Spurred on by the deepening economic crisis, the aggravation of imperialist tensions to a point of paroxysm, and the more and more apparent inability of the bourgeoisie to offer any viable solution to the worsening deterioration of the environment, a maturation of class consciousness has been brewing below the surface for a number of years. This maturation is following a difficult and non-linear path, and in the last few years it has manifested itself not only in the return of the class to the path of struggle, but also in a veritable world-wide explosion of discussion circles, reading groups, internet discussion forums, and individuals in search of political answers and clarification. We have seen this phenomenon surge virtually in every continent, from Latin America to the Philippines and Korea, from Australia to Russia, Turkey, Great Britain, and, finally, here in the US. We think this is a very significant development, deserving great attention and putting great responsibilities on the existing revolutionary organizations of Left Communists. We would like to pay special attention to the emerging discussion groups. As they surge and develop, it is important that they pose the question of who they are, what their role is vis-à-vis the working class, what perspectives they can pose for their future. It is in response to these preoccupations about the discussion circles’ nature and function that we decided to write this article.
Why do discussion circles form?
Discussions circles are not a new phenomenon in the working class. They existed during the ascendant period of capitalism alongside the mass parties and the trade unions, as in France and Great Britain, when both structures were true organizations of the workers. But the entrance of capitalism in its decadent phase transformed once and for all the aims, means, and forms of working class organization by turning these organizations which were once instruments of the working class into instruments of the ruling class. Today, there are no permanent political organizations that have a proletarian nature which the working class can turn to or claim their own. Discussion circles re-appeared at the end of the 1960’s, with the massive return of the class struggle, marking the end of the counter-revolutionary period which followed the defeat of the great revolutionary wave of 1917-1921. At the end of the 1960’s the return of the open economic crisis provided the material conditions for the reappearance of the class on the historic scene. This is the first historic condition for their existence: the class must have weakened the ideological yoke of the bourgeoisie and re-entered the terrain of class confrontations. However, when the class first returned to the path of the struggle at the end of the 60’s, it found a fragmented and dispersed revolutionary movement and the break in the organic link with the revolutionary organizations of the past effected by 50 years of counter-revolution. The small communist fractions that left the degenerating International and which survived the defeat and preserved the lessons of the past were all but wiped out by the counter-revolution. Deprived of their traditional apparatus of support such as it existed during the ascendance of capitalism, i.e. the trade unions and the mass parties, and of their natural framework of organization and debate such as it was the International, workers felt the need to come together to discuss and reflect. This is the second historic condition for the emergence of discussion groups today: the inexistence of the revolutionary party.
The appearance of discussion circles today happens in the same historic context of class confrontations that existed at the end of the 60’s, and at a time when the specific conditions and dynamics of the crisis and, more generally, of the life of capitalism in all its aspects have obviously worsened. The Midland Discussion Forum in Great Britain, for example, formed around discussions on the war in Kosovo. The Manchester Class Struggle group, also in Great Britain, formed just over a year ago in the context of the aggravation of the economic crisis. But of course there are also the groups formed in Turkey around the Tekel workers struggles, and many more around the world.
Groups forming on the West Coast of the US come from a reflection on the bankruptcy and dead end of capitalism, and the California students’ movement. In some instances they form as a result of working class struggles, or sometimes come from a critique of leftism. They come from many different political backgrounds and form a heterogeneous terrain. The groups in the US show similar characteristic to those in other parts of the internationalist milieu: they are animated by similar questions and concerns as their class brothers’ and sisters’ across the oceans, ranging from a desire to resist the present attacks against the working class, to concerns about workers self-organization, the question of solidarity, the culture of debate, the role of the left of capital, but also questions around the party, the different conceptions of the party in Left Communism and Trotskyism, the organizations of revolutionaries, the heritage of the ICC in the Communist Left and how Trotskyism obscured this history (see the article in the present issue for a more in-depth presentation and discussion of this summer’s ICC public forums). It is clear that their emergence, observed in other parts of the globe, has spread to the US as well, confirming the inscription of this country in the larger dynamic of the working class internationally.
