Introduction to the texts from "Bilan"

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By republishing these texts from Bilan (the publication of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left) dealing with events in Spain between 1936-9, we do not pretend to be historians at pains to provide detailed and chronological descriptions of events as they happened. For the researcher look­ing for material, there are dozens of often well-documented history books available today that can amply fulfil his needs. Our aim is quite different. If the history of humanity has always been the history of class struggle, then yesterday’s struggles do not represent for the proletariat a ‘fixed’, ‘dead’ past, but are ever-living moments in the proletariat’s historic struggle for the revolutionary transforma­tion of society, a struggle that is always underway. Not only have the content and final goal of the struggle always remained the same, but even the basic political features - the political forces present, their importance and the positions they take up and defend - hardly vary. Thus the understanding of its past struggles, constit­utes for the proletariat (the only revolu­tionary class in capitalist society) a nece­ssary and constant effort to go on deepening its knowledge of the content and methods of proletarian struggle in order to grasp and overcome its own weaknesses and errors, expose and avoid dead-ends and diversions, and forge its consciousness and weapons for the battles of the future and its ulti­mate victory. The texts from Bilan remain of immense inte­rest, not only because the positions defended by the Italian Left were the only sound class response to the problems facing the Spanish proletariat forty years ago, but still more because the same problems remain at the core of the present-day struggles of the Spanish and international proletar­iat. It is not a question of showering praise on a revolutionary group of the past whose contribution, in any case, no revolu­tionary could ignore, but of grasping its positions that have for the most part with­stood the test of living experience, and which must be used by us as a guiding thread in the present and future confrontations of the working class. The strength of Bilan’s analysis of the sit­uation in Spain lies primarily in the fact that it placed this particular situation in a global and historic context. A com­mon error, even within the ranks of the, Communist Left, is to analyse situations from the point of view of one country in isolation from all others. Such an approach, which purports to be ‘marxist’, ‘materialist’ and ‘concrete’, inevitably leads to the worst aberrations. The ‘unequal develop­ment’ of capitalism that Marx spoke about, and its implications for the class struggle, clearly had an important role to play at the beginning of capitalism and during its ascendant period. Capitalism developed out of a regionalized economy and slowly broke loose from its restrictions. Under such conditions the importance of regional or national particularities could. Still have a preponderant effect on the evolution of capitalism both on the local and general level. But to the extent that capitalism developed and created the world market, the local specificities while still existing, lose their importance, and give way to the general laws of capitalism, so that as a world system capitalism imposes its domi­nation on each country alike and on all countries in general. One can thus make the following general formulation: the more developed capitalism is as a system the more individual countries find they are dependent on the evolution of the system as a whole, and characteristics peculiar to a particular country play a less impor­tant role in analyzing its own development.

