Part 3: The class nature of the social democracy

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Understanding the Decadence of Capitalism, Part 3


Understanding the decadence of capitalism also means understanding the specific forms of proletarian struggle in our own epoch, and how they differ from those of other historical periods. The continuity that ties together the proletariat’s political organisations emerges from the comprehension of these differences.

Those, like the Internationalist Communist Group (ICG), who ignore the decadence of capitalism, “logically” situate the 2nd International (1889-1914) and its constituent parties in the bourgeois camp. In doing so, they ignore this real continuity that is a fundamental element of class consciousness.

For us, defending this continuity does not mean glorifying today the parties that made up the 2nd International. Still less does it mean considering their practice valid for our own epoch. Above all, it does not mean claiming the heritage of the reformist fraction that slid towards “social-chauvinism” and which, when war broke out, passed over definitively into the bourgeois camp. It means understanding that the 2nd International and its constituent parties were real expressions of the proletariat at a given moment in the class’ history.

Not the least of its merits was to complete the decantation begun during the early years of the 1st International by eliminating the anarchist current, the ideological expression of the process of decomposition and proletarianisation of the petty bourgeoisie bitterly resented by certain artisan strata.

From the start, the 2nd International took its stand on the basis of marxism, which it incorporated in its program.

There are two ways of judging the 2nd International and the social-democratic parties: with the marxist method, i.e. critically, placing them in their historic context; or with the anarchist method, which ahistorically, and with no coherent method, is content simply to obliterate them from the workers’ movement. The first method has always been that of the communist lefts; it is the ICC’s method today. The second is that of those irresponsible “revolutionary” phrasemongers, as hollow as they are incoherent, who barely hide their semi-anarchist nature and approach. The ICG belongs to this category.


“Before me, chaos”. For those who think there is “no future”, past history seems useless, absurd, and contradictory. So much effort, so many civilisations, so much knowledge, only to arrive at the perspective of a starving, sick humanity constantly threatened by nuclear destruction. “After me, the deluge”... “Before me, chaos”.

In its present advanced state of decomposition this kind of “punk” ideology oozes from capitalism’s every pore, and to varying degrees penetrates the whole of society. Even revolutionary elements, supposedly convinced – by definition – of the existence, if not the imminence, of society’s revolutionary future may sometimes be subjected to the pressure of this kind of “apocalyptic nihilism” where the past no longer has any meaning, especially if they are poorly armed politically. The very idea of a historical “evolution” seems absurd to them. And the whole history of the workers’ movement, 150 years of effort by revolutionaries organised to accelerate, stimulate, and fertilise the struggles of their class are considered of little value, or even as part of the existing social order’s “self-regulation”. Such ideas come into fashion from time to time, conveyed especially by elements coming from anarchism, or moving towards it.

For several years, the ICG has more and more been playing this role. The ICG split from the ICC in 1979, but a number of its constituent members came originally from anarchism. After a passing flirt with Bordigism, just after the split, the ICG has evolved towards the anarchist childhood loves of some of its members, with its desperate ahistorical ranting about eternal revolt; but this is no openly proclaimed anarchism, capable for example of stating clearly that Bakunin and Proudhon were basically right, against the marxists of their time; it is an embarrassed anarchism, which doesn’t dare come into the open, and which defends its ideas with quotes borrowed from Marx and Bordiga. The ICG has invented “punk anarcho-Bordigism”.

Like an adolescent having trouble affirming his own identity and breaking with his parents, the ICG considers that before itself and its theory was the void, or almost. Lenin? “(His) theory of imperialism – says the ICG is nothing but an attempt to justify under another (anti-imperialist!) form, nationalism, war, reformism... the disappearance of the working class as the subject of history” [1]. Rosa Luxemburg? The German Spartakists? “Left-wing social-democrats”. And social-democracy itself, in the 19th and early 20th century, founded in part by Marx and Engels, and where not only the Bolsheviks and the Spartakists, but also those who were to form the communist left of the 3rd International (the Dutch, German, and Italian lefts), got their training? For the ICG, the social-democracy, and the 2nd International that it created, were “essentially bourgeois in nature”. All those within the 2nd and then the 3rd International, against the reformists who denied it, defended first the inevitability and then the reality of capitalism’s decadence? “Anti-imperialist or Luxemburgist, the theory of decadence is nothing but a bourgeois science aimed at justifying ideologically the weakness of the proletariat in its struggle for a world free from value”.

Judging by the quotations it uses, it would appear that the only revolutionaries before the ICG were Marx and perhaps Bordiga... although we might wonder how – according to the ICG – someone like Marx given to founding “essentially bourgeois organisations”, or like Bordiga who only broke with the Italian social-democracy in 1921, could be revolutionary!

