Basing ourselves on the history of the workers’ movement
1. In making a balance sheet of the last 40 years of its analyses of the international situation, the ICC can take inspiration from the example of the 1848 Communist Manifesto, the first open declaration of the marxist current in the workers’ movement. The achievements of the Manifesto are well-known: the application of the materialist method to the historical process, showing the transient nature of all hitherto existing social formations; the recognition that while capitalism was still playing a revolutionary role in unifying the world market and developing the productive forces, its inherent contradictions, manifested in the repeated crises of overproduction, indicated that it too was only a passing stage in human history; the identification of the working class as the gravedigger of the bourgeois mode of production; the necessity for the working class to raise its struggle to the level of taking political power in order to lay the foundations of a communist society; the necessary role of the communist minority as a product and active factor in the class struggle of the proletariat.
2. These steps forward are still a fundamental part of the communist programme today. But Marx and Engels, faithful to a method which is both historical and self-critical, were later able to recognise that some parts of the Manifesto had been surpassed or proved erroneous by historical experience. Thus, following the events of the Paris Commune in 1871, they concluded that the seizure of power by the working class would entail the destruction and not the seizure of the existing bourgeois state. And long before this, in the debates in the Communist League that followed the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, they realised that the Manifesto had been mistaken in its view that capitalism had already reached a fundamental dead-end, and that there could be a rapid transition from the bourgeois to the proletarian revolution. Against the hyper-activist tendency around Willich and Schapper, they insisted on the need for revolutionaries to undertake a far deeper reflection on the perspectives of a still ascendant capitalist society. However, in recognising these errors, they did not call into question their underlying method – rather they returned to it to give the movement’s programmatic gains a more solid foundation.
3. The passion for communism, the burning desire to see the end of capitalist exploitation, has frequently led communists to fall into similar errors as Marx and Engels in 1848. The outbreak of the First World War, and the immense revolutionary upsurge it provoked in the years 1917-20, was correctly seen by the communists as definitive proof that capitalism had now entered a new epoch, the epoch of its decline, and thus the epoch of the proletarian revolution. And indeed world revolution had been placed on the agenda by the seizure of power by the proletariat of Russia in October 1917. But the communist vanguard of the day also tended to underestimate the huge difficulties facing a proletariat whose self-confidence and moral compass had been dealt a severe blow by the betrayal of its old organisations; a proletariat which had been exhausted by years of imperialist slaughter, and which was still weighed down by the reformist and opportunist influences that had grown up in the workers’ movement during the previous three decades. The response to these difficulties by the leadership of the Communist International was to fall into new versions of opportunism aimed at gaining influence within the masses, such as the ‘tactic’ of the United Front with the proven agents of the bourgeoisie active in the working class. This opportunist turn gave rise to healthy reactions from the left currents within the International, notably the German and Italian Lefts, but they themselves still faced considerable obstacles to understanding the new historical conditions. In the German Left, those tendencies who adopted the theory of the ‘death crisis’ mistakenly saw the onset of capitalism’s decadence – which would reveal itself as a whole period of crises and wars – as indicating that the system had come up against a brick wall and would be totally unable to recover. One result of this was the launching of adventurist actions aimed at provoking the proletariat into giving capitalism its death blow; another was the launching of an ephemeral Communist Workers’ International followed by the ‘councilist’ phase, a growing abandonment of the very notion of the class party.
