The course of history: The 80s are not the 30s
In which direction is history moving; where is our society going to? Are we heading for a new world war? Or, on the contrary, are we heading for class confrontations that will pose the question of proletarian revolution?
This is a basic, fundamental question for anyone claiming to play an active and conscious part in the class struggle.
This is why the congresses of a proletarian political organization always devote a large part of their effort to the analysis of the international situation, with the aim of grasping as firmly as possible the general dynamic of the balance of class forces.
The Partito Communista Internazionalista (Battaglia Communista) held its Fifth Congress in November 1982 and has just published the fruits of its labors in Prometeo no.7 of June 1983. The question is touched on ... even if this is partly to insist that this kind of question cannot be answered.
In a recent text (distributed at the ICC's July 1983 public forum in Naples, Italy) BC states that they consider this Congress' Theses as a contribution to the debate in the revolutionary milieu, and "is still waiting for them to be discussed in their political substance." Rather than deal superficially with all the questions touched on at BC's Congress ("crisis and imperialism", "tactics for intervention and the revolutionary party", "the transitional phase from capitalism to communism") we have limited ourselves in this article to the question of the present historic course, and what the Theses of BC's Congress have to say about it.
Is it possible to move towards world war and world revolution at the same time?
According to Battaglia, we cannot answer the question of the present perspective for class struggle more precisely than to say: it may be war, it may be revolution, it may be both. For Battaglia, there is nothing that allows us to assert that one outcome is more probable than the others. Here is an example of how this idea is formulated:
"The generalized collapse of the economy immediately gives rise to the alternative: war or revolution. But by marking a catastrophic turning point in the capitalist crisis and an abrupt upheaval in the system's superstructure, the war itself opens up the possibilities of the latter's collapse and of a revolutionary destruction, and the possibility for the communist party to assert itself . The factors determining the social break-up within which the party will find the conditions for its rapid growth and self-affirmation -- whether this be in the period preceding the conflict, during or immediately after it -- cannot be quantified. We cannot therefore determine ‘a priori' when such a break-up will take place (eg Poland)." (‘Tactics for the Intervention of the Revolutionary Party', Prometeo, June 1983)
BC starts from a basic idea which is both correct and important: there is no ‘third way out'. The alternative is war or revolution, and there is no possibility of capitalism starting on a renewed peace-time economic development. Apart from anything else, this is important in the face of the flood of ‘pacifist' illusions that the bourgeoisie is pouring over the proletariat in the industrialized countries. But it is inadequate, to say the least, in determining a perspective.
Battaglia says "the factors determining the social break-up ... cannot be quantified. We cannot therefore determine ‘a priori' when such a break-up will take place."
However, the question is not to determine the date and time of an eventual proletarian revolution but, more simply and more seriously, one of knowing whether the world bourgeoisie has the means to lead the proletariat of the industrialized countries into a third world war or whether on the contrary, pushed by the crisis and not enrolled under the capitalist banner, the proletariat is preparing for the confrontations that will pose the question of the world communist revolution.
When it says that the revolutionary situation may arise before, during or after a coming war, Battaglia admits its inability to take position on the present historical perspective.
BC justifies this inability by saying that the economic crisis can lead simultaneously to one or the other historical outcome.
There are supposedly two parallel tendencies, each with as much chance of being realized as the other.
It is true that from an objective standpoint, the economic crisis simultaneously exacerbates the antagonisms between social classes, and between rival capitalist powers. But whether one or the other of those antagonisms comes to a head depends in the last instance on one and the same factor: proletarian practice and consciousness.
It is the same, exploited, class which either affirms itself as protagonist of the revolution or serves as cannon-fodder and producer of the material means for imperialist war.
The state of mind, the consciousness of a class ready to overthrow the capitalist social order and build a new society is radically different from that of workers atomized, broken, ‘identified with' their ruling class to the point where they accept slaughtering each other on the battlefield in the name of ‘their' respective fatherlands. Marching under the red flag towards the unification of humanity is not the same thing as marching in ranks of four under the national banner to massacre the proletarians of the opposing imperialist camp. The working class cannot be in these two mutually exclusive states of mind simultaneously.
This is an obvious fact that Battaglia would accept without hesitation. However, it seems to be unaware that the processes leading to one or other of these situations are also mutually exclusive.
