We are publishing here a letter written by the ICC in response to an article published on the website of the Communist League of Tampa, a group which has appeared recently in the USA ( Why we need a world party). In the interests of public debate among revolutionaries, the comrades asked us to publish our letter on our website and informed us that they are working on a reply which will in turn be published on their site.
To the Communist League of Tampa
From the International Communist Current
We have been following your site with interest. We are encouraged by the appearance of a group which in some way identifies itself with the positions of left communism and which states plainly the need for revolutionaries to organise politically.
We think it would be fruitful to begin a political dialogue with your group and – given the importance of the organisation question for revolutionaries - that a useful starting point for this dialogue would be the text ‘Why we need a world party’ . We understand that this does not represent a ‘programmatic’ statement of the group and that it may well be the subject of disagreements among you: all the more reason, we think, to offer our own thoughts on this text and contribute to the discussion.
As already mentioned, a text which calls for a world party seems to go against the stream in a milieu dominated by anarcho-syndicalism, councilism, communisation theory, and all the varieties of individualism which flourish in a world increasingly ruled by the bourgeois principle of ‘every man for himself’. The open affirmation of the need not only for revolutionaries to come together and organise in a distinct political organisations, but also to prepare the ground for a worldwide revolutionary party in the future – this appears as a bold stance given the enormous weight of suspicion about the marxist conception of revolutionary organisation. From the mainstream media to the anarchists, we are ceaselessly informed that revolutionary political organisations can only be outmoded sects and that they are irrevocably tainted by the poisonous experience of Stalinism. We should not be surprised by this: just as the working class is a “class of civil society which is not a class of civil society”, so the revolutionary organisation which is a product of this class is essentially an alien body in capitalist society, and its militants cannot be deterred by the inevitable hostility they encounter from the representatives of the ruling ideology in all its forms. So we see a key area of agreement in the very title and theme of this text, as well as in the criticisms it makes of the anarcho-syndicalist and councilist arguments against political organisations and the political party. We have some disagreements with its formulations about the possibility of forming “revolutionary unions”, but that is an issue we can return to elsewhere, perhaps in a discussion about the Tampa group’s ‘Points of Unity’
Equally important – because the working class is an international class and its revolution can only win on an international scale - is the fact that the text sees the party as a world party, and that it must be prepared today through a process of common discussion and activities among revolutionary groups in different parts of the globe. Thus while, as you say, it is perfectly true that “forming a world party is not an immediate task at hand”, neither is it a purely abstract goal that will come about of itself sometime in the future: what revolutionaries do and say today plays an active role in the process that will lead to the formation of the party (or, negatively, in the failure to form it, which is certainly a possibility and a danger). That doesn’t mean that we are necessarily in agreement about the kind of organisation we need to develop now – we will return to this later.
Before that, we want to take up some questions about the text’s view of the party which seem inconsistent to us. First of all, the text uses the term “mass party” as opposed to the idea of a “vanguard party” based around a “tight ideological/theoretical line imposed on members”. In our view, the idea of a mass party which developed in the workers’ movement in the late 19th century was tied up with the notion of the party as a kind of government in waiting which would take over the running of society - probably through the medium of parliamentary elections, but similar ideas persisted in the revolutionary movement which broke from official social democracy during the First World War. The most obvious example is the Bolshevik party in the Russian revolution, which saw its role as forming a government after winning a majority in the soviets.
Would you not agree that the mass party idea that developed in the 19th century was also connected to the rise of opportunism in the workers’ movement? That the attempt to build a mass base as rapidly as possible led to the dilution of principles and to compromises with the ruling class, both in the parties of the Second International and in the Communist Parties after 1920-21? And we would argue that it was not accidental that the principal opponents of opportunism in both Internationals were currents who had begun to elaborate a critique of the idea of the mass party: first the Bolsheviks , following the famous debate about ‘who is a member’ at the 1903 RSDLP congress, and then the Italian and German left communists in the Third International, who took up the best in Bolshevism by arguing that, in the new epoch of proletarian revolution, the party had to be made up of committed revolutionaries on the basis of a voluntary – not “imposed” – adherence to a high level of programmatic unity. In the period up to and even during the revolution, such an organisation would necessarily be formed around a minority (a “vanguard” if you like) of the proletariat.
