The conception of the Party held by Cervetto and Lotta Comunista (Part 3)

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From Rivoluzione Internazionale no. 146, June-September 2006.

In the last two articles, part one & part two, we saw how, apart from a formal mention of Lenin on the question of the party, the theoretical framework and the political practice of Cervetto and of Lotta Comunista (LC) do not correspond to a conception and methods of the working class. In this article we will see how this bourgeois vision is not a result of an inadequate understanding of Lenin's teaching, but rather of a real distortion of the latter, particularly of What is to be Done? This is to such an extent that it leads to positions and, above all, to a political practice, that were by no means those either of Lenin or of the various expressions of the Communist Left that LC pretends to incarnate.

Is LC the political heir of Lenin?

Cervetto claims to have based the whole of his doctrine of the party on an idea expressed by Lenin in What is to be Done? According to this, "Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge. (...)The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia... Thus, socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within it spontaneously. ... the task of Social-Democracy is to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task" (from What is to be Done?; II "The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social Democrats"; B. "Bowing to Spontaneity"). We have often voiced our critique of the idea that consciousness comes from outside the class. At the same time we agree with the valid criticism that Lenin develops in this text against the Economists of the period, for whom the revolutionary vanguard of the class served merely to support the proletariat's struggles for its immediate demands[1]. We will not develop this aspect here because the non-proletarian nature of LC is not a consequence of its adhering to the erroneous position of Lenin. The Bordigist current - to which groups like Programme Comunista, Le Proletaire, Il Partito in Florence, etc belong - bases its conception of the party on this same vision. However our critique of the Bordigist conception of the revolutionary party and of the Bordigist current generally, albeit profound and determined, has never cast doubt on its belonging to the revolutionary camp. The point is that Cervetto in his basic text "Class struggle and the Revolutionary Party" completely distorts the idea expressed by Lenin in his polemic against the Economists. Moreover Lenin himself modified it after 1905: "From a strike and demonstrations to isolated barricades. From isolated barricades to the mass erection of barricades and street fighting against the troops. Over the heads of the organisations, the mass proletarian struggle developed from a strike to an uprising. (...) The movement was raised from a general political strike to a higher stage. (...). The proletariat sensed sooner than its leaders the change in the objective conditions of the struggle and the need for a transition from the strike to an uprising. As is always the case, practice marched ahead of theory."[2] These are the words of the same Lenin who wrote What is to be Done? They are the words of a Marxist who, on the basis of the experience of his class, is able to understand that the soviets coming out of the 1905 revolution in Russia were not just any old means for proletarians to organise in order to pursue their demands. He recognised that they were rather the organisational form that corresponds "to a higher level" of political maturity reached by the class, to the realisation that only by unifying their forces and deciding themselves how to struggle, with what aims and with what instruments, proletarians can put an end to the unbearable conditions in which they live.

The vision of the working class that emerges from the whole of Cervetto's text is, on the contrary, that of a class that is ‘genetically' incapable of going beyond the struggle for immediate demands, for the defence of its conditions as wage earner, unless it is led by the party. Even when Lenin says "The best elements of the working class marched at the head, dragging in their wake the hesitant ones, awaking those who were sleeping, encouraging the weak", talking about the link between the economic strike and the political strike as revealed by the experience of 1905, Cervetto gives us to understand that this link "was the result of the struggle of the proletarian vanguard (elsewhere identified with the party, our note), which dragged the class and the exploited masses into generalised struggle." (Class Struggle and Revolutionary Party, pg 62).

However, this is more than just a distortion. Especially in the chapter "The Natural Superiority of the Proletariat", the proletariat is in fact presented as a manoeuvrable mass that the party must first snatch from the hands of the bourgeoisie. Then, once compacted, it is to be used to take advantage of the conflicts between bourgeois factions (both petty and big bourgeoisie) that have divergent interests in order to break up the bourgeois front and make the revolution: "Only when it has weakened the bourgeois forces of the contribution of the proletarian forces that they use, can the revolutionary party count on its natural superiority (which, as previously explained, is given by the numerical superiority of its ‘compactness', that is, by the concentration of the proletariat in the large factories, our note) against the bourgeois forces that, once deprived of the proletarian contingents, inevitably come into conflict and open up the way to the crisis of disintegration in which the proletariat will remain the only compact force" (idem, pg 60). This conception of Lotta Comunista is very similar to that of degenerating Trotskyism, for whom "the emancipation of the proletariat is the not the result of a struggle which places the proletariat as a class against the whole of capitalism, but is the result of a series of political struggles in the narrow sense of the term, and in which the working class, allied in succession to diverse political factions of the bourgeoisie, will eliminate certain other factions and by stages and degrees will succeed in gradually weakening the bourgeoisie, in triumphing over it by dividing it and beating it in separate bits" (The function of Trotskyism,  Internationalisme, publication of the Gauche Communiste de France - n° 26, September 1947) In all this there is nothing left of revolutionary marxism.

