption. The libertarians of the British group Solidarity have been so enthused by these apparently ‘autonomous', ‘self-managed' insti­tutions (who cares whether they're called unions?) that they've been (critically) applauding the Trotskyists of the British SWP for their support for the free trade unions. Even worse: Soli­darity organized a meeting in London to express their agreement with the ideal of independent trade unions for the Polish workers, and felt little embarrassment about sharing a platform with a Labor Party councilor and Polish social democrats. In their most recent magazine (n.14) Solidarity try to squirm out of this by saying they weren't really sharing a platform; they merely gave this impression because of the ‘traditional' seating arrangements at the meeting (ie a table of speakers facing the audience on rows of chairs instead of the more libertarian practice of sitting round in circle). In any case, Solidarity whine, they weren't trying to set up a united front with these other groups, but only to organize an ‘open forum' where every­one could put forward their own views. Thus libertarianism shows itself to be an extension of the liberal-bourgeois mystification that all viewpoints are equally interesting, equally open to discussion. Class lines disappear, and only forms remain.

The groups of the communist left didn't allow themselves to be taken in quite so easily, although both the PCI (Programma) and the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste showed how dangerous it is not to have a clear understanding that we are living in the decadent epoch of capitalism, and thus that trade unionism is dead. The PCI seems to reject the present free trade unions, but wants to leave the door open to the idea that there could be real free trade unions if they were led by a revolutionary party. As for the GCI, like the official Bordigists, it's committed to the idea of a timeless ‘workers associationism' which is the ‘immediate' form of organization created by the workers in strug­gle, and whose name and form are irrelevant, no matter what period of history we're talking about. Trade union, workers' group, soviet, it doesn't matter: Only formalists (like the ICC, for example) care about forms. The impor­tant thing is that all these expressions of workers' associationism are "episodes in the history of the party, whether in time or in space" (Rupture avec le CCI, p.9). Thus, true to their anti-formalism, the GCI was keen to hold out the possibility that the free trade unions being demanded in Poland could be "real workers' organisms, broad, open to all proletarians in struggle, the co-ordination and centralization of strike committees", but could "equal­ly" be transformed into state organs under the pressure of the authorities and the dissidents (Le Communiste, n.7, p.4). But these hesita­tions took place more in the realm of specula­tion than in the material world as it is today: The latest edition of Le Communiste (n.8) is very clear in its denunciation of the new unions. On the whole, the groups of the communist left were able to appreciate the importance of the Polish events and to defend the basic class po­sitions with regard to them: Opposition to ca­pitalism east and west, support for the self-organization and unity of the Polish workers' struggle, rejection of the mystifications of democracy and the free trade unions. But, were you to ask the ICC, the CWO, the PCI, Battaglia Comunista, the GCI, Pour une Intervention Com­muniste (PIC) or others about what the Polish events teach us about the role of the revolutio­nary organization, you would be certain to get a wide variety of answers. In fact, it has been the inability of the communist groups to agree about this basic question which has undermined the possibility that the international revolu­tionary movement might be able to make some kind of joint intervention in response to the Polish strikes: Not long before they broke out, the international conferences of communist groups fell apart because of an inability to agree even about how the debate on the role of the revo­lutionary party should be posed (see IR 22).

Given that mankind is still living in the pre­historic phase when the unconscious tends to dominate the conscious, it's not surprising that the revolutionary vanguard should also be afflicted with that general distortion of vision, which makes it easier for men to be critically aware of what's happening in the world ‘out­side' than to understand their own subjective nature. But, as we never tired of pointing out at the international conferences, the theo­retical debates between revolutionaries, inclu­ding the debate about their own nature and func­tion, aren't resolved simply through self-ana­lysis or through discussion behind closed doors. They're only settled by the interaction of revo­lutionary thought with the practical experience of the class struggle. The working class has not yet accumulated sufficient historical experience for us to say that all the questions about the positive role of the revolutionary organization have been resolved once and for all -- even though we can be fairly clear about what the organization cannot do. This is beyond any doubt, a debate that will continue -- both amongst revolutionaries and the class as a who­le -- well after other issues, such as the nature of the trade unions, have ceased to be contro­versial. In fact, only the revolution itself will make the main points of the ‘party question' crystal-clear for the entire revolutiona­ry movement. But if the debate today is to leave the realm of grandiose abstraction and vague assertion, it must be conducted in close connection to the actual development of the class struggle.

Since it was first constituted the ICC has fought an unrelenting battle against the two main dis­tortions of the Marxist understanding of the role of the revolutionary organization: On the one hand, against councilism, spontaneism, li­bertarianism... all those conceptions which minimise or deny the importance of the revolutio­nary organization, and in particular its most advanced expression, the world communist party; on the other hand, against party-fetishism, sub­stitutionism... all those conceptions which overestimate and exaggerate the role of the party. We think that the recent events in Po­land have vindicated our struggle on these two fronts, and we shall now try to show why and how.

The bankruptcy of spontaneism

The revolutionary currents which emerged in the late sixties and early seventies were strongly marked by spontaneist ideologies of various kinds. In part this was an inevitable reaction against the aberrations of Stalinism and Trot­skyism. For decades, these counter-revolutio­nary tendencies had paraded themselves as the only viable expressions of Marxism, and for many people the very idea of the revolutionary party was irredeemably associated with the loath­some caricatures offered by the Communist Parties and their Trotskyist or Maoist acolytes. More­over, after May ‘68 and other outbreaks of mass proletarian revolt, revolutionaries were under­standably enthusiastic about the fact that the workers were now showing their ability to strug­gle and organize themselves without the ‘leader­ship' of the official left wing parties. But, given their purely visceral reactions to Stalinism and Trotskyism, a number of revolutionaries were led to the facile conclusion that a revo­lutionary party, and in some cases any revolu­tionary organization at all, could only be a barrier to the spontaneous movement of the class.