It also seems to us that the text’s commitment to the idea of a mass party results in a regression to social democratic ideas about the relationship between the party and the councils, or at least to a very ambiguous position about the taking of power by the party. The text makes several references to the party taking power, to the idea that “council rule is still essentially party rule”. Although the danger of substitutionism is recognised, the text appears to see the main remedy to this in the fact that the party “shares power with the entire revolutionary movement as well as other revolutionary tendencies it may be in alliance with”.
For us, this vision does not escape the parliamentary vision of council rule which hamstrung the movement in 1917. We certainly agree with the text that the aim of the party is to fight for its programme1 within the councils, which will be a battle-ground between political standpoints that, in the final analysis, represent different class interests, or encapsulate the confusions which will still weigh heavily on the proletariat during the revolution. But the party’s role is not to take power or to confuse its own functioning with the actual organs of power, the councils. Would you not agree that a central lesson of the Russian revolution was that the identification of the Bolshevik party with the state, and its tendency to substitute its decisions for those of the councils, led to the degeneration not only of the Soviet power but of the party itself? We think that clarity on this question is now a key point in the platform of the revolutionary organisation, and thus eventually of the party itself. We refer you to a polemic we had with the Communist Workers’ Organisation on this question in the 1970s and would be interested in your response.
Turning to the text’s conception of the kind of organisation that needs to be built today to prepare the ground for the party: since we don’t see the party as a mass party, but as a minority organised around a clear programme, we think that the organisations which can serve as a bridge to the future party also need to have a high level of political and theoretical coherence, based around an agreed platform that is more than just a series of minimum points. This does not mean that such organisations, any more than the future party, can be monolithic; on the contrary, a living marxist organisation is one that engages in permanent debate both internally and with other tendencies in the proletarian movement. But we do think that such organisations are more than just discussion circles and need to be imbued with what Lenin called the ‘party spirit’ even if they are not the party. Furthermore, they need to be built from the start on an international scale because the future party is not (as was conceived in the past, even in the Third International to some extent) a federation of national sections but a single worldwide organisation. The experience of organising in this manner will be essential to the functioning of the future party.
This view of the present organisations as a bridge to the future party is strongly influenced by the concept of the Fraction as developed by the Italian left in the 1930s. The notion of the Fraction is, first of all, founded on the conviction that revolutionary organisations don’t come from nowhere but are part of a tradition in the workers’ movement, a tradition without which they would not exist and which needs to be assimilated in depth; at the same time, this must always be a critical assimilation based on new lessons drawn from the experience of the proletarian struggle and the practice of the revolutionary organisations of the past. The aim of this work is to prepare the programmatic and organisational principles which will be the basis for the new party. We think that a weakness of the text on the party is precisely that, except for a few lines at the end, it does not situate itself sufficiently in relation to the experience of the past and, most crucially, to attempts by previous generations and organisations of revolutionaries to address the same question as those posed in the text: how do revolutionaries today organise in order to prepare the terrain for the party of the future?
We have recently republished what we think is an important text on the party produced in 1948 by a group that was heir to the tradition of the Italian left: the Gauche Communiste de France. Again, we would be very interested in your views on this text, and of course to the comments and criticisms contained in this letter. We sincerely hope that this letter can be the basis for a fruitful discussion between us – one that will clarify issues not only between our organisations, but also for the proletarian political movement in general.
For the ICC
1 Regarding the question of the programme of the party, the comments by various posters at the end of the article indicate that some confusion has been caused by the idea in the text that measures like the destruction of the bourgeois state and the creation of a new proletarian power are part of a “minimum programme”. Surely the latter term evokes memories of the old social democratic parties with their programme of demands to be implemented within capitalist society? However we don’t think the issue of terminology is the most crucial one here: the real question is the content of the measures (which seem to us to be correct) and the fact that they would indeed be part of a programme that the party defends inside the assemblies and councils.