The process that leads to a revolutionary outcome is characterized by the proletariat's increasing disengagement from the grip of the dominant ideology and the development of its consciousness and combativity; in contrast, the process that leads towards war is expressed in the workers' growing adherence to capitalist values (and to their political and trade union representatives) and in a combativity which either tends to disappear, or appears within a political perspective totally controlled by the bourgeoisie.
These are two thoroughly different, antagonistic, mutually exclusive processes.
Anyone who analyses history in the light of the proletariat's role of central protagonist knows that the march towards war cannot be the same as the march towards revolutionary confrontations.
To affirm that these two processes can unfold simultaneously, without it being possible to determine which has the upper hand, is quite simply to reason by reducing the working class' consciousness and combativity to a mere abstraction.
How do we recognize the course towards war?
Today, Battaglia claims to be the only authentic heir to the inter-war Fraction of the Italian Left. But for this current, which remained on a class terrain throughout the dark days of triumphant counter-revolution, one of its greatest merits was its lucid recognition of the revolution's retreat after the 1920s and the opening of the course towards war in the 1930s. If it was able to recognize the Spanish Civil War and the 1936 strikes in France not as "the beginning of the revolution in Europe", as Trotsky thought, but as moments of the march towards world war that had already started, this was thanks to its ability to reason in terms of a historical course and to situate particular events within the overall dynamic of the balance of class forces on a world historical level. We only have to consider the periods leading up to the two world wars to see that they did not come as bolts from the blue, but were the result of a preparatory process during which the bourgeoisie systematically destroyed proletarian consciousness to the point where it could enlist the workers under the national banner.
In 1945, applying the method of the Italian Left, the Communist Left in France produced a remarkable summary of this process of war preparation:
"Through the intermediary of its agents within the proletariat, the bourgeoisie managed to put an end to the class struggle (or, more exactly, to destroy the proletariat's class power and its consciousness) and to derail its struggles by emptying these struggles of their revolutionary content, by setting them on the rails of reformism and nationalism -- which is the ultimate and decisive condition for the outbreak of imperialist war.
This must be understood not from the narrow and limited standpoint of one national sector taken in isolation, but internationally.
Thus, the partial resurgence of struggles and the 1913 strike wave in Russia in no way detracts from our affirmation. If we look more closely, we can see that the international proletariat's power on the eve of 1914, the electoral victories, the great social-democratic parties and the mass union organizations (the pride and glory of the Second International), were only an appearance, a facade hiding a profound ideological decay. The workers' movement, undermined and rotten with rampant opportunism, was to collapse, like a house of cards before the first blast of war.
Reality does not appear in the chronological photography of events. To understand it, we must grasp the underlying internal movement, the profound changes which have already occurred before they appear at the surface and are recorded as dates.
It would be a serious mistake to respect history's chronological order to the letter and present the 1914 war as the cause of the Second International's collapse when, in reality, the outbreak of war was conditioned by the previous opportunist degeneration of the international workers' movement. The greater the internal triumph and domination of the nationalist tendency, the louder sounded the public fanfares of the internationalist phrase. The 1914 war simply brought into the light of day the passage of the Second International's parties into the bourgeois camp, the substitution of the class enemy's ideology for their initial revolutionary program, their attachment to the interests of the national bourgeoisie.
The open completion of this internal process of destruction of class consciousness appeared in the outbreak of the 1914 war which it conditioned.
The outbreak of the Second World War was subject to the same conditions.
We can distinguish three necessary and successive stages between the two imperialist wars.
The first came to an end with the exhaustion of the great post-1917 revolutionary wave and consisted of a series of defeats for the revolution in several countries: in the defeat of the left, excluded from the Communist International by the triumph of centrism, and the beginning of Russia's evolution towards capitalism, through the theory and practice of' "socialism in one country".
The second stage is the general offensive of international capitalism, which succeeded in liquidating the social convulsions in the decisive centre where the historical alternative of capitalism or socialism was played out -- Germany -- through the physical crushing of the proletariat and the installation of the Hitler regime playing the role of Europe's policeman. This stage corresponds to the definitive death of the CI and the bankruptcy of Trotsky's left opposition which, unable to regroup revolutionary energies, engaged itself in coalitions and mergers with the opportunist currents and groups of the socialist left, and took the road of bluff and adventurism by proclaiming the Fourth International.