The vision coming out of this is no more or less than that of a military strategy that studies how best to position its army (its amorphous cannon fodder) in order to best exploit the weaknesses in the enemy's defences and defeat it. This vision has nothing to do with the understanding that has always been defended by the revolutionary vanguard; that is, the awareness of the revolutionary nature of the working class and of the dynamic of developing consciousness that leads to revolution.

In fact, the so-called Leninist orthodoxy that LC has banded about in every issue and every article of its paper from the beginning, has only served to legitimise as revolutionary a political practice that is not at all revolutionary. Every theoretical elaboration must be verified by the facts. As we have seen in the previous articles, the history of the founders of LC and of LC itself is a whole series of great theoretical affirmations that are trampled under foot by concrete action. Let's go back briefly to a central question; work in the unions, in order to see how the politics of this group are based on a vision of the working class as a mass to be manoeuvred by the party.

LC and work in the unions, or the policy of how to ‘make room for oneself'

On the question of the unions, Cervetto in the first instance, followed by LC up to the present day, pretend to base themselves on the position of Lenin and the Bolshevik party, according to which the revolutionary vanguard should work within union organisations because the latter still have a positive role to play in the development of the class struggle. This is in spite of the fact that the 1905 experience showed that the soviets are the form taken by the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is well known that the union question stimulated a big debate at the 1st Congress of the 3rd International in 1919 between the Bolsheviks and the other revolutionary organisations, particularly those from Germany, Switzerland and England. The former supported the thesis because they came from a country ruled by a backward regime of Czarist absolutism in which the unions had emerged fairly recently (in 1905 in fact, when the revolutionary upheaval dragged them into the movement, often under the leadership of the soviets). The other organisations on the contrary came from countries that were more mature at the level of capitalist development and had more experience of unionism, so even at this early stage they were able to denounce the union as an organism no longer feasible for the development of the class movement[3]. The differences on the union question have continued to exist within the communist left, where the position of the Bolshevik party on the unions has been taken up by other political formations, in particular by the Bordigist current. But the position and the resulting practice of LC have nothing to do with this. Cervetto, in his so-called scientific elaboration of the question, does not even bother to examine - not even to criticise them - the positions expressed by other revolutionary forces of the period or subsequently. Nor does he make an historic evaluation of these positions. Apart from this, what is the political practice that comes out of this supposed faithfulness to Lenin? In his 1957 Theses, in the point on the Union Question, we read "On the principle that our action must go towards 'revolutionary activity in the unions' and not within unionism, the Communist Left (that is LC according to the author, our note) must organise its own union current within the CGIL and use every initiative and instrument at its disposal to advance this organisation (union ballots and meetings, elect leaders for union work, union bulletin, etc). Given the nature of the only union current existing within the CGIL that is revolutionary -the committees for union defence - the Communist Left must make an agreement with the anarchist comrades within it, with the aim of an eventual alliance to build a single union current composed of the revolutionary minority within the CGIL."

So whereas for Lenin work in the unions in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s meant encouraging proletarian regroupment, unity in the common struggle, furthering developing consciousness of its own strength as a class, for LC it is no more than a policy of entryism. A policy that is undertaken in order to create a following and so acquire a position of strength within the union structure by making alliances with anybody whatsoever as long as it helps it to become part of the leadership. It is no accident that it chooses the CGIL as a forum for its activity because, being ‘left-wing', it has members who have already chosen a political direction and are therefore easier to recruit by those who present themselves as revolutionary. In coherence with this vision, LC's role has always been to support the unions and their specific function within the capitalist camp against the working class. This is to contain the workers' reaction to their own exploitation within the framework of the ‘democratic contracting' permitted by the rules of the system, blocking any attempt of the class (in the words so dear to Cervetto) to go from the ‘economic struggle' to the ‘political struggle', from the defensive struggle for its own living conditions within capitalist society to the offensive struggle to destroy this system of exploitation.

LC against the maturation and the development of workers' struggles

During the struggles of the hot autumn in Italy in 1969, the workers began to identify the unions as their enemy and the latter, realising that the internal commissions were no longer adequate to control the working class, began to depend on more efficient instruments such as the ‘factory councils'. In this situation LC, apart from raving about these being comparable to the soviets, did all they could to give class credibility to a whole series of organs of union management which had defended the formation of the factory councils. "Within the unions themselves there are men holding 'syndicalist' positions, 'trade unionist' positions,... who are trying to bring into being the big union with positions linked to the big factories. ... These positions ... are to be found expressly in the documents developed in conferences and meetings of the leadership, etc..." (from LC's text "Factory Councils, internal commissions: an analysis of a political conflict"). The documents that LC mentioned were from the Central Committee of the FIOM, from the National Secretariat of the FIOM, from the provincial leadership of the FIM, FIOM, UILM of Genoa and so on.