It is in the period of decadence, when the capitalist system, as a whole, enters into its decline and when the development of its contradictions has become insurmountable, that the global unity of the system is mast apparent. This being the case it is a diversion to focus an analysis on the basis of the particularities of each country and the degree of capitalist development each has reached, on the pretext of applying the law of ‘unequal development’. There are numerous analyses which have as their point of reference the backward state of the Russian economy, taken in isolation, and thus came to reject the very possibility of a socialist revolution and, consequently, deny any proletarian significance to the October Revolution in 1917. This is a typically Menshevik approach and in the fi­nal analysis means applying the schemas and norms of the bourgeois revolution to the crisis of capitalism and to the proletarian revolution. The Communist International of Stalin/Bukharin went back to this schema in order to justify its policy of a bloc of four classes in China, and in so doing rediscovered the bourgeois-democratic revo­lution ten years after the October Revolu­tion took place. This approach was shared by those who fought for the, proletarian revolution in Germany, but denied it could happen in Russia; by those who invented the theory of a ‘dual revolution’ (bourgeois and proletarian at the same time); as well as those who continue to see a progressive movement in ‘national liberation’ wars and persist in seeing the bourgeois-democratic revolutions on the historical agenda for the under-developed and colonial countries, while simultaneously preaching quite happ­ily a sermon on the proletarian revolution in the industrialized countries. The first difficulty, the first obstacle, which Bilan came up against regarding the events in Spain, was the approach of all those who put forward the idea that Spain was a ‘special case’ and talked about “feudalism and the struggle against reactio­nary feudalism”. The backward state of the Spanish economy became a thing in itself, and served as a justification for all the compromises and opened the door to all the betrayals. By putting Spain back into the world economy, Bilan pointed out the capi­talist nature of this country and demonstra­ted that it was only within the framework of the world capitalist economy in crisis that the situation in Spain could and had to be understood. No less important, Bilan situated the struggle of the Spanish proletariat within the context of the overall global evolution of the proletarian struggle. On what course of action did the proletariat in the 1930s find itself set? On a course of mounting revolutionary struggle? Or a course in which, having suffered profound defeats, the demoralized proletariat would let itself be integrated into the mobiliza­tions for national defence, under the slo­gans of defending democracy and anti-fascism - a course which would inevitably lead to the imperialist war? Trotsky recognized that the victory of Hitler in Germany had opened the way to war and he denounced this as such; but with the advent of the Popular Front in France and Spain his analysis altered completely and he boldly announced in 1936 that, “The Revolution had started in France”. Bilan’s analysis was totally dif­ferent. They did-not see the triumph of the Popular Front as a reversal of the course towards war, but on’ the contrary considered it to be a reinforcement of this course. They saw that the Popular Front was an appro­priate response by the democratic countries to the hysterical war-mongering of Germany and Italy - a way, and one of the most effec­tive ways - to make the proletariat leave its class terrain in order to mobilize it for the defence of ‘democracy’ and the national interest; a necessary preparation before leading the proletariat off to fight another imperialist war.

What perspective could there be for, the heroic struggles of the Spanish proletariat within this context? It is undeniable that the Spanish proletariat gave a magnificent example of combativity and decisiveness in its vigorous struggle against the uprising carried out by Franco’s armies - especially in the early days. But no matter how remarkable the combativity of the Spanish working class was, the development of events showed only too quickly that it was, not within the power of the Spanish proletariat to go on to a revolutionary victory, while there was a world reflux and immobilization of the inter­national working class. Bilan, and using as their only criterion the combativity of the Spanish workers, they imagined that the Spanish working class now had a chance to reverse the general process of reflux and inaugurate a new revolutionary movement. Carried along by revolutionary sentimentalism rather than by rigorous analysis, they did not see in the events in Spain the last ripple of the great revolu­tionary wave of 1917-20 - the last convul­sive movement of a world proletariat engul­fed in a tide of national unity and war. By announcing that the events in Spain were a reawakening of the revolution, they thus took up Trotsky’s perspective. It is hardly surprising, then, that by clinging to the vain hope for a miracle that could never happen, they were led to see such things as the workers’ militias and participation in government as victories for the working class when they served only to reinforce capitalism. And they thereby closed their eyes to the tragic reality of the completely disoriented Spanish pro­letariat being handed over to the very worst capitalist massacre. These communist groups found themselves foundering politi­cally, becoming ‘critical’ accomplices and touts of the war, just like the Trotskyists and POUMists. The tragic events experienced by the Spa­nish proletariat in 1936 have left us with this precious lesson: just as October 1917 showed us the possibility of victory for a proletarian revolution in a backward capita­lism because it was borne along by a general revolutionary wave which the Russian prole­tariat only expressed and initiated, so Spain in 1936 showed us how impossible it was for a proletariat in an under-developed country to reverse a general process of tri­umphant counter-revolution, no matter how combative that proletariat might be. This has nothing to do with fatalism or standing passively to one side. As Bilan wrote: “The task of the moment was not to ‘betray!” In Spain in 1936 it was not the victory of the revolution that was at stake; the essen­tial point was to prevent the proletariat abandoning or being thrown off its class terrain and sacrificing itself on the altar of the counter-revolution, whether in its fascist or democratic form. If the Spanish proletariat was not able to make a success­ful revolution, it could and had to remain firmly on the terrain of the class struggle, rejecting any alliance or coalition with bourgeois factions and rejecting the anti-fascist war as a lie which would lead to its crushing defeat - a war that would serve as a prelude to six years of uninterrupted massacre of millions of proletarians in a second imperialist world war. Such was the first task and first duty of revolutionaries at that time as Bilan made clear in denoun­cing with all its might that false ‘solida­rity’ that consisted of appealing for men and arms to send to Spain. The only out­come of this could be the prolongation and growth of the war to the point where a local capitalist war would be transformed into a general imperialist war.