The third stage saw the total derailment of the workers' movement in the ‘democratic' countries. Under cover of defending workers' ‘liberties' and ‘conquests' from the threat of fascism, the bourgeoisie's real aim was to win the proletariat's adherence to the defense of democracy -- ie of national bourgeoisie and the capitalist fatherland. Anti-fascism was the platform, the modern capitalist ideology, that the proletariat's traitor parties used to wrap up the rotten produce of defense of the nation.
During this third stage occurred the definitive passage of the so-called communist parties into the service of their respective capitalisms, the destruction of class consciousness through the poisoning of the masses with anti-fascist ideology, the masses' adherence to the future imperialist war through their mobilization in the ‘Popular Fronts', the perverted and derailed strikes of 1936. The definitive victory of state capitalism in Russia was expressed, amongst other things, by the ferocious repression and physical massacre of all attempts at revolutionary reaction, by Russia's entry into the League of Nations, its integration into an imperialist bloc and the installation of the war economy with a view to the oncoming imperialist war. This period also witnessed the liquidation of many revolutionary and Left Communist groups with their origins in the crisis of the CI, which (through their adherence to anti-fascist ideology and the defense of the ‘Russian workers' state') were caught in the cogs of capitalism and definitively lost as expressions of the life of the class. Never has history recorded such a divorce between the class and the groups that express its interests and its mission. The vanguard is in a state of absolute isolation and reduced in numbers to a few negligible little groups.
The immense revolutionary wave that sprang from the end of the first imperialist war has put such fear into international capitalism that this long period of disintegration of the proletariat's foundations was necessary to create the conditions for unleashing a new worldwide imperialist war." (Report to the July 1945 Conference of the Communist Left in France)
As we can see, the historic course towards war has its specific manifestations which are sufficiently prolonged and recognizable -- even if they cannot be "quantified" as Battaglia would like -- for us to risk taking up a position.
It might perhaps be said that it is not always easy to recognize such a process -- but it would mean shunning the responsibilities of revolutionaries, and resigning ourselves to impotence and uselessness, to pretend that it is impossible, in a general way, to determine the historic course.
How do we recognize the course towards decisive class confrontations?
The process leading towards the creation of revolutionary situations is very different from that leading towards war. The march towards war does not break with the logic of the dominant system.
For the proletarians, going to war means complete submission to capital at every level ... to the point of sacrificing life itself. There is no fundamental change in the relationship between exploiting and exploited classes. The ‘normal' relationship is simply pushed to one of its most extreme forms.
"In reality, what could be called the ‘normal' course of capitalist society is towards war. The resistance of the working class, which can put this course into question, appears as a sort of ‘anomaly', as something running ‘against the stream', of the organic processes of the capitalist world. This is why, when we look at the eight decades of this century, we can find hardly more than two during which the balance of forces was sufficiently in the proletariat's favor for it to have been able to bar the way to imperialist war (1905-12, 1917-23,1968-80)." (International Review, no.21, second quarter 1980, ‘Revolution or War'.)
In this sense, the course towards rising class struggle is far more fragile, unstable and uneven than the course towards war. Because of this, it can be interrupted and reversed by a decisive defeat in a confrontation with the bourgeoisie, while the course towards war can only be broken by the war itself.
"Whereas the proletariat has only one road to victory -- armed, generalized confrontation with the bourgeoisie -- the latter has at its disposal numerous and varying means with which to defeat its enemy. It can derail its combativity into dead-ends (this is the present tactic of the left); it can crush it sector by sector (as it did in Germany between 1918 and 1923); or it can crush it physically during a frontal confrontation (even so, this remains the kind of confrontation most favorable to the proletariat)." (ibid)
The course towards war and the course towards decisive class confrontations
To take account of this ‘reversibility' of the course towards revolution we prefer to talk of a ‘course towards class confrontations' in trying to understand the present situation.
"The existence of a course towards class confrontations means that the bourgeoisie does not have a free hand to unleash a new world butchery: first, it must confront and beat the working class. But this does not prejudge the outcome of this confrontation, in one way or the other. This is why it is preferable to talk about a ‘course towards class confrontations' rather than a ‘course towards revolution'." (International Review no.35, ‘Resolution on the International Situation', Fifth Congress of the ICC.)
This is why we make less use of the term ‘course towards revolution' ... not because we have overturned our analysis of the question of the present course, as Battaglia claims, trying to raise an unreal polemic which avoids the real questions (as in their public reply to the ‘Address to Proletarian Political Groups' of the ICC's Fifth Congress).