Another reason for the predominance of sponta­neist ideas in this initial phase of the revolutionary movement was that the social revolts which had given rise to many of these currents were not always clearly working class and were not transparently aimed at an economy in deep crisis. May ‘68 was the classic example of this, with its interaction between student revolts and workers' strikes, and the impression it gave that it was a movement against the excesses of the ‘consumer society' rather than a response to the first manifestations of the world econo­mic crisis. The majority of the revolutionary groups born in that period were made up of ele­ments who had either come directly from the student movement or from the margins of the proletariat. The attitudes they brought with them from these layers of society took different ‘theoretical' forms, but they were often linked by the common feeling that the communist revolution was a playful happening rather than a deadly serious struggle. It's true that revo­lutions are ‘festivals of the oppressed' and that they will always have their humorous and playful aspects; but these can only be the light relief of the revolutionary drama as long as the working class still has to wage a violent and bitter civil war against a ruthless class enemy. But the situationists and related cur­rents often talked as if the revolution would bring an immediate translation of all desires into reality. Revolution had to be made for fun, or it was not worth making; and one only became a revolutionary for one's own needs -- everything else was just ‘sacrifice' and ‘mili­tantism'.

Attitudes like this were based on a fundamental inability to understand that revolutionaries, whether they know it or not, are produced by the needs of the class movement as a whole. For the proletariat, the associated class par excel­lence, there can be no separation between the needs of the collective and the needs of the in­dividual. The proletariat is constantly giving birth to revolutionary fractions because it is compelled to become conscious of its overall goals, because its struggle can only develop by breaking out of the prison of immediacy. What's more, the only factor that can compel the pro­letariat to struggle on a massive scale is the crisis of the capitalist system. Major class movements don't come about because workers are bored and want to protest against the banality of everyday life under capitalism. Feelings like that certainly exist in the working class, but they can only give rise to sporadic outbursts of discontent. The working class will only move on a massive scale when it is forced to defend its basic conditions of existence, as the Polish workers have shown on several memorable occa­sions. The class war is a serious business because it is a matter of life or death for the proletariat.

As the crisis wipes away the last illusion that we are living in a consumer society whose abun­dant wealth could fall into our hands at the drop of a situationist hat, it becomes clear that the choice capitalism is offering us isn't socialism or boredom, but socialism or barbarism. Tomorrow's revolutionary struggle will, in its methods and its goals, go far beyond the revolutionary movements of 1917-23; but it will lose none of the seriousness and heroism of those days. On the contrary, with the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over us, even more will be at stake. All this leads us to the con­clusion that today's revolutionaries must have a sense of their own responsibilities. As the class war hots up, it will become apparent that the only ‘authentic' way to live your life today is to declare total war on capitalism, and that this individual need corresponds to the pro­letariat's collective need for its revolutionary elements to organize themselves and intervene in the most effective manner possible. And as more and more revolutionaries are generated directly from the class struggle, from the heart of the industrial proletariat, this link between individual and collective needs will not be such a mystery as it is to many of today's libertarians and spontaneists.

As a matter of fact, the bankruptcy of the spontaneists was already apparent during the reflux which followed the first wave of international class struggle. The majority of the councilist and modernist currents that flourished at the beginning of the decade -- ICO, the Situationist International, GLAT, Combate, Mouvement Commu­niste, and many others -- simply disappeared: this after all was the logical consequence of their anti-organizational theories. Among the groups that were able to survive the period of reflux the majority have been those who, even if from differing standpoints, took the question of organization seriously: The ICC, CWO, Bat­taglia, the Bordigists, etc. In today's condi­tions, it is a major accomplishment for a revo­lutionary group simply to survive, so great are the pressures of isolation and of the dominant ideology. In fact, it is absolutely crucial that revolutionary groups show a capacity to keep going through difficult periods; otherwise they will never be able to act as a pole of reference and regroupment when the conditions of the class struggle become more favorable.

But if the reflux already reveals the inade­quacy of the spontaneists' ideas and practice, then the resurgence of class struggle is going to complete the rout. The Polish events are the most eloquent example of this so far.

The necessity for a revolutionary organization

No one could look at the recent mass strikes in Poland without being struck by the profoundly contradictory elements in the class conscious­ness of the workers. On the one hand, the Po­lish workers showed that they saw themselves as a class because they put class solidarity above the immediate concerns of this or that group of workers and because they saw their employer, the Polish state, as a force completely alien to them and not worthy of one iota of trust or res­pect. They showed that they had a clear grasp of the basic principles of workers' democracy in the way they organized their assemblies and strike committees. They showed that they under­stood the need to move from the economic terrain to the political terrain by raising political demands and by facing up to the whole state ap­paratus. And yet at the same time their aware­ness of themselves as a class was severely ham­pered by their tendency to define themselves as Poles or as Catholics; their rejection of the state was compromised by their illusions in re­forming it; their capacity for self-organization was diverted into the dangerous illusion of the ‘independent' trade unions. These ideological weaknesses are, of course, no justification for underestimating the strength and significance of the strikes. As we pointed out in IR 23, in the 1905 revolution workers who one minute were marching behind Father Gapon and carrying pictures of the Tsar were the next minute bran­dishing the red flags of the social democracy. But we mustn't forget that one of the factors which enabled the workers to make this transi­tion so quickly in 1905 was precisely the pre­sence of a revolutionary Marxist party within the working class. Such sudden leaps in poli­tical consciousness will be harder for the wor­king class today, above all in the Russian bloc, because the Stalinist counter-revolution has virtually annihilated the communist movement.

Nevertheless, the movement in Poland has inevitably given rise to groups of workers who are more intransigent in their hostility to the state, less impressed by appeals to patriotism and the national interest, more prepared to raise the stakes of the whole movement. It's workers like these who booed Walesa when he announced the agreements at the end of the August strike, shouting ‘Walesa, you've sold us out'. It's workers like these who, even after the ‘great victory' of the establishment of the Solidarity union -- which was supposedly enough to make everyone return contentedly to work for the national economy -- have been pres­sing for the new union structures to detach themselves completely from the state (a mark of combativity, even if the goal itself is il­lusory). It's workers like these who, with or without the ‘blessing' of Solidarity, have con­tinued to shake the national economy with wild­cat strike actions. No doubt these are the sort of workers referred to recently by a Catholic deputy to the Polish Diet as "extremists of one kind or the other, who are objectively forming a sort of alliance against the forces of dia­logue" (Le Monde, 23 November).