The war in Spain rejuvenated and produced yet another myth, another lie. At the same time as the class war of the proletariat against capitalism was replaced by a war between ‘democracy’ and ‘fascism’ and class frontiers were replaced by territorial fron­tiers, the very content of the revolution it­self was deformed by replacing its central objective - the destruction of the bourgeois state and the taking of political power by the proletariat - for so-called socializa­tion measures and workers’ control in the factories. It was above all the anarchists and certain tendencies claiming to come from councilism who were conspicuous in extolling this myth the most - going so far as to declare that in Republican, Stalinist, anti-fascist Spain, socialist positions were more advan­ced than those reached by the October Revolution. We do not want to enter here into a detai­led analysis of the importance and signifi­cance of these measures. The reader will find a sufficiently clear answer to those questions in the following texts taken from Bilan. What we do want to make clear is that even had these measures been more radi­cal than in fact, they were, nothing could change the fundamentally counter-revolutio­nary nature of the events that took place in Spain. For the bourgeoisie, as for the proletariat, the crux of the revolution can only be the preservation or destruction of the capitalist state. Not only can capita­lism temporarily accommodate itself to self-management measures or a so-called socialisation of farming (in other words the form­ation of co-operatives), while still wait­ing for a chance to restore order at the first propitious moment (see the recent experiences in Portugal) it can also per­fectly well instigate these measures as a means of mystification to derail the ener­gies of the proletariat in the direction of illusionary ‘victories’ in order to di­vert it from the central objective - the stakes of the revolution - the destruction of capitalism’s focus of power, its state. To glorify these alleged social measures as the summation of the revolution is only a verbal radicalism which at best masks the same old reformist idea of a gradual social transformation. But this radical phraseology meant more than that in Spain in 1936: it was a capitalist mystification attempting to divert the proletariat from its revolut­ionary struggle against the state. Them­selves duped by mystifications and appear­ances, in the first place currents supporting such measures became accomplices to this diversion doing their utmost to blur and confuse the clear view of the primary task of proletarian revolution. Against these radical phraseologists, and in com­plete agreement with Bilan, we affirm that a revolution which does not begin with the destruction of the capitalist state can be anything you like to call it, but not a proletarian revolution. The events that took place in Spain in 1936 have only tragi­cally confirmed the revolutionary principle which the Bolshevik Party recognized and applied in 1917 and - which was one of the decisive factors in the victory of October 1917. In Spain in 1936, the proletariat sustained one of its most bloody defeats followed by forty years of ferocious repression. Redu­ced in the course of defeat and triumphant reaction to small groups who found a vehicle for their voice in Bilan, the communist left was painfully aware of its isolation and powerlessness in terms of the immediate situation. Just like the Bolshevik Party and the handful of other revolutionaries of 1914, they remained faithful to communism by going against the stream. If the war and forty years of victorious counter-­revolution finally got the better of its organization, the lessons of the struggle and the revolutionary positions developed by the communist left in the thirties have not been lost. Today with the reawakening of class struggle and with the perspective for its revolutionary development, commu­nists are rediscovering and renewing the thread of this political continuity. In republishing these texts from Bilan we hope to make them an instrument for the political rearming of the proletariat today, and from the lessons of yesterday’s defeats, to forge weapons for the final victory tomorrow.

M.C. Revolution Internationale August 1976.

History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: