Presentation of the 20th International Congress

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Presentation of the 20th International Congress
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: Presentation of the 20th International Congress. The discussion was initiated by Fred.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

the culture of theory - and debate

This enormous article is like a ten course  meal and difficult to digest. And difficult to talk about too!  Two things struck me:  (a) the culture of debate and (b) the culture of theory.  

Actually I don't think there is a culture of debate in Marxist circles and don't even think we need or can have one.  I don't think proletarians "debate". Surely "debate" is a very bourgeoisie notion.  Someone proposes a  topic: some speak for it and some against and then a vote is taken. None of it really matters. It's just an exercise: doesn't have any genuine connection to reality: it's yet another exercise of bourgeois democracy. Phony and pointless through and through. 

Is "debate" the way the working class and its minorities reach conclusions?  I think not.  As Pannekoek says somewhere: proletarians don't think  in the same way in which the bourgeoisie thinks.  For the working class it's either "yes" or "no" arrived at collectively. This is proletarian democracy at work. Decisions are arrived at organically; no automatic need for a vote to reveal what we think. When we're working together properly and effectively we know what we think long before the taking of a vote stage is reached.   This is a result of what I call "the eureka effect", an effect first discovered and named in science in Ancient Greece,   and which got enthusiastic support from Jamal on these boards the first time I mentioned it. 

Proletarian practical "discoveries" arrive like bolts from the blue.  The discovery that the working class can't just seize hold of bourgeois ways of doing things and use them for proletarian purposes;  the discovery that Workers Councils are the form of proletarian rule; and the revelation that the communist party mustn't substitute itself for the class.    These inspired discoveries, like flashes of insight, are later theorized  and become valuable  lessons learned and knowledge gained,  to be handed from generation to generation. 


But there isn't really anything about them that needs debating.  Once theorized and clarified someone either agrees and accepts them or not. A lot of Marxism is like this.  You either see it or you don't.  Marxism's discoveries are not challengeable - not falsifiable in the sense in which bourgeois science is - except through historical praxis; which proves them right or wrong; or works to change or elaborate them.  It's living human science; felt in the heart and felt along  the blood.  Its intuition in practice : later  theorized and refined in words. 

So the notion that Marxism is open to "debate", and that we therefore need "a culture of debate" is not one I go along with, and it certainly isn't something  we currently do anyway.  The ICC and the ICT never debate though I suppose they might discuss.  There's no real debate on this forum. People try to say what they think, while others agree or don't, or trump it by stating what they think. Occasionally an ICC guru may jump in with a definitive statement as to what the ICC thinks, and that's the end of it. Game over!  


As to "the culture of theory".  

 This ‘culture of theory’ is not a problem of militants’ level of education. It contributes to the development of a rational, rigorous and coherent thought which is indispensable to the capacity to develop an argument, to advancing the consciousness of all the militants, and to the consolidation of the marxist method in our ranks.


This is is pithily said.  It's very Marxist; very condensed.  I think I know what it means - but then suddenly I lose it and I don't.  I like it though.  I like it that the culture of theory iisn't just a matter of education.  The bourgeoisie would hate this.  It may not be a matter of bourgeois education, but it could be a question of the proletarian way of grasping and  interpreting the reality we live in, which is different from that of the bourgeoisie.  Pannekoek said so.  He's right.  This culture is "rational, rigorous and coherent" in short its ethical;  and embodies all the proletarian virtues,  all of which are quite beyond bourgeois grasp!  The theory embraces  the capacity to "develop an argument"  and discuss it, but not  necessarily to debate it bourgeois style.  What the proletariat thinks and knows doesn't have to be open to debate, only to discussion  in the cause of "advancing the consciousness of all the militants."  What could be better, snd what could be better said?  






debate isn't just for parliament

I think Fred is mixing up proletarian debate - the kind that goes on in revolutionary organisations, or in soviets for example - with bourgeois debate, as at the Oxford Union or parliament. the aim of the two is entirely different. True the SPGB tends to muddy the waters by holding debates with bourgeois organisations that often look like parodies of formal, parliamentary debates, but they have got to practice for when they have a socialist majority in palrliament I suppose. 