It's from the ranks of workers like these that we will see, with equal inevitability, the appearance of workers' groups, ‘extremist' publi­cations, political discussion circles, and organizations which, in however confused a manner, attempt to reappropriate the genuine acquisitions of revolutionary Marxism. And, unless you are a spontaneist of the most rigid and dogmatic kind, it's not hard to see what function this proletarian avant-garde will be called on to play: It will have to try to point out, to the rest of the workers, the contradictions between the radical things that they are doing in prac­tice, and the conservative ideas which they still have in their heads, ideas which can only hold back the future development of their movement.

If this avant-garde is able to become clearer and clearer about the real meaning of the Polish workers' struggle; if it is able to understand the necessity to wage a political combat against the nationalist, trade unionist, religious, and other illusions which exist in the class; if it sees why the struggle has to became internatio­nal and revolutionary in scope; and, if, at the same time, it is able to effectively organize itself and disseminate its positions, then the entire movement will be able to make gigantic steps towards the revolutionary future. On the other hand, without the intervention of such a political minority, the Polish workers will be dangerously vulnerable to the pressures of bour­geois ideology, politically disarmed in the face of a merciless opponent.

In other words: the development of the struggle itself demonstrates that there is a crying need for an organization of revolutionaries based on a clear communist platform. The working class will not be able to achieve the level of poli­tical maturity required by the sheer scale of the struggle unless it gives birth to prole­tarian political organizations. The spontaneists who claim that the workers will develop a revo­lutionary consciousness without revolutionary organizations forget the simple fact that revo­lutionary organizations are a ‘spontaneous' pro­duct of the proletariat's efforts to break the stranglehold of bourgeois ideology and work out a revolutionary alternative.

Neither can the spontaneists get away with ma­king a facile contrast between ‘autonomous struggles' and the intervention of a political organization. The fact is that the movement can only remain autonomous -- ie independent of the bourgeoisie and its state -- if it is politically clear about what it wants and where it's going. As the events at the end of the August strike showed, the best organized, most democratic forms of working class organization will not be able to sustain themselves if they are confused about such vital issues as trade unionism: The more the MKS became dominated by trade unionist conceptions, the more it be­gan to slip out of the workers' hands. And the mass organizations of the class won't be able to transcend such confusions if there is no communist minority fighting inside them, exposing the maneuvers of the bourgeoisie and all its agents, and tracing a clear perspective for the movement. The revolutionary organization is the best defender of workers' autonomy.

The structure of the revolutionary organization

If the Polish events emphasize that the revolu­tionary organization is an indispensable element of proletarian autonomy, they also help to cla­rify what form such an organization must take. The workers in Poland, like many other sectors of the class in capital's weakest links (Peru, Korea, Egypt, etc.) have been compelled to launch themselves into mass struggles against the state whilst cruelly isolated from the revolutionary currents that do at least have a limited exis­tence in the main countries of the industrialized west. The political isolation of such major class movements surely proves the utter folly of trying to limit revolutionary organizations to a local level -- to the scale of a particular city or country. And yet many libertarian and spontaneist groups actually theorize such local limitations in the name of federalism or ‘auto­nomous' organization. Thus, while the Polish workers were confronting the Stalinist monolith, and the revolutionary organizations, which exist mainly in western Europe and North America, were forced to accept the role of supporters from afar, unable to participate directly in the movement, the up-holders of federalism could, logically, only consider this mutual isolation to be a good thing! We can thus see how loca­lism is a barrier to the development of workers' autonomy: Because if the revolutionary move­ment where it is strongest doesn't understand the necessity to create an international pole of regroupment, of political clarity, how is it going to be any use to groups of radicalized workers in the eastern bloc or the third world, to those who are seeking to overcome the present ideological weaknesses of the class struggle in these regions? Are we to condemn those workers to ‘find it all out for themselves', to repeat all the past mistakes of our class, without trying to help them, without seeking to accelerate their political development? What would be the meaning of class solidarity if we made no effort to help revolutionary ideas break through capitalism's innumerable iron curtains?

And if the organization of revolutionaries is to be created on an international scale, it must also be centralized. By creating the Inter‑Factory Strike Committee, the Polish workers have shown that not only is centralization the only way to effectively organize and unite the class struggle, it's also entirely compatible with the most thorough-going workers' democracy. If the Polish workers understand this, why is it such a problem for many of today's revolutionaries, for those comrades who run away in ter­ror from the very word centralization, and think that federalism or an aggregate of ‘autonomous' grouplets is the true proletarian manner of organizing? How strange that ‘councilists' should be so scared of centralization, when the workers' councils, as well as the MKS, simply express the workers' understanding that you've got to centralize all the local factory assemblies and com­mittees into a single, unified body! While it's true that a revolutionary organization can't be an exact model of the councils, its basic prin­ciples of organization -- centralization, elec­tion and revocability of central organs, etc -- are the same.

Some councilists or semi-councilists might put up a last ditch defense here. They might agree that you need a revolutionary organization; that it must be international; even that it must be centralized. But they draw the line at ever wanting to describe such a body as a party. In the latest issue of Jeune Taupe! (n.33, p.19), the PIC for example informs us that they've written a 100-150 page pamphlet which shows that "the concept of the party is connected to the process of the bourgeois revolution and must therefore be rejected by revolutionaries". But, in the same issue (p.4), they say that revolutionary intervention "isn't simply being ‘among the workers'; it means making known one's positions and proposing actions which will advance the political clarification of the whole movement". As far as we're concerned, if one day we're fortunate enough to have an interna­tional communist organization that can ‘make our positions known' to millions of workers in all the major centers of capitalism; an organization that can ‘propose actions' that will actually be taken up and carried out by large numbers of workers -- then, in our vocabulary, which is perhaps more modest than 150 pages on this particular point, we will be talking about an international communist party. The PIC might prefer to call it something else, but who will be interested in such semantic discussions in the middle of the revolutionary civil war?

The contradictions of substitutionism

Thus far, various currents in the revolutionary movement might agree with our criticisms of the spontaneists. But this won't be enough to con­vince them that they have much in common with the ICC. For groups like the CWO, GCI, Battaglia, etc, the ICC is in no position to attack the councilists because it too is fundamentally councilist; because, while ‘formally' admitting the need for a party, we reduce the role of the party to a purely propagandist role. Thus, the GCI says that "While communists have from the very beginning always tried to assume all the tasks of the struggle, to take an active part in all areas of political combat... the ICC considers that it has only one task for itself: propaganda" (Rupture Avec le CCI, p.5).