4. The inability of the majority of the German Left to respond to the reflux of the revolutionary wave was a crucial element in the disintegration of most of its organised expressions. By contrast, the Italian Left was able to recognise the profound defeat suffered by the world proletariat by the late 20s and to develop the theoretical and organisational responses demanded by the new phase in the class struggle, encapsulated in the concept of a change in the course of history; in the formation of the Fraction; and in the idea of drawing a ‘bilan’1 (balance sheet) of the revolutionary wave and the programmatic positions of the Communist International. This clarity enabled the Italian Fraction to make priceless theoretical advances, at the same time defending internationalist positions when all around were succumbing to anti-fascism and the march towards war. And yet even the Fraction was not immune from crises and theoretical regressions; by 1938 the review Bilan had been renamed Octobre in anticipation of a new revolutionary wave resulting from the impending war and its ensuing ‘crisis of the war economy’. And in the post-war period, the Gauche Communiste de France - which was born in reaction to the crisis in the Fraction during the war and the immediatist rush to form the Internationalist Communist Party in 1943, and was able in a very fruitful period between 1946 and 1952 to synthesise the best contributions of the Italian and German lefts and to develop a deep understanding of capitalism’s adoption of totalitarian and statified forms - was itself undone by a faulty understanding of the post-war period, wrongly foreseeing the imminent outbreak of a third world war.
5. Despite these serious mistakes, the fundamental approach of Bilan and the GCF remained valid and was indispensible to the formation of the ICC in the early 1970s. The ICC was formed on the basis of a whole number of the key acquisitions of the communist left: not only fundamental class positions such as opposition to national liberation struggles and all capitalist wars, the critique of trade unions and of parliamentarism, the recognition of the capitalist nature of the ‘workers’ parties and the ‘socialist’ countries, but also:
- The organisational heritage developed by Bilan and the GCF, in particular, their distinction between the fraction and the party, and the critique of both councilist and substitutionist conceptions of the role of the organisation; in addition, the recognition of the questions of functioning and of militant behaviour as political questions in their own right;
- A number of indispensable elements for providing the new organisation with a clear perspective for the period opening up before it, in particular: the notion of the historic course and the analysis of the global balance of forces between the classes; the concept of capitalist decadence and the deepening economic contradictions of the system; the drive towards war and the constitution of imperialist blocs; the essential role of state capitalism in the system’s ability to maintain its existence despite its historical obsolescence.
Understanding the historic period
6. The focus of this resolution is the elements guiding our analysis of the international situation since our inception. And here it is clear that the ICC did not merely inherit the acquisitions of the past but was able to develop them in a number of ways:
- Armed with the concept of the historic course, the ICC was able to recognise that the May-June events in France in 1968, and the subsequent international wave of struggles, announced the end of the period of counter-revolution and the opening up of a new course towards massive class confrontations; it was therefore able to continue analysing the evolution of the balance of forces between the classes, the real advances and retreats of the class movement, in this global and historical framework, thus avoiding a purely empirical response to each episode in the international class struggle.
- On the foundations of its theory of capitalist decadence, the groups that came together to form the ICC had also understood that this wave of struggles was not, contrary the theory of the Situationists, provoked by boredom with the consumer society, but by the return of the open crisis of the capitalist system. Throughout its existence, the ICC therefore continued to follow the course of this economic crisis and point to its inexorable deepening.
- Understanding that the resurfacing of the economic crisis would push the capitalist world powers towards new conflicts and preparations for a new world war, the ICC recognised the need to continue with its analysis of the balance of forces between the imperialist blocs, and between the bourgeoisie and the working class, whose resistance to the economic crisis erected a barrier to the system’s capacity to launch a generalised holocaust.
- With its conception of state capitalism, the ICC was able to offer a coherent explanation of the long-drawn out nature of the crisis that emerged in the late 60s, which has seen the bourgeoisie use all kinds of mechanisms (nationalisations, privatisations, massive recourse to credit, etc) to distort the functioning of the law of value and thus to mitigate or postpone the most explosive effects of the economic crisis. By the same token, the ICC has been able to see how the bourgeoisie in its decadent phase has used its position in the state to carry out all kinds of manoeuvres (on the terrain of elections, trade union actions, ideological campaigns etc) to derail the class struggle and hinder the development of class consciousness. And it was this same theoretical framework which enabled the ICC to show the underlying reasons for the crisis in the so-called ‘socialist’ countries and the collapse of the Russian bloc after 1989.