This term, ‘course towards revolution' is justified essentially by the need to insist that there is no third way out of the dilemma: war or revolution. But if it were left at that, such a formulation could imply an outcome which we cannot affirm with certainty, at least not at the present stage of development of the historic course: we know that we are heading towards large-scale confrontations between bourgeoisie and proletariat which will once again pose the question of the revolution, and not towards war. But we cannot predict in advance the outcome of this confrontation.
Revolution during the war?
History gives us far more examples of situations where the balance of forces is totally in favor of the ruling class, than of periods where the proletariat has shaken or really limited bourgeois power. As a result, we have fewer historical references to define the characteristics of what a course towards revolutionary confrontations might be than is the case with a course towards war. All the more so since the experience of the proletariat's previous great revolutionary movements has generally occurred during or immediately after a war (the 1871 Paris Commune, 1905 and 1917 in Russia, 1918-19 in Germany). And the conditions created by war are such that, though they may provoke the development of a wave of revolutionary struggles as in 1914-18, they prevent these struggles from becoming truly international.
War can provoke revolutionary movements -- and may even do so extremely quickly: the first significant strikes in Russia and Germany took place in 1915 and 1916; the revolution broke out ‘only' 2-3 years later. But these 2-3 years were a period of world war, of history speeded up so that, on the level of the balance of class forces, these years were worth decades of exploitation and ‘peaceful' crisis.
However, "... the imperialist war (1914-18) also brought with it a whole series of obstacles to the generalization of revolutionary struggles on a world scale:
-- the division between ‘victorious' and ‘beaten' countries; in the former, the proletariat was more easily prey to the chauvinist poison poured out in huge doses by the bourgeoisie; in the second, while national demoralization created the best conditions for the development of internationalism, it by no means closed the door to revanchist feelings (cf ‘national Bolshevism' in Germany).
-- the division between belligerent and ‘neutral' countries: in the latter countries the proletariat didn't suffer a massive deterioration of its living standards.
-- faced with a revolutionary movement born out of the imperialist war, the bourgeoisie could resort to bringing a halt to hostilities (cf Germany in November 1918).
-- once the imperialist war was over, capitalism had the possibility of reconstructing itself and thus, to some extent, of improving its economic situation. This broke the élan of the proletarian movement by depriving it of its basic nourishment: the economic struggle, and the obvious bankruptcy of the system.
By contrast, the gradual development of a general crisis of the capitalist economy -‑ although it doesn't allow for the development of such a rapid awareness about the real stakes of the struggle and the necessity for internationalism - does eliminate the above obstacles in the following way:
-- it puts the proletariat of all countries on the same level: the world crisis doesn't spare any national economy.
-- it offers the bourgeoisie no way out except a new imperialist war, which it can't unleash until the proletariat has been defeated." (International Review no.26, third quarter 1981, ‘Resolution on the Class Struggle', Fourth Congress of the ICC.)
History does not, therefore, provide us with all the possible characteristics of a period of rising class struggle like today, marked not by war but by society's slow decline into economic crisis.
We can nonetheless identify this course:
-- firstly, because it does not have the essential characteristics of a course towards war;
-- secondly, because it is marked both by the proletariat's progressive disengagement from the grip of the dominant ideology, and by the development of the workers' own class consciousness and combativity.
The present course of history
Battaglia's Fifth Congress does not really take a position on the perspectives for the class struggle. It remains vague ... just as the ICP's Second Congress in 1948 did on the same question (see the article in this issue). But the Congress' Theses do say, as regards the present situation:
"If the proletariat today, faced with the gravity of the crisis and undergoing the blows of repeated bourgeois attacks, has not yet shown itself able to respond, this simply means that the long work of the world counter-revolution is still active in the workers' consciousness." (Synthesis of the General Political Report)
Battaglia has never understood the importance of the historic break with the counter-revolution constituted by the strike wave opened up by May 1968 in France. In reality, BC considers that today, just as in the 1930s, "the long work of the world counter-revolution is still active in the workers' consciousness."
To a large extent, BC still doesn't see the qualitative difference between the 1930s and the 1980s. They do not see that qualitatively different historical conditions are created for the proletarian struggle by the economic crisis' systematic destruction of the ideological mystifications which weigh the proletariat down and which have enlisted it in war in the past.