And, later on (p.11), the GCI quotes Marx against us, when he said that "the task of the Interna­tional is to organize and co-ordinate the wor­kers' forces for the combats which await them". The International, said Marx, is the "central organ" for the international action of the wor­kers. Thus, the GCI and other groups consider that we really are councilists underneath, be­cause we insist that the task of the revolutio­nary organization in not to organize the working class.

It's not accidental that the GCI should try to confront our position on the party with that of Marx. For them, little has changed since the 19th century. For us, the onset of capita­list decadence has not only altered communists' approach to ‘strategic' questions like the trade unions or national liberation struggles; it has also made it necessary to reappraise the whole relationship between party and class. The chan­ging conditions of the class struggle have made it impossible to hold onto many of the previous conceptions that revolutionaries had about their own role and function. In the 19th century, the working class could be permanently organized in mass organizations like trade unions and social democratic parties. The political parties acted as the ‘organizers' of the class to the extent that they could, on a day-to-day basis, impulse the formation of trade unions and other broad workers' organizations (the First International was in fact partly made up of trade union bodies). Because of their close links to these organizations, they could plan, prepare, and initiate strikes and other mass actions. Because the parties of the class still operated within the logic of parliamentarism, and because they saw themselves as the only specifically political organs of the working class, it was also under­standable that these parties should conceive of themselves as the organizations through which the working class would eventually seize political power. According to this conception, the party was indeed the "central organ", the military headquarters of the entire proletarian movement.

This is not the place to go into a detailed des­cription of how the new conditions of class struggle which emerged in the 20th century showed these views to be obsolete. In her pamphlet The Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg showed that, in the new period, class movements could not be switched on and off through directives from the party central committee. In decadence, the class struggle exploded in an unforeseen, unpredicta­ble manner:

"If the Russian revolution (of 1905) teaches us anything, it teaches above all that the mass strike is not artificially ‘made', not ‘decided' at random, not ‘propagated' but that it is a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from social con­ditions with historical inevitability... If anyone were to undertake to make the mass strike generally, as a form of prole­tarian action, the object of methodical agitation, and go house-to-house canvassing with this ‘idea' in order to gradually win the working class to it, it would be as idle and profitless and absurd an occupation as it would be to seek to make the idea of the revolution or of the fight at the bar­ricades the object of special agitation". (Mass Strike)

Other revolutionaries noted the significance of the soviets that emerged in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917: as organs of working class poli­tical power, they effectively made redundant the idea of the party taking and holding power.

Of course, this understanding did not develop among revolutionaries in a homogeneous manner: on the contrary, the Communist Parties that were built during the 1917-23 revolutionary wave still retained many of the old social democratic con­ceptions of the party as the organizer of the class struggle and of the proletarian dictator­ship. And the more the revolutionary wave lost its momentum, the more the life of the class ceased to express itself in the soviets, the more these social democratic hangovers infested the revolutionary vanguard. In Russia in par­ticular, the identification of the party with the proletarian dictatorship became an added factor in the degeneration of the revolution.

Today, as we emerge from a long period of coun­ter-revolution, the communist movement still has an extremely uneven understanding of these problems. One of the reasons for this is that, while we've had fifty years or more to under­stand the nature of the trade unions or of national liberation struggles, the whole of this century doesn't provide us with anything like the same amount of experience concerning the relationship between party and class. For most of this century, the working class has not had a political party at all. Thus, when the ICC tries to convince the ‘partyist' groups that it's necessary to examine the role of the party in the light of new historical circums­tances, when we tell them that revolutionaries can no longer see themselves as the organizers of the class, they put this down to some lack of will on our part, some neurotic fear of vio­lating the pure, virginal spontaneity of the proletariat. The real issue we are posing is invariably missed in their polemics: That it is not the mere will of revolutionaries, which make it impossible for them to be the "cen­tral organ" of the working class, but the his­torical, structural, and irreversible changes that have taken place in the life of capitalism. But rather than trying to show this on an ab­stract level, let's see how the events in Po­land have demonstrated in practice what a revo­lutionary organization cannot do, as well as what it can and must do if it is to live up to its responsibilities.

Poland: A classic example of the mass strike

Perhaps more than any struggle since the last revolutionary wave, the recent strikes in Poland provide an exemplary model of the phenomenon of the mass strike. They blew up suddenly, unex­pectedly; they spread like wildfire; they gave rise to autonomous forms of class organization; they soon compelled the workers to deal with the political consequences of their economic strug­gle; they tended to unite the workers as a class, across all corporatist divisions, and against the whole bourgeois order. How does this enable us to understand the role of revolutionaries in today's struggle?

To begin with, it shows that the great class mo­vements of today can no longer be planned and prepared in advance (at least not until the class is already beginning to organize itself in an explicitly revolutionary manner). The condi­tions for mass strikes mature almost imperceptibly in the depths of society: Although they generally arise in response to a particular at­tack by the ruling class, it is impossible to predict with any accuracy which attack is like­ly to provide a mass response.

Most revolutionary groups today would agree that the class no longer has any permanent mass organizations to prepare the struggle in advance, but they still talk about the material, techni­cal or organizational preparation of struggles being carried out by a combative minority, or by groups of communists in the factories. This is a favorite theme of the GCI, for example.

But what kind of material preparations could a handful of communists or workers' groups make for a movement on the scale of the summer strike wave in Poland? It would be ridiculous to ima­gine them collecting a few tins of cash for a strike fund, or drawing maps to show the workers the quickest routes across town when they want to call the other factories out on strike. It would be equally absurd to envisage groups of revolutionaries thinking up precise lists of economic demands that might prove attractive to the workers and encourage them to enter into a mass strike: As Luxemburg said, you can't win the workers to the ‘idea' of the mass strike through "methodical agitation".