I had a quick look at your response to our article on the 'culture of debate' and I don't think you took up the same position t that point.


I don't thnk culture of debate and cultire of theory are at odds. They are part of the same thing, and both ahve to be defended and developed because they are both under attack from the habits of the dominant society, which can penetrate the best revolutionary organisations and always have to a greater or lesser extent.   

cultures of debate and theory

Im not quite sure what you are getting at Fred.  I do agree that ‘a debate’ as an academic discussion with forced rules and winners and losers at the end is inappropriate and maybe bourgeous as you say.  I checked the dictionary meaning and ‘to debate’ is described more as a discussion or a reasoned discussion.  With this in mind, I think I disagree with you here and do not see a contradiction between culture of debate and one of theory.


We had a meeting with the MDF in Birmingham recently.  I don’t really mind if it was called a discussion or a  debate – although maybe the latter is more appropriate in that there was a topic we all were addressing and a structure to enable different viewpoints to be heard.   It was not impromptu nor just a chat certainly


In terms of this forum, I think discussion is for self-clarification of self and others and theory exists to support that.   That is where the importance lies.  So I have no problems about the idea of either a culture of debate or a culture of theory., I am however a little more concerned if it turns out the ICC sees this a purely internal thing however.  Whilst, without question, there is a need for organisations to make decisions about priorities for internal activity it seems contradictory to me talk about internal openness but justify not taking part in discussions on its own website for example


Theoretical discussion doesn’t begin and end internally.


 ‘For the working class it's either "yes" or "no" arrived at collectively.’


I would also disagree with the suggestion you may be  making here, that there can only be one answer or result to discussions?  I certainly don’t think that on the website the ICC only has to comment to finish a discussion. In fact I’m more impressed with the ICC’s approach that disagreements don’t mean one side or the other is infected with bourgeois ideology.


What response would you give to other organisation within the wc movement or disagreements within individual organisations? There are clearly disagreements within the working class movement, theoretical and practical and organisational.  Is this a problem or a strength?  Depends on context I would suggest as an appropriately unclear answer.   Particularly when we look to the future and a wc uprising against capitalism,  there are many discussions in preparation for such an event that cannot now be settled.  The most important thing here for militant organisations  is the capacity understand and to learn from events as they happen.  Hence the need for a culture of debate/theory??


If you meant it in reference to decisions for action then yes I would agree there are times when workers councils will make decisions and everybody will just get on with it.  But that is not a theoretical discussion and its not statements by political groups -  it happens when its time for planning, its acting together, its decision making in action.

On Discussion, etc

I agree with Fred: this is rich fodder indeed and not easy to digest. This presentation of the ICC’s ‘internal life’ to ‘the outside world’, to ‘the proletariat’ of which revolutionaries are product and active part, requires a certain “decoding”. These are some of my thoughts in this regard.

First of all, on the question of discussion, I agree with what Alf and  Link  have written. Let’s not get hung-up on words – debate, discussion, polemic, etc: each one may have its nuance but in terms of the internal life of a proletarian political organisation – which is what we’re primarily looking at here – it’s a question of engagement. It’s a matter for each individual militant – and for the organisation collectively – to ensure that they are participating, forming, and forging a political orientation. Not to let things go by on the nod. Not to leave it to others. It’s not enough to agree on the basics – whatever are the criteria for membership of this or that organisation.  As Link says, new issues are posed by reality all the time. Yes: an organisation may elect certain comrades, certain commissions, to take up the tasks of suggesting, prioritising, mapping out “positions” on this or that event, or attitudes to this or that development of theory. But it’s for the organisation as a whole – collectively and for each militant as best as he/she can - to take responsibility for this process. In this sense, discussion is the lifeblood of any militant organisation, a measure of its health and vitality. Discussion, debate, is closely linked to the development and refinement of theory which is one of the raison d’êtres of a political minority (theory belongs to the entire class, but the entire class does not often actively engage in the determining of theory until and unless it is in massive, open struggle). And discussion is also closely linked to the question of organisation, of how a proletarian political minority constructs itself at a given time and in a given period. The question of how to organise, what structures to build, is linked to internationalism and is itself a primary political question.