What are the nature and function of discussion groups?
These groups are animated by the need they feel to link up to the struggles of the working class, to understand what the working class has to do in order to take its struggles to the level of political preparedness for its ultimate historic task of overthrowing capitalism. They want to know how the class struggles and how revolutionaries can contribute to the development of class consciousness. This shows that they are motivated by a militant need the class feels to question capitalism and fight back. As such, they are a product, a secretion of the class itself.
The resurgence of discussion circles show that we are in a period favorable to the development of class consciousness. They express the need the class has to not only clarify political positions through discussion, but also to arm itself politically for its task to offer the revolutionary perspective. In this sense, it is important that they do not get stuck in endless discussions about Marxism, risking becoming academic talk-shops or never develop politically, but rather sharpen their theoretical deepening the better to intervene in the practical, concrete aspects of the class struggle and what it needs to be armed, theoretically and politically, to fulfill its historic task. In other words, discussion circles are fundamental in the effort and process by which the class achieves class consciousness if they are capable of uniting theory and practice, rather than staying locked in academicism. Discussion circles express the necessity and the tendency the class has to form a political organization, not an academic school of Marxism. As we said in International Review 7, in an article devoted to drawing a balance sheet of a discussion circle that had emerged in Naples, Italy in 1975, “In general, discussion or study circles cannot be seen as ends in themselves. One does not search out ‘ideas’ for their own sake, but as the expression of a social activity. These circles are part of a whole social process within the working class by which the class tends to secrete a political organization.” This article was written 35 years ago, but its approach is still valid today.
It is important here to underline that while circles express the class’ tendency toward the formation of the party, they are neither the ‘ante-chambers’ of the party, neither ‘schools of the party’. They are not the property of any political organization, and they are not, and neither should they try to be, political organizations themselves. An article in World Revolution 207 expressed this idea very well: “The goal of a discussion circle is the political clarification of the individual participants. The framework of discussion is a common one, corresponding to the collective nature of the working class. The direction and pace of political clarification however, vary according to each person. Since a circle is not an organization regrouping with a political platform, a circle is not a permanent or stable entity. Rather, it is a moment of political clarification, allowing the militants, through participation in a collective discussion process, to find out where they stand politically in relation to the major questions of proletarian politics and in relation to the already existing and international currents of the Marxist proletarian milieu…A political organization of the proletariat is necessarily an internationally orientated organ, a product of the historical effort of the working class fighting for its political clarity. It doesn’t arise locally, but is a direct continuation of the political and organizational traditions of the Marxist movement. A circle, however, is a phenomenon that is limited geographically and in time. It is restricted to one area. Elements come together in one area in order to discuss matters of relevance to the proletariat and clarify them…” We should add that while the temptation to form a political organization may be strong, these groupings should not confuse the process of political clarification with its final goal of political decantation and crystallization in a political organization. This would result into a short-circuiting of the process of clarification and an attempt at creating a ‘semi-platform’, or setting up local, ’isolated ‘organizations, or intervening as a political body in the class struggle without any clear political or organizational framework for doing so. Rather than ‘defending’ their existence as such, the task of discussion circles is to question everything and sift everything through the test of the most open, yet rigorous and fraternal debate. This is how discussion groups can develop an ability to recognize the criteria which unite revolutionaries in spite of their differences.
In order to do so, it is extremely important that they be open to anyone who is willing to discuss working class political positions, including the existing revolutionary organizations. It is vital for the class today to deepen the reflection on the historical impasse of capitalism, what it means for the future of humanity, and the challenges this presents to the class. Clarification occurs through the most open debates among different and even divergent viewpoints. This means that in order to fulfill their function of being spaces for debate and confrontation of different ideas, discussion circles should not start by establishing criteria for joining, and should not create or adapt a platform, which would transform the circle into a semi-organization neither able to fulfill the task of an organization nor that of a circle. This would short-circuit the very process of clarification they were created for. Instead, we urge them to continue deepening, debating, and opening up to the confrontation of ideas which can lead to the clarification of the aims and means of the class struggle. This is the true contribution discussion circles can make to the class.