In fact, for the ICG, the whole question of identifying the proletarian organisations of the past and their successive contributions to the communist movement is meaningless. For the ICG, claiming a political and historical continuity with proletarian organisations, as communist organisations have always done, and as we do, means giving in to a “family” spirit. This is just one facet of its chaotic vision of history, just one titbit from the theoretical soup that supposedly serves as a framework for the ICG’s intervention.

In the two previous articles [2], devoted to the analysis of capitalist decadence and the ICG’s critique of this analysis, we demonstrated on the one hand the anarchist vacuity hidden behind the ICG’s “marxist” verbiage with its rejection of the analysis of capitalist decadence and of the very idea of historical evolution, and on the other the political aberrations, the frankly bourgeois positions – e.g. support for the Stalinist “Shining Path” guerrillas in Peru - to which this method, or rather this total lack of method, leads. In this article we intend to combat another aspect of this ahistorical conception: the rejection of the need for every revolutionary organisation to understand and to place itself within the historical framework of a historical continuity with past communist organisations.


On the back of all our publications, we write: “The ICC traces its origins in the successive contributions of the Communist League, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Internationals, and the left fractions which detached themselves from the latter, in particular the German, Dutch and Italian Lefts”. This makes the ICG sick.

“Communists – writes the ICG – don’t have any “parental” problems, attachment to the revolutionary “family” is a way of rejecting the impersonality of the program. The historic wire in which the communist current flows is no more a question of “persons” than of formal organisations, it is a practical question, a practice which is born at one time by such or such an individual, at another by such or such an organisation. Let us then leave the senile decadentists to gabble on their family tree, looking for their papas. Let’s look after the revolution!”

Obsessed with problems of “revolt against the father”, the ICG speaks of the “historic thread” only to make it an ethereal abstraction, devoid of reality, floating above “persons” and “formal organisation”. The ICG calls reappropriating the proletariat’s historical experience, and so the lessons drawn by its political organisations, “looking for papa”. It proposes instead to “look after the revolution”, but this is nothing but empty and inconsequential phrase mongering, if one knows nothing of the efforts, and the continuity of the efforts of those organisations which for more than a century and a half have been... “Looking after the revolution”.

We do not examine the present from the standpoint of the past; we examine the past from the standpoint of the revolution’s present and future needs. But to lack this understanding of history inevitably means being disarmed in the face of the future.

The struggle for the communist revolution did not begin with the ICG. It already has a long history. And although this history is mostly marked by the proletariat’s defeats, it has furnished those who really want to contribute to today’s revolutionary combat with lessons, acquisitions that are vital weapons for the struggle. And it is precisely the proletariat’s political organisations that throughout its history have fought to draw out and formulate these lessons. It is mere Sunday-revolutionary charlatanism to talk about “looking after the revolution” without looking at the proletarian political organisations of the past, and the continuity of their efforts.

The proletariat is a historical class: that is to say, a class that bears a future on a historic scale. Unlike other exploited classes, which decompose as capitalism develops, it develops, it gains in strength and concentration while at the same time acquiring, through the generations, in thousands of daily struggles and a few great revolutionary attempts, an awareness of what it is, what it can achieve, and what is its aim. The activity of revolutionary organisations, their debates, their regroupments and their splits, are an integral part of this historic combat, uninterrupted from Babeuf until its definitive triumph.

Not understanding the continuity that ties these organisations together politically through history means seeing in the proletariat nothing but a class without either a history or a consciousness... at best, a class in revolt. This is the bourgeoisie’s vision of the working class. Not communists’!

The ICG sees a psychological problem of “paternity” and “attachment to the family” in what is in fact the minimum of consciousness to be demanded of any organisation that claims to live up to the role of proletarian vanguard.


According to the ICG, claiming continuity with past communist organisations means, “denying the impersonality of the program”. It is obvious that the communist program is neither the work nor the property of any one person, or any genius. Marxism bears Marx’s name in recognition of the fact that it was he who laid the foundations of a truly coherent proletarian conception of the world. But ever since its first formulation, this conception has been constantly elaborated through the class’ struggle and through its organisations. Marx himself claimed a descendance from the work of Babeuf’s Society of Equals, the utopian socialists, the British Chartists, etc, and considered his ideas as a product of the development of the proletariat’s real struggle.

But however “impersonal” it may be, the communist program is nonetheless the work of human beings in flesh and blood, of militants grouped in political organisations, and there is nonetheless a continuity in these organisations’ work. The real question is not whether such a continuity exists, but what it is.

The ICG intimates that claiming a continuity with proletarian political organisations comes down to agreeing with what anyone has ever said at any time in the workers’ movement, thereby demonstrating that they have not the slightest understanding of what they claim to criticise.