When in 1987 the school workers organised outside the unions to carry out the struggle on the basis of sovereign general assemblies in which the workers decided how to struggle, LC tried to bring the workers back into the fold by defending the idea that they should not abandon the CGIL. When they saw that they had no success, they scorned the struggle, calling it "southern" (because it developed mainly in the south of Italy) while inciting the CGIL to get a move on and call an extraordinary congress to try and regain credibility within the movement.

In 2002 there was a whole mystificatory campaign on the part of the CGIL with the referendum around article 18 of the labour laws. This campaign aimed to drag young workers in particular onto the terrain of ‘democratic consultation' as a form of ‘struggle' against precarious and flexible work (already generally introduced in Italy thanks to the unions). Did LC denounce this? Not at all, except for the usual criticism of ‘opportunist leaders', of Pezzotta and Cofferati et al. What orientation did LC give to the proletariat? "... only a vision going against the stream based on a clear Marxist strategy can give a lasting meaning to union defence, an intelligence to class pride, a future to the communist struggle against opportunism" (LC, March 2008, pg. 16). What does this mean? Who knows! Maybe we can make sense of it by looking at the assessment that LC made of it four years later when it compares the movement last spring of the young French workers against precarious work[4] with the demonstration organised by the unions in Rome 2001 around article 18. It says "We wrote that the CGIL of Sergio Cofferati, with the support of the opposition parties, rejected flexibility measures that would have risked leading the union to unconditional surrender. This hard struggle forced the government to withdraw the measures and threw the group of managers of Confindustria into crisis." Unfortunately "the illusory aim of the referendum" to extend article 18 to businesses with less than 15 workers, "that was never attempted by the unions, an indication of how weak the union confederation has always been", led to the "inevitable disaster" that "put an end to the period of struggles around article 18; the flexibility measures were put into practice..." (LC March 2006, pg 16). In other words, full support for union policy both economically and in terms of sabotaging the class. It is just that everything was badly managed. This demonstrates the need to get elected as delegates, to take on positions in the leadership, in other words to win positions of strength within the union structure. The proletariat remains imprisoned within the bourgeois framework? They are prevented from understanding what weapons the bourgeoisie uses against them, from becoming conscious of their revolutionary class nature and their strength, from understanding who to fight and how? What's the problem? The party science will take care of that at the opportune moment. For now it is important that this party-science makes a place for itself strategically within the structure.

This is the ‘consciousness' that Lotta Comunista wants to import from the outside into the working class.

This kind of ‘consciousness'; this method has always been denounced by Marxists, Lenin above all, as not belonging to the working class.

To conclude this short series of articles, we want to draw attention to the following point: nearly everyone considers LC to be a revolutionary group and it boasts itself that it is a group of the Communist Left. This is possible because LC hides behind the errors of the historic groups of the Communist Left. With the IBRP it shares the idea of building the party at a national level before moving on to the international party. With the Bordigists it shares the idea that consciousness comes from outside the class and that it is necessary to work in the unions. In addition, let's not forget that Cervetto frequented Battaglia Comunista for a time and even wrote some articles for Prometeo. This is why we have insisted, and go on insisting, that in the case of LC it is not a matter of a mere accumulation of errors, of wrong positions. What basically characterises LC are power politics that aim at winning a position of strength within the union by using the working class as a mass to be manoeuvred. The relations of force used against their own militants who are no longer willing to follow "the directives coming from the centre" and their absolute refusal to question the political practice of conquering strategic positions, makes LC a group which has no place among proletarian organizations.

Eva, 2 June 2006

see also

The conception of the party held by Cervetto and Lotta Comunista (part one)

The conception of the Party held by Cervetto and Lotta Comunista (part two)

[1]  On the question of consciousness see our pamphlet in French and English "Class Consciousness and the Role of Revolutionaries" and in Italian the articles "Class Consciousness and the Role of Revolutionaries" in Revista Internazionale no.3 and "On the Role of Revolutionaries in the Proletarian Struggle: a reply to the Petrified Marxism of Programma Comunista" in Rivoluzione Internazionale no.12, April 1978).

[2] Lenin, Rapporto sulla rivoluzione del 1905 in Selected Works, Riunite Edition (our emphasis), published in English as Lessons of the Moscow Uprising. For the evaluation of the 1905 revolution made by the revolutionary forces of the period, see our article "The 1905 Revolution; the Proletariat affirms its Revolutionary Nature" in nos.140 and 141 of Rivoluzione Internazionale.

[3] See the article "The Political Positions adopted by the 3rd International" (in the series "The Decadence Theory at the heart of Historic Materialism") in the International Review no.123, 4th quarter 2005. For the ICC's analysis of the union question see the brochure "The Unions against the Working Class".

[4] For the significance and importance of the movement in France, see the articles in this issue of the paper and the previous one and the Theses on the Movement of the French Students on our internet site