- Drawing together its concept of the historic course and its analysis of the evolution of imperialist conflicts and of the class struggle, the ICC has been the only proletarian organisation to understand that the collapse of the old bloc system was the product of a historic stalemate between the classes and that it marked capitalism’s entry into a new and final phase of its decadence – the phase of decomposition, which in turn has brought new difficulties for the proletariat and new dangers for humanity.
7. Alongside its ability to incorporate and take forward the gains of the past workers’ movement, the ICC, like all previous revolutionary organisations, is also subject to the multiple pressures emanating from the dominant social order, and therefore to the ideological forms these pressures generate - above all, opportunism, centrism, and vulgar materialism. In particular, in its analyses of the world situation, it has fallen prey to the impatience and immediatism which we identified in the organisations of the past (...). These weaknesses have been aggravated in the history of the ICC by the conditions in which it was born, since it suffered from an organic break with the organisations of the past, from the impact of the Stalinist counter-revolution which introduced a false vision of the struggle and of proletarian morality, and from the powerful influence of the petty bourgeois rebellion of the 1960s – the petty bourgeoisie, as a class with no historic future, being almost by definition the embodiment of immediatism. Furthermore, these tendencies have been exacerbated in the period of decomposition which is both the product of and an active factor in the loss of perspectives about the future.
The class struggle
8. From the beginning, the danger of immediatism expressed itself in the ICC’s evaluation of the balance of forces between the classes. While correctly identifying the period after 1968 as the end of the counter-revolution, its characterisation of the new historic course as a “course towards revolution” implied a linear and rapid ascent from the immediate struggles to the overthrow of capitalism; and even after this formulation was corrected, the ICC maintained the view that the ensuing waves of struggle between 1978 and 1989, despite temporary retreats, amounted to a semi-permanent proletarian offensive. The immense difficulties of the class in moving from defensive movements to the politicisation of its struggles and the development of a revolutionary perspective were not sufficiently emphasised and analysed. Even though the ICC was able to recognise that the onset of decomposition and the collapse of the blocs would involve a profound retreat in the class struggle, we were still strongly influenced by the hope that the continued deepening of the economic crisis would bring back the ‘waves’ of struggle of the 70s and 80s; and while we were right in seeing that there was a turning point in the reflux after 2003, we often underestimated the huge problems facing the new generation of the working class in developing a clear perspective for its struggles, a factor affecting both the class as a whole and its politicised minorities. These errors of analysis have also fed some false and even opportunist approaches to intervention in the struggle and the construction of the organisation.
9. Thus if the theory of decomposition (which in fact was the last legacy to the ICC from comrade MC) has been a unique and indispensable guide to understanding the present period, the ICC has not always taken on board all its implications. This is particularly true when it has come to recognising and explaining the difficulties of the working class since the 1990s. While we were able to see how the bourgeoisie had used the effects of decomposition to mount huge ideological campaigns against the working class – most notably the barrage of noise about the ‘death of communism’ after the collapse of the eastern bloc – we did not go deeply enough into examining how the very process of decomposition tended to undermine the proletariat’s self-confidence and solidarity. In addition, we struggled to understand the impact on class identity of the break-up of old proletarian concentrations in some of the old capitalist heartlands and their re-location to the formerly ‘underdeveloped’ nations. And while we have had at least a partial understanding of the necessity for the proletariat to politicise its struggles if it is to resist the weight of decomposition, it has only been late in the day that we have begun to grasp that for the proletariat the recovery of its class identity and its adoption of a political perspective has a vital cultural and moral dimension.
The economic crisis
10. It’s probably in the area of following the economic crisis that themost obvious difficulties of the ICC have been expressed. In particular:
- At the more general level, a tendency to fall into a reified view of the capitalist economy as a machine governed solely by objective laws, obscuring the reality that capital is first and foremost a social relation and that the actions of human beings – in the form of social classes – can never be entirely abstracted from an analysis of the course of the economic crisis. This is particularly true in the epoch of state capitalism where the ruling class is permanently faced with the need to intervene in the economy and even to counter its ‘immanent’ laws, while at the same time being compelled to factor in the danger of the class struggle as an element in its economic policies.