When we look at the history of the workers movement, and in particular of its political and (in the past) mass organisations, what we recall is the importance of the debates within them: the clash between Marx and Bakunin in the Ist International; the polemics of the left wing of social democracy (Luxemburg, Lenin, Pannekoek, etc, etc) against the centre and right wing of the organisation, giving rise to famous texts, blasts and counter-blasts. These began as internal debates which, at a certain stage, were aired widely within the working class via meetings and newspapers. Of course debates, discussions aren’t held ‘for their own sake’. Neither are they something to be left to chance or taken for granted. I think that comes through in the Presentation.

There are certainly topics openly under debate in the ICC at present to which those of us ‘outside’ can and already have contributed: on the economic crisis, for example (was 2007 the opening of a new chapter in the life of the capitalist political economy or merely a continuity?) or the evolution of the class struggle (why a relative absence of workplace struggles in the heartlands of Europe and the USA; what is the meaning of the various ‘social struggles’ since 2008?, etc, etc) or on the level of imperialist tensions (in what way can and can’t the rise of China be compared with that of Germany in the decades before WW1?).

But there are other ‘signifiers’ from this Presentation as well: comrades who’ve been around a bit and done a bit know how all-consuming heightened moments of class struggle can be. What else is a revolutionary created for if not to actively participate directly in the struggles of his/her class, armed with ‘a general line of march’ and, perhaps, experience of the sabotage of the left and the provocations of the right, and with convincing arguments for avoiding this trap or pushing that movement forward?! To be present in the assemblies, on the barricades, within the strike committees and mass meetings...

However it’s often the more experienced comrades who also know that one can lose one’s head, can forget ones’ fundamental historical and international perspective, fall prey to an over-arching activism and localism in which ‘routine tasks’ fall by the wayside. ‘Routine tasks’ like developing discussion and theory, the privileged terrain of the political minority. I read in this Presentation the older generations of the ICC attempting to pass on these ‘organisational and political’ lessons to a younger generation, along with ‘the taste for theory’ and a ‘culture of debate’. It’s a necessary preoccupation because it’s a myth that the class struggle ‘solves everything’. On the contrary, it can shake political minorities apart.

Finally, if the necessary tension between an organisation’s internal and external life – between its intervention and its theoretical development – is an ever-present reality, ‘we’ perhaps should remember that this website, this discussion forum, is part and parcel of the ICC’s intervention. Its very existence and our exchanges here, depend on the existence of the ICC as a totality.  Three points arise from this:
a) as Jock of the ICT has argued elsewhere (1), this is not some random space created and maintained by comrades who can take it or leave it on a whim but part of a historic journey that’s been going on  for some 40 years;
b) The maintenance and presence of the ICC on these boards is not the only task the organisation has to perform and while an increase in the ‘presence’ of the organisation is is to be welcomed (by me and evidently others) we should be aware of the totality of the ICC’s work and not ourselves demand too much ‘immediate’ intervention;
c)  The above have implications for our method of conducting ourselves (see the webmasters’ latest pronouncements) and for our debate on ‘the use of the Internet for discussion’ also on this site.


(1)  Slothjabber wrote: "It seems that the existing organisations have failed to significantly attract new members - this network, I think, already has more Left Communists in it from the US than the ICC's and the ICT's North American sections combined - so perhaps part of the problem has been the failure of the organisations that emerged from the late '60s-early '70s. Though I think this can't be the only answer, the network is in part an attempt to find new organisational forms that might be better suited to the period ahead."

Jock (ICT)  replied: "This is a ridiculous comparison. Members of organisations are real people with real commitment (and some for a long time). You on the other hand are talking about phantom members who can wander in and out of forums like that at will. They have no commitment except to themselves. The CBG has not existed for years and its archive is a dead one. You cannot reply to the many errors or lies that are on it to correct them and I see no point in debating with a group which has no actual practice today (although I am a great admirer of Shug's work in Edinburgh). Additionally despite this quote you admit you have had so little success with this forum you have now opened up to people who are in real organisations (however weak - and you seem better informed on those weaknesses than I am). Perhaps they will bring the seriousness and commitment which is needed to go beyond idle chatter."




Many thanks for that KT. Every paragraph is a point for further reflection. I hope others will take up from there, and I'll try to come back tomorrow.

Thanks also to Link for your contribution. It raises many questions which I will try to come back to, but which are already answered to some extent in KT's post, such as the reason why the ICC insists so much on the process of internal clarification, and the conception of the revolutionary organisation that goes with it. 

Defending debate

I think Fred is to be commended for putting forward his ideas at the start of this thread, even though I tend to share other comrades’ disagreements with them; they are certainly thought-provoking, and offered in a spirit of – well, comradely debate…

And I think there’s also a deeper point to be made here: while it’s true that the term ‘debate’ today may have connotations of the university debating chamber or the bourgeois parliament, surely the underlying concepts of structured discussion and reasoned debate, clarity of thought... are the products of the best of previous class societies (ancient Greece, the Enlightenment etc.), and as such are part of the acquisitions of humanity. Today it's only the proletariat that can defend these against the brutalising and degrading effects of 100 years of capitalist decadence.

Proletarian debate

Alf wrote:

I think Fred is mixing up proletarian debate - the kind that goes on in revolutionary organisations, or in soviets for example - with bourgeois debate, as at the Oxford Union or parliament. the aim of the two is entirely different. True the SPGB tends to muddy the waters by holding debates with bourgeois organisations that often look like parodies of formal, parliamentary debates, but they have got to practice for when they have a socialist majority in palrliament I suppose. 

I had a quick look at your response to our article on the 'culture of debate' and I don't think you took up the same position t that point.


I don't thnk culture of debate and cultire of theory are at odds. They are part of the same thing, and both ahve to be defended and developed because they are both under attack from the habits of the dominant society, which can penetrate the best revolutionary organisations and always have to a greater or lesser extent.   


Yes Alf you're right in a way, but also wrong!   The point I was really trying to make in that post you refer to, was the manner in which members of WR/ICC  respond to and treat  supplicants who stumble onto this forum and start wanting to say something for themselves, which they know could be "wrong" and will open them up to "corrections" from ICC gurus.  This makes them nervous because what might seem like gentle corrections from the ICC's "teachers" can hit a newcomer "student" like a slap in the face.  And wasn't it a criticism of WR in the 'seventies that "they're all just teachers" - not that there's automatically anything bad about being a teacher, it depends how you do it -  and they think they know everything and the rest of us know nothing.  


In fact of course, this is true.  The ICC do, in a sense, know everything needed about Marxism, the history of proletarian class struggle, the lessons of defeats, the mistakes of the proletarian past and so on, and understand the need to pass this on.  And they can command enormous respect from those able to appreciate their remarkable achievement: their confidence and bravery; and now, their longevity.  But ICC comrades can be infuriatingly  "know-all". and quickly become a rich  source of embarrassment  to newcomers, and comrades not so well up  in  Marxism, and  who, in relation to ICC  members are more or less ignorant. This makes for difficulties. I still recall with anguish attending  WR meetings  in the 70's and being asked after a detailed presentation of something   " what do you think of our positions"?  What could an ingenue like myself say.  "I'm bowled over. I'm knocked out"?  Or rather, should I admit the truth and baldy state:  "I can't think of anything to say!"  Some comrades, in the face of my silence, began assuming I was a Jacobin, I don't know why,  and asked me outright.  Oh! Horror!  In my naiveness I didn't even understand the question! 

So if I have a hang-up about debate it could be because I understand the difficulties involved for some of us,  and the awful implicit threats contained in the notion of "debate" for some workers from some kind of background  where "debate" has taken on a very formalized, even "fetishized"  aura and is, to say the least, off-putting, because it allows you to make a fool of yourself.  It doesnt really allow for putting out feelers, or being tentative, or testing the water, or even being plain and clumsily wrong.  Workers can be plain and clumsily wrong, and have a right to be. How else do we learn?  


So this is my hang-up about debate and its relationship to proletarian culture, proletarian clarification procedures and theoretical understandings.  The proletariat is not the same as the bourgeoisie and to make "debate" proletarian  isn't something that happens  automatically,  or without an effort.   


But all all this has been solved now, because ICC gurus generally speaking don't post in this forum anymore.