Without organizations that already involve mas­ses of workers, all such ‘material' preparations will have the same farcical character. But, as the Polish events show, these organizations can only be created by the struggle itself. This doesn't mean that revolutionaries, in the fac­tories or outside, can do nothing until the struggle breaks out on a massive scale. But it does mean that the only serious preparation they can undertake is essentially a political prepa­ration: Encouraging the most combative workers from different factories to come together and discuss the lessons of the past struggle and the perspective for the next one; propagating the most effective forms and methods of the struggle, demonstrating the need to see the struggle in one factory or city as part of a historic, world-wide struggle, and so on.

On the specific question of economic demands, of the immediate goals of the struggle, the Polish strikes demonstrate that, like the organizational forms of the struggle, immediate demands are also the product of the struggle itself, and closely follow its general evolution. The Polish workers showed that they were quite capable of deciding what economic demands to raise, what sort of demands would be an effec­tive response to the bourgeoisie's offensive, what demands would best serve to unify and extend the movement. Faced with the government's price rises, they simply assembled together and drew up lists of demands based on very elementa­ry class principles: Withdraw the price rises, or give us wage increases to compensate for them. As the struggles developed, the demands were posed in a more systematic manner: The MKS in Gdansk published articles advising wor­kers on what demands to raise and how to con­duct strikes. For example, they advised wor­kers to demand flat-rate wage increases rather than percentage increases and to insist that "the rate should be made uniform, simple and easily understood by all" (Solidarnosc n.3, quoted in Solidarity n.14). But at the same time, the more the struggle broadened out, the more it took on a social and political dimen­sion, the less important became the immediate demands themselves. Thus, the Silesian miners simply announced that they would be fighting for "the demands of Gdansk" without further ado. At such moments, the struggle itself be­gins to go beyond the goals which it has con­sciously posed. This only emphasizes the fact that it would be ridiculous for revolutionaries in such circumstances to try to limit the aims of the struggle in advance by presenting a fixed list of economic demands for the workers to take up. Revolutionaries will certainly take part in the formulation of economic demands by workers' assemblies, but they also have to in­sist on the sovereignty of the assemblies in finally deciding what demands to make. This is not out of any abstract respect for democracy, but because the whole process of raising demands -- and going beyond them -- is nothing but the self-education of the workers in struggle.

The demands raised during the Polish strikes il­lustrate another feature of the class struggle in this epoch: The way it passes very quickly from the economic to the political terrain. Contrary to what many of our ‘partyists' claim, the immediate struggles of the class aren't ‘merely economic', only assuming a political character thanks to the mediation of the party. In Workers' Voice n.1 (new series) the CWO chide Rosa Luxemburg for her alleged underestimation of the role of the party, which, they say, was based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between political and economic struggles:

"Her worship of this ‘spontaneity' led her to say that the economic and the political strike were the same thing. She did not realize that, though the economic strike is the breeding ground of the political strike, this does not lead automatically to the overthrow of capitalism without a conscious decision by the workers".

Rosa Luxemburg had a better grasp of dialectics than the CWO, it seems. She did not say that the economic strike and the political strike were the same thing, nor that the political strike meant the automatic overthrow of capitalism, nor that capitalism could be overthrown "without a conscious decision by the workers", or, for that matter, without the intervention of a revolutio­nary party, as the CWO themselves admit when they quote Luxemburg's position on the role of revolutionaries on the very same page as the above quotation. What Luxemburg did say was that the class struggle, especially in this epoch, is not a rigid series of ‘stages', but a single, dynamic, dialectical movement:

"Political and economic strikes, mass stri­kes and partial strikes, demonstrative stri­kes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches and general strikes of individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricades fighting -- all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another -- it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena" (Mass Strike)

What's more, it is pointless to try to separate out each phase of this process:

"If the sophisticated theory proposes to make a clever logical dissection of the mass strike for the purpose of getting at the ‘purely political mass strike', it will by this dissection, as with any other, not perceive the phenomenon in its living es­sence, but will kill it all together" (ibid)

The class struggle, as Marx pointed out, is al­ways a political struggle; but, under the conditions of decadence, of state capitalism, the movement from economic to political strikes is far more rapid, since every serious workers' struggle is compelled to confront the state. In Poland, the workers were clearly aware of the political character of their struggle, both because they insisted on going over the heads of local managers and negotiating with the real manager of the economy, the state; and because they more and more realized that their struggle could only advance by raising political demands and challenging the existing organization of political power.

It's true that most -- though not all -- of the political demands raised by the Polish workers were extremely confused, based on illusions about reforming the capitalist state. It's true that this underlines the necessity for the intervention of a communist minority that can explain the difference between proletarian demands (whether economic or political) and demands that can only lead the struggle off the rails. But none of this alters the fact that even without the intervention of the party, the working class can raise its struggles to the political level. It is this very fact which will make workers more and more receptive to revolutionary ideas. Only when the workers are already talking and thinking politically can the revolutionary minority hope to have a direct impact on the struggle.

Workers' self-organization or ‘organizing the class'?

"The rigid, mechanical-bureaucratic con­ception cannot conceive of the struggle save as the product of organization at a certain stage of its strength. On the con­trary the living dialectical explanation makes the organization arise as a product of the struggle. We have already seen a grandiose example of this phenomenon in Russia, where a proletariat almost wholly unorganized created a comprehensive network of organizational appendages in a year and a half of stormy revolutionary struggle". (The Mass Strike)

Again Luxemburg's words apply almost perfectly to the recent strikes in Poland. Just as in Russia in 1905 -- where the ‘unorganized' character of the proletariat was less an expression of the backwardness of Russian conditions than a harbinger of the situation that awaited the entire proletariat in the emerging epoch of sta­te capitalism -- the Polish workers entered into struggle without any prior organization. But, without any revolutionary vanguard telling them what to do or providing them with ready-made organizational structures, they showed a formida­ble capacity to organize themselves in mass as­semblies, factory strike committees, inter-fac­tory strike committees, workers' defense guards...

As a matter of fact, the self-organization of the Polish workers showed that, in many respects, they have assimilated the lessons of decadence in a more thorough-going way than many of our super-partyists. The GCI, for example, while acknowledging that the inter-factory strike committees were a real gain of the movement, refrained from drawing the logical conclusion from this. When the ICC says that mass assem­blies, strike committees and councils are the form of unitary organization for the proletariat in this epoch, the GCI accuses us of formalism -- and, as we have seen, it takes its ‘anti-for­malism' to the point of flirting with the idea that, maybe, ‘free trade unions' could be real workers' organs. Why then doesn't the GCI criticize the Polish workers for ‘formalistically' creating mass assemblies, elected and revocable delegates, centralized strike committees? The fact is that, while the GCI might want to leave room for some new, mysterious form of class organization, the Polish workers have shown that the form of the assemblies, strike committees, and councils is the most simple, effective, uni­fying, democratic form for the organization of the class struggle in this epoch. There's no mystery here, only the admirable simplicity of a class that requires practical answers to practical problems.

Unlike the GCI, the CWO hasn't forgotten that capitalism is a decadent system and that the old forms of ‘workers associationism' are no longer useful. In WV n.1 they show that they have certainly understood the importance of the mass assemblies, the strike committees, and the soviet form. In their article on Poland, they say that "The way in which they linked up strike committees in Gdansk to form one unifying body representing over 200 factories, and their re­fusal to go on accepting the costs of the capi­talist crisis makes the Polish workers the van­guard of the world working class". And they also include a long article celebrating the 75th anniversary of the first soviet, pointing out that the workers' democracy of the soviet form is qualitatively superior to the ‘demo­cracy' of bourgeois parliamentary institutions:

"There is no doubt that the most important difference with capitalist democracy is the idea of ‘delegation'. This idea was first used by the class in the Paris Commune of 1871 and allows workers to recall their re­presentatives at any time (Instead of wai­ting 5 years before the next election). Also the delegate is not a free agent as MPs are. When a workers' delegate speaks and votes on any issue he cannot say just what he feels like at that time. He votes on the basis of the orders of the workers who elected him. If he fails to carry out their wishes he can be instantly removed..."

The CWO concludes that the soviet system "proved in practice to all doubters that workers can rule for themselves". Later on they even attack ‘partyism', the social democratic (and, accor­ding to them, Bordigist) idea that "all the re­volution needs is a general to plan the campaign and the working class will follow the lead". They insist that "revolutions cannot be neatly organized just when and where the ‘partyists' wish it and first of all there must exist a political situation and living conditions which bring masses of people into open revolt".

As a matter of fact, the CWO exaggerates when it attributes views as crude as this to the Bordigists. But it is nevertheless a positive sign that they should be so enthusiastic about defending the forms of workers' democracy crea­ted by the class both in the past and the present. But when they try to combine this enthusiasm with their firmly-held idea that the party must organize the class and take power on its behalf, they get themselves into all kinds of contradictions. Thus, on the one hand they clearly show how the Polish workers ‘spontaneously' created the inter-factory strike committees (ie, without the intervention of a revolutionary party). But at the same time, they feel compelled to argue that the 1905 Soviet -- which was at its inception an inter-factory strike committee - wasn't created spon­taneously but was actually "produced" by the party. How do they attempt to show this, when elsewhere they admit that the Bolsheviks ini­tially "dismissed the Soviet as a mere trade union body"? Mainly by carefully editing a quo­te from Trotsky and taking it out of context. According to the CWO, Trotsky argued that the soviet didn't emerge spontaneously but "was in fact a product of the existing divisions in the Social Democratic Party, between Bolshe­vik and Menshevik factions. As Trotsky tells us in 1905, the Party produced the Soviet".

What Trotsky does in fact say was that the divi­sions between the social democratic factions "rendered the creation of a non-party organization absolutely essential". But Trotsky doesn't say that, because such a body was essential, it could be produced by the party at will. In fact the divided nature of the party made it less able to play a vanguard role in these events; and in any case, if there had not been hundreds of thousands of workers already forming factory committees, already tending towards the centralization of their various strike movements, the party wouldn't have been able to contribute any­thing to the creation of the soviets. The CWO also forget this when they point out that the "Mensheviks took the initiative to call the Soviet which began with only 30 or 40 delegates representing no more than a few thousand workers". ‘Calling for' a soviet isn't the same as ‘pro­ducing' it. The Mensheviks and other revolu­tionaries certainly took an admirable initia­tive when they actively called for the formation of a central strike committee, but no one would have listened to them if they hadn't been rela­ting to a powerful class movement that was al­ready surging forward.

"When the strike wave spread from Moscow to St Petersburg on October 11, the workers spontaneously reached out for concerted action. Deputies (starosti) were elected in several factories, including the Putilov and Obukhov works; a number of deputies had earlier been members of strike committees... On October 10 a session of the Menshevik ‘Group' (of St Petersburg) proposed founding a city-wide ‘workers committee' to lead the general strike, and to begin propaganda for its election. Next day about fifty agi­tators began circulating among workers an appeal proposing election of one deputy for each 500 workers..." (O. Anweiler, The Soviets, p.45)

The Mensheviks' intervention -- in this case the Mensheviks were well in advance of the Bolshe­viks -- is a good example of how a revolutionary organization can accelerate and push forward the self-organization of the class. But it al­so shows that soviet organizations aren't ‘pro­duced' by parties in any meaningful sense of the term. In claiming this the CWO ignore their own insistence that "first of all there must exist a political situation and living conditions which bring masses of people into open revolt". If the workers aren't already tending to create their own organizations in the heat of the strug­gle, then the revolutionaries' appeals for au­tonomous and centralized forms of organization will fall on deaf ears; and if the revolutiona­ries try to substitute themselves for the real movement by artificially setting up alternative structures of various kinds (eg party combat units or self-proclaimed workers' committees) they will either make fools of themselves or turn themselves into a dangerous obstacle to the development of class consciousness.

The contradictions of the CWO's position can also be seen when we dig below the surface of their distinctions between delegation and re­presentation. We agree that proletarian dele­gation is quite different from capitalist ‘re­presentation'. But why don't the CWO draw the logical conclusion from this: That in the so­viet system, where all delegates are subject to instant recall, there can be no question of the workers electing the party to power, because this is precisely the manner in which bourgeois parliaments operate? As yet we've seen no statements by the CWO that they've changed their position on the party taking power. Instead, writing about the Polish strikes, they say that we can learn a lot from Walesa and other free trade union activists (ie, militants who defen­ded a bourgeois political orientation) because they knew how to implant themselves in the class and ‘control' the struggle.