- A reductionist understanding the economic theory of Rosa Luxemburg, coming to the false extrapolation that capitalism had already exhausted all possibilities of expansion by 1914 (or even by the 1960s). In reality when she formulated her theory in 1913 she recognised that there were still major areas of non-capitalist economy remaining to be exploited, even if it was less and less possible for this to take place without direct conflict between the imperialist powers.
- While recognising that with the reduction of these fields for its expansion, capitalism was more and more compelled to resort to the palliative of debt, this formula has sometimes become a catch-all explanation which did not go back to the underlying question of credit in the accumulation of capital; more seriously, the organisation has repeatedly predicted that the limits to debt had already been reached.
- All these elements were part of a view of the automatic collapse of capitalism,which became particularly prevalent in the wake of the 2008 ‘credit crunch’. More than one internal report or article in our press proclaimed that capitalism had already run out of options and was heading towards a kind of economic paralysis, an overnight collapse. In reality, as Rosa herself insisted, the real catastrophe of capitalism is that it subjects humanity to a long drawn out agonising decline, plunging society into an increasing barbarism, so that the ‘end’ of capitalism will not be a purely economic seizure but will inevitably be played out on the terrain of militarism and war, unless it is consciously brought about by the proletarian revolution (and to Rosa’s prognosis we must also add the increasing threat of ecological devastation, which will certainly accelerate the drive towards war). This idea of a sudden and complete collapse also forgets our own analysis of the capacity of the ruling class, through state capitalism, to prolong its system through all kinds of political and financial manipulations.
- The denial, in some of our key texts, of any possibilities of expansion for capitalism in its decadent phase also made it difficult for the organisation to explain the dizzying growth of China and other ‘new economies’ in the period since the downfall of the old blocs. While these developments do not, as many have argued, call into question the decadence of capitalism, and indeed are a clear expression of it, they have disproved the assertion that in the decadent period there is strictly no possibility of industrial take-off in any of the ‘peripheral’ regions. While we were able to refute some of the more facile myths about ‘globalisation’ in the phase following the collapse of the blocs (from the right seeing it as a new and glorious chapter in the ascent of capitalism, from the left as a basis for reviving old nationalist and state capitalist solutions), we were not able to discern the kernel of truth in the globalisation mythology: that the removal of the old autarkic model did open up new spheres for capital investment, including the exploitation of a huge new fund of labour power reared outside of directly capitalist social relations.
- These errors of analysis are coupled to the fact that the organisation has found considerable difficulty in developing its understanding of the economic question in a genuinely associated manner. A tendency towards economic questions being the sphere of ‘experts’ became apparent in the debate about the ’30 glorious years’ in the first decade of the 21st century. Although the ICC certainly needed to understand and explain why it had rejected the idea that the reconstruction of war-shattered economies in itself explains the survival of the system in decadence, in practice this debate was a failed attempt to grapple with the problem. It was not well understood inside and outside the organisation and has left us theoretically rudderless. It needs to be re-framed in relation to the whole period of decadence, with the aim of clarifying the role of the war economy and the meaning of the irrationality of war in decadence.