According to Battaglia's Fifth Congress Theses:
"The fact of having, for decades, yielded first to opportunism, then to the counter-revolution of the centrist parties; the fact of having undergone the weight of the collapse of political myths like Russia or China; the frustration of emotional/political campaigns created artificially around the Vietnam War: these have engendered, in the shock of the vast and destructive economic crisis, a proletariat, that is tired and disappointed, though not definitively beaten." (idem)
It is only normal that BC should observe, at the least, that since the Second World War the proletariat has not been massively crushed and is not "definitively beaten". But, once this is said, BC continues to see no more in the proletariat and its struggles than "the long work of the counter-revolution", tiredness and disappointment.
Let us examine the real situation.
As we have seen above, the existence of working class combativity (strikes, etc) is not enough to determine a course towards revolutionary confrontations. The struggles on the eve of the First World War, steeped in the spirit of reformism, in illusions about democracy and an endless capitalist prosperity; those of the late ‘30s diverted and annihilated in the dead-end of ‘anti-fascism' and so in the defense of ‘democratic' capitalism: these demonstrate that without the development of proletarian consciousness, class combativity is not enough to block the course towards war.
Since the end of the ‘60s, throughout the four corners of the earth, the workers' combativity has undergone, with ups and downs, a renewal that breaks unequivocally with the previous period. From May ‘68 in France to Poland 1980, the working class has shown that it is far from being "tired and disappointed", that its combative potential remains intact and that it has been able to put this potential into action.
What point has class consciousness reached?
Here we can distinguish two processes which, though tightly linked, are nonetheless not identical. Proletarian consciousness develops, on the one hand by its disengagement from the grip of the dominant ideology and, on the other, ‘positively' through the affirmation of the class autonomy, unity and solidarity.
As regards the first aspect, the devastating effects of the economic crisis, which no government -- right or left, East or West -- has been able to check, have dealt some heavy blows to the bourgeois mystifications of the possibility of a prosperous, peaceful capitalism, of the Welfare State, of the working class nature of the Eastern bloc and other so-called ‘socialist' regimes, of bourgeois democracy and the vote as a means of ‘changing things', of chauvinism and nationalism in the most industrialized countries, of the working class nature of the ‘left' parties and their trade union organizations. (For a more extensive treatment of this question, we refer the reader to our previous texts, in particular the Report on the Historic Course adopted at the ICC's Third Congress in IR no.18, third quarter 1979.)
As to the second aspect -- the ‘positive' development of class consciousness -- this can only be evaluated in relation to the proletariat's open struggles considered not in a static or local manner but in their worldwide dynamic. And indeed, the struggles of the last 15 years, from May ‘68 in France to September ‘83 in Belgium. (the strikes in the public sector), while they have not reached a revolutionary degree of consciousness -- which it would be childish to expect at their present stage of development -- are nonetheless marked by a clear evolution towards autonomy from the bourgeoisie's control apparatus (unions, left parties) and towards forms of extension and self-organization of the struggle. The mere fact that the bourgeoisie is more and more systematically obliged to have recourse to ‘rank and file unionism', especially in the ‘democratic' countries, to contain and divert the workers' combativity because the workers are deserting the unions in ever greater numbers, and because the union leaderships are less and less able to make themselves obeyed, is in itself enough to demonstrate the direction of the dynamic of workers' consciousness. Unlike the 1930s, when the workers' struggles were accompanied by increased unionization and the grip of bourgeois forces on the movement, the struggles in our epoch are tending to affirm their autonomy and their ability to go beyond the barriers that these forces erect against them.
Certainly, the proletariat still has a long way to go before it affirms its fully-formed revolutionary consciousness. But if we have to wait for this before taking a position on the present movement's direction -- as Battaglia seems to -- then we might as well give up any hope of a serious analysis of the present course of history.
Battaglia's Fifth Congress seems to have devoted a lot of effort to the analysis of the present economic crisis. This is an important aspect of our understanding of today's historical evolution -- as long as this analysis is correct, which is not always the case. But the best of economic analyses is no use to a revolutionary organization, unless it is accompanied by a correct appreciation of the historic dynamic of the class struggle. And in this sense, Battaglia's Congress is 40 years behind the times.
To judge from the work of its Fifth Congress, all the signs are that, as far as the analysis of the class struggle goes, Battaglia has still not arrived at the years of truth -- the 1980s.