"Walesa's political friends controlled the struggle until its ‘victory' because they had the confidence and support of the wor­kers -- a confidence which had been built up in ten years of sacrifice and struggle. This minority achieved a presence in the working class. In its actions (though clear­ly not in its politics) there are lessons for communists to follow."

This is an extremely dangerous argument, and it smacks of the Trotskyist idea that the problem facing the working class is that it has a ‘bour­geois leadership', and that all that's needed is to put a proletarian leadership in its place. In fact, for the proletariat, there can be no separation between means and ends, "actions" and "politics". In the case of Walesa, there is a clear connection between his political ideas and a tendency to separate himself off from the mass of the workers and become an ‘idol' of the movement (a process that the western press did everything they could to accelerate, of course). Similarly, one of the expressions of the politi­cal immaturity of the Polish workers was a cer­tain tendency, especially towards the end of the strike, to hand over decision-making to ‘experts' and to individual personalities like Walesa. The ‘leadership' given by a communist minority, on the other hand, cannot obey the same logic. Communist intervention doesn't aim at ‘control­ling' the mass organs of the class, but at en­couraging the workers to take all power into their own hands, to abandon any idea of putting their faith in "saviors from on high" (to quote the ‘Internationale'). There is no contradic­tion between this and ‘winning the workers to the communist program', because the communist program, in its essence, means the working class assuming conscious mastery over the so­cial forces it has itself created.

Class consciousness and the role of revolutionaries

"The materialist doctrine that men are pro­ducts of circumstance and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbrin­ging, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator him­self needs educating. Hence this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example). The coincidence of the changing of circum­stances and of human activity can be con­ceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice." (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach)

The Kautskyist theory that socialist class con­sciousness is not produced by the class struggle, but is imported into the class from ‘outside', underlies all the substitutionist conceptions that we have criticized in this article. Although only some of the ‘partyist' groups, like Batta­glia Communista, explicitly defend this thesis, the others are constantly slipping into it be­cause they don't have a clear theory of class consciousness to set against it. All those who argue that the working class is too alienated to become aware of itself without the ‘external' mediation of the party forget that "the educators need educating" -- that revolutionaries are part of the class and therefore subject to the same alienations. They forget too that it is precisely because the proletariat suffers from alie­nation in its capitalist form that it is a communist class, a class capable of giving birth to a communist party and of moving towards a clear, unmystified, and unified view of the world. We cannot enter here into a long discussion of these difficult questions. But one re­levant example of how the latter-day heirs of Kautsky "arrive at dividing society into two parts, of which one is superior to society" is the way in which they see the ‘spontaneous' movement of the class, that is to say any move­ment not led by the party, as an essentially unconscious movement.

Battaglia once expressed this clearly when they said that, without the party, you can talk about "class instinct", but not "class consciousness" (cf ‘Class and Consciousness', Prometeo n.1, 1978). Thus, the spontaneous movement of the class is no more than brute instinct; a blind natural force that needs the party to be its brain; and without an ego. Such conceptions allow for the class to be prodded into action by material circumstances, like the salivating dog in Pavlov's experiments. They may even admit that such spontaneous reactions can give rise to a certain level of self-organization. But without the party, they insist, such move­ments cannot become truly self-aware: Like animals, the workers cannot have a memory or a vision of the future. They are condemned to live in the immediate present because the par­ty is their memory, their consciousness.

Once again, the Polish workers have given the lie to such theories. As we wrote in IR 23, "The party is not the sole repository of class consciousness as all the self-pro­claimed Leninist epigones claim. It's neither infallible, nor invulnerable. The whole history of the workers' movement is there to prove it. And history also proves that the class as a whole accumula­tes experiences and assimilates them di­rectly. The recent formidable movement of the working class in Poland showed its remarkable capacity to accumulate and as­similate its experience of ‘70 and ‘76 and to go beyond them, and this despite the cruelly-felt absence of a party" (‘The Party Disfigured; The Bordigist Conception').

The Polish workers showed that the class does indeed have a memory. They remembered the expe­rience of past struggles and drew the appropri­ate lessons. The workers of Lublin, like the URSUS tractor-plant workers in 1976, tore up the railway tracks because they remembered that, in 1970, troops had been sent by rail to crush the workers' uprising. The workers remembered that the 1970 and ‘76 movements had been vulnerable to repression because they were isolated from each other, so they spread their strikes as wi­dely as possible and coordinated them by linking up strike committees. They remembered that, each time they rose up against the state, the government had tried to placate them by dumping the current ruling clique and replacing it with a more ‘popular' and ‘liberal' set of bureau­crats. But having seen how the ‘liberal' Gomulka of 1956 became the ‘hardline' Gomulka of 1970, and how the ‘liberal' Gierek of 1970 became the ‘hardline' Gierek of 1980, the workers were not for one minute fooled by the latest series of purges in the government. Already in 1970, the Polish workers had been telling themselves the following joke:

Question: "What's the difference between Gomul­ka and Gierek?"

Answer: "Nothing, but Gierek doesn't know it yet".

In 1980, the workers' cynicism about everything the government does or says is even more deeply entrenched: Hence their attempts to ensure that the gains they made in the struggle would be imposed and safeguarded by force and not by putting any trust in the government.

But perhaps the surest proof of the workers' ability to assimilate the lessons of the past was shown in their attitude to the question of violence. They did not forget the experience of 1970, when hundreds of workers were killed while engaging in unplanned, uncoordinated con­frontations with the state. This didn't make them pacifists: They quickly organized workers' defense guards in the occupied factories. But they understood that the real strength of the class, its real self-defense, lies in its ca­pacity to organize and extend its struggle on a more massive scale. Here again the workers showed themselves to be more advanced than those ‘vanguard' groups who prattle on about workers' terrorism and condemn as ‘Kautskyist' the idea that class violence has to be under the control and direction of the mass organs of the class. The workers were prepared for violence, but they were not willing to be provoked into premature military confrontations, or allow isolated groups of workers to engage in desperate sorties against the police or the army. The fact that the Po­lish workers began to deal with the ‘military question' as an aspect of the general organization of the struggle augers well for the future: Because when the time does come to take on the state directly, the workers will be better pla­ced to so as a united, organized, conscious force.

This ‘proletarian memory' isn't transmitted genetically. The Polish workers were able to assimilate the experiences of the past because even in the absence of a revolutionary organization, there is still discussion and debate going on in the class, through hundreds of chan­nels, some more formal -- mass assemblies, wor­kers' discussion circles etc, others less for­mal -- discussions in factory canteens, in bars, in buses... And just as these channels ensure that the working class has a collective memory, they also allow the workers to develop a vision of the future -- and not only the future of a particular factory or industry, but the future of the entire country and even the entire pla­net. Thus the Polish workers simply couldn't avoid trying to understand the effect their strike would have on the national economy, on the future government of the country; they were compelled to discuss what Russia would do about the strikes, how Russia's reaction would be af­fected by their intervention in Afghanistan, how the west would respond, and so on. It's not the intervention of the party which obliges workers to look further afield than the factory gate and further ahead than the day after tomorrow: It's the historical movement of capitalist so­ciety as a whole.

But wait, cry our party-worshippers, if the working class is its own brain, what use is the party? This is only a real question for those whose thought is locked into dusty schemas, who see the class struggle as a series of fragmented stages that have no underlying connections.

Yes, the working class as a whole has its own memory. But the revolutionary organization constitutes a particular and crucial part of that memory. Only the revolutionary organization can offer a viewpoint which spans the whole of working class history, which makes it possible not just to link the Polish experien­ce of 1980 with the Polish experiences of 1956, ‘70 and ‘76, but to link all these experiences to the lessons of the 1917 revolution in Russia, to the experience that workers in the west have had of the so-called free trade union since 1914, to what Marx, Lenin, Bordiga, Pannekoek and other revolutionaries wrote about the facade of bour­geois democracy, and so on. Because revolutio­naries can offer a global view of the whole ca­pitalist system, they can also provide a realis­tic assessment of the balance of class forces at any time. Even more important, such a global view can help the workers to see that there can be no ‘national' solutions to the crisis, that the struggle must extend beyond national bor­ders if it is to survive and grow. In brief, revolutionaries alone can clearly point out the connection between today's struggle and tomor­row's revolution. Revolutionaries can't ‘in­ject' consciousness into the workers but they can offer answers to questions workers are al­ready beginning to pose, they can draw together all the different strands in the collective thought of the class and present the workers with a clear overall picture of the significan­ce and direction of their struggle.

The super-partyists will probably object: That sounds like mere ‘propagandism'. What are the ‘practical' tasks of the party? In posing such questions they forget Marx's dictum that "theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses" (Contribution to the Criti­que of Hegel's Philosophy of Right). In the heat of the class war, the workers become theo­reticians, and in doing so, they transform theo­ry into propaganda, propaganda into agitation, and agitation into action. In other words, the more the ideas of revolutionaries correspond to what the working class is doing in practice, the less abstract they become: What was yesterday a theoretical critique of bourgeois democracy can, in a revolutionary situation, become a prac­tical agitational slogan like ‘all power to the soviets'. And for the revolutionary organization, this is no ‘merely propagandist' activity in the sense of a pedantic repetition of general truths, issued from the sidelines of the strug­gle. The revolutionary organization must cons­tantly seek to make its general analyses more and more concrete, more and more connected to practical proposals for action; and it can on­ly do this if it is inside the struggle, if its members are in the frontline of the class move­ment, if they intervene in every expression of the proletariat's struggle, from the picket line to the central soviet.

And yet it is ironic that those who continually emphasize the fact that the class cannot be conscious without the party are the same ones who nearly always sneer at the idea that the central and specific task of the party is to deepen and extend the consciousness of the class. For them all this talk about the generalization of class consciousness is just mere ‘propagandism': For them what distinguish the revo­lutionary organization are its ‘practical, organizational' tasks.

When you ask them to be more specific about what this really means, they either answer with more generalities which no one could disagree with (‘the party must play a vanguard role in the soviets', ‘revolutionaries must be prepared to put themselves at the head of strikes', etc), or they come up with semi-terrorist fantasies about party combat groups stimulating the workers to fight back (when has this ever been the case in the history of the working class?). Or, even more ridiculous, they'll start telling you how one day the party is going to ‘have power' over the whole world.

The truth is that the working class doesn't need revolutionaries because they are good adminis­trators or specialists in blowing up bridges. Certainly, revolutionaries will have administra­tive and military tasks, but they can only carry out such tasks effectively if they do so as part of a vast proletarian movement, as members of the workers' councils or the workers' militia. The really precious, irreplaceable thing that revolutionaries have is their political clari­ty, their ability to synthesize the collective, historical experience of the class and return it to the proletariat in a form that can be rea­dily understood and used as a guide to action. Without this synthesis, there just won't be time for the working class to assimilate all the les­sons of past experience: It will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, and thus to be defeated once again. Some revolutionaries may see this as a paltry task for the mighty revo­lutionary party: But the success or failure of the revolution will depend on the party's capacity to carry it out.


The struggle of the Polish workers is a foretaste of what lies in store for capitalism everywhere. Because the bourgeoisie will be compelled by the logic of the crisis to make increa­singly savage attack on the working class, and because the working class remains undefeated, there will be more Polands, not just in the third world and the eastern bloc but in the ma­jor countries of western imperialism. The out­come of such confrontations will determine the fate of humanity. If the working class is able to develop its organizational and political au­tonomy through these battles, if these struggles provide an opening for the intervention of revolutionaries, and an impetus towards the for­mation of an international communist party, then they will be rehearsals for the second proleta­rian revolution of the 20th century. If, on the other hand, the nightmares of the past weigh too heavily on the brains of the living, if the wor­kers are unable to see through the lies of the class enemy, if the proletariat remains isolated from its revolutionary vanguard, then these bat­tles will end in defeats that could open the door to the third world war. The one sure thing is that the working class cannot cut through the chains of alienation and oppression by appealing to any force outside itself. The revolutionary minority, as part of the class, will share the fate of the class, in defeat or in victory. And yet, because what they do now will be one of the factors determining whether our class wins or loses, an immense responsibility lies on the shoulders of today's revolutionaries. They can only live up to this responsibility if they free themselves both from dilettantism and megalomania, and learn to look reality in the face without illusions.


November 1980

Life of the ICC: 


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