11. In the sphere of imperialist tensions, the ICC has in general had a very solid framework of analysis, showing the different phases of the confrontation between the blocs in the 70s and 80s; and, despite being somewhat ‘surprised’ by the sudden collapse of the Eastern bloc and the USSR after 1989, it had already developed the theoretical tools for analysing the inherent weaknesses of the Stalinist regimes; linking this to its understanding of the question of militarism and to the concept of decomposition that it had begun to elaborate in the latter half of the 80s, the ICC was the first in the proletarian milieu to predict the end of the bloc system, the decline of US hegemony, and the very rapid development of ‘each for themselves’ at the imperialist level. While remaining aware that the tendency towards the formation of imperialist blocs had not disappeared after 1989, we showed the difficulties facing even the most likely candidate for the role of bloc leader against the US, the newly reunified Germany, in ever being able to fulfill this imperialist ambition. However, we were less able to foresee the capacity of Russia to re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with on the world arena, and most importantly, we have been very late in seeing the rise of China as a new and significant player in the great power rivalries which have developed over the past two or three decades – a failure closely connected to our problems in recognising the reality of China’s economic advance.
A better understanding of still valid perspectives
12. Taken as a whole, the existence of all these weaknesses should not be a factor of discouragement, but a stimulus for undertaking a programme of theoretical development which will enable the ICC to deepen its grasp of all aspects of the world situation. The beginnings of a critical balance sheet of the last 40 years undertaken in the congress reports, the discussion on the Theses on morality2 the attempts to go to the root of our method for analysing the class struggle and the economic crisis, the redefinition of our role as an organisation in the period of capitalist decomposition – all these are signposts pointing towards a real cultural renaissance in the ICC. In the coming period, the ICC will also have to return to such fundamental theoretical questions as the nature of imperialism and decadence in order to provide the most solid framework for our analyses of the international situation.
13. The first step in the critical balance sheet of 40 years of analysis of the world situation is to recognise our errors and to begin digging down to their origins. It would therefore be premature to try to apply all their implications to the current world situation and to the perspectives for the future. Nevertheless, we can say that despite our weaknesses, the fundamentals of our perspectives remain valid:
- At the level of the economy, there is every reason to expect that the economic crisis will continue to deepen and that, while there will be no final economic apocalypse, there will be phases marked by severe convulsions that shake the system to the core, as well as the continuation of the situation of precarity and endemic unemployment that already weigh heavily on the working class. Certainly we cannot underestimate the resilience of this system and the determination of the ruling class to keep it going despite its historical obsolescence, but as we have always said, the very remedies that capital applies to its mortal sickness, while bringing some short term relief, tend to make the patient even more sick in the long run.
- At the level of imperialist tensions, we are currently seeing a real acceleration of military chaos, most notably in Ukraine, the Middle East,Africa and the China sea, bringing with them an increasing threat of ‘blow back’ to the central countries (as with the recent killings in Paris and Copenhagen). The stage of imperialist conflict is growing larger and so are the alliances being forged to wage them, as we can see in the case of the conflict between Russia and the ‘west’ over Ukraine, or in the growing cooperation between Russia and China over the conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. But these alliances remain very contingent and lack the conditions for evolving into stable blocs. The primary danger facing humanity is not from a classic world war but from a degeneration of regional conflicts into an uncontrollable spiral of destruction.
- The premises of this spiral are already discernible and they have the most negative consequences for the proletariat, whose ‘peripheral’ fractions are being directly mobilised or massacred in the present conflicts, and whose central fractions find themselves incapable of reacting to the growing barbarism, reinforcing the tendency to fall into atomisation and despair. But despite all the very real dangers posed by the advancing tide of decomposition, the potential for the working class to respond to this unprecedented crisis of humanity have not been exhausted, as indicated by the best moments of the student movement in France in 2006 or the social revolts of 2011, where the proletariat, even without clearly recognising itself as a class, showed evidence of its capacity to unify across all its divisions, in the streets and in the general assemblies. Above all, the young proletarians engaged in these movements, insofar as they have begun to challenge the brutality of capitalist social relations and to pose the question of a new society, have taken the first timid steps towards reaffirming that the class struggle is not only an economic struggle, but a political struggle; and that its ultimate aim remains what was outlined so audaciously in the Manifesto of 1848: the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the inauguration of a new human culture and a new morality.
1 Bilan was the name of the journal published from 1926 by Italian Left in exile in France.
2 An internal text currently under discussion in the organisation