One of the ICG’s main accusations against those who defend the idea of capitalist decadence is that they “thus uncritically ratify past history, and in particular social-democratic reformism, which is justified by a sleight of hand because it was “in the ascendant phase of capitalism””.

In the ICG’s narrow-minded mentality, assuming a historical continuity can only mean “uncritically ratifying”. In reality, as far as the organisations of the past are concerned, they have already been mercilessly and definitively criticised by history.

The continuity between the old organisations and the new has not been ensured by just any tendency. It has always been the left that has ensured the continuity between the proletariat’s three main international political organisations. It was the left, through the marxist current, which ensured the continuity between the 1st and 2nd International, against the Proudhonist, Bakuninist, Blanquist, and corporatist currents. It was the left, which fought first of all the reformist tendencies, and then the “social-patriots”, which ensured the continuity between the 2nd and 3rd International during the war, then by forming the Communist International. And it was the left, once again, and in particular the Italian and German lefts, which took up and developed the revolutionary gains of the 3rd International, trodden under foot by the social-democratic and Stalinist counter-revolution.

This is to be explained by the difficult existence of proletarian political organisations. The very existence of a truly proletarian political organisation is a permanent combat against the pressure of the ruling class, which is both material – lack of financial resources, police repression – but also and above all ideological. The dominant ideology always tends to be that of the economically ruling class. Communists are men and women, and their organisations are not miraculously proof against the penetration of the ideology that impregnates the whole of social life. The proletariat’s political organisations often die defeated, by betraying, and passing over to the enemy. Only those fractions of the organisation – the lefts – that have had the strength not to let fall their arms in the face of the ruling class pressure, have been able to assume the continuity of the proletarian content these organisations once had.

In this sense, affirming a continuity with previous proletarian political organisations means claiming the heritage of the various left fractions which alone were capable of ensuring this continuity. Tracing our origins to the “successive contributions of the Communist League, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Internationals” does not mean “uncritically ratifying” Willich and Schapper in the Communist League, nor the anarchists in the 1st International, nor the reformists in the 2nd, nor the degenerating Bolsheviks in the 3rd. On the contrary, it means claiming the heritage of the political combat conducted against these tendencies by the lefts, usually in the minority.

But this combat was not fought out just anywhere. It took place within the organisations that regrouped the most advanced elements of the working class; within proletarian organisations, which for all their weaknesses have always been a living challenge to the established order.

These were not the incarnation of an eternal unvarying truth laid down once and for all – as is claimed by the theory of the Invariance of the Communist program, which the ICG has borrowed from the Bordigists. They were the concrete “vanguard” of the proletariat as a revolutionary class at a given moment in its history, and at a given degree of development of its class consciousness.

Through the debates between the Willich and Marx tendencies in the Communist League, through the confrontation between anarchists and marxists within the 1st International, between reformists and the internationalist left in the 2nd, between the degenerating Bolsheviks and the left communists in the 3rd, the working class’ permanent effort to forge political weapons for its combat takes on a concrete form.

Claiming a political continuity with the proletariat’s political organisations means taking position in the line of the tendencies that assumed this continuity, but also of the effort in itself that these organisations represented.


For the ICG, the main indictment of the idea of any continuity with proletarian political organisations is that it leads to considering the 19th century social-democratic parties, and the 2nd International, as working class. For the ICG, the social-democracy is “essentially bourgeois”.

As we have seen in previous articles, the ICG takes up the anarchist vision of the communist revolution, permanently on the agenda ever since the beginnings of capitalism: there are no different periods of capitalism. The proletarian program can be reduced to one eternal slogan: the world revolution right now. Trade unionism, parliamentarism, the struggle for reforms, were never part of the working class. Consequently, the social-democratic parties and the 2nd International, which made these forms of struggle the essential axis of their activity, could never have been anything but instruments of the bourgeoisie. The 2nd International of Engels’ time was the same as today’s understandings between Mitterand and Felipe Gonzales.

Since we have already dealt with them at length in our two previous articles, we will not here go back over such questions as the existence of two fundamental historic phases in the life of capitalism, nor the central place of the analysis of capitalist decadence in the coherence of marxism (International Review no. 48); nor will we return to the question of the different practice and forms of struggle in the workers’ movement that result from this change in period (International Review no. 49).

From the standpoint of revolutionary organisations’ historic continuity, we want here to highlight what was proletarian in the social-democracy, and what it contributed that revolutionary marxists were afterwards to claim, over and above its weaknesses, due to the forms of struggle of the period, and its degeneration.

* * *

What are the criteria for determining an organisation’s class nature? We can define three major ones:

- its program, i.e. the definition of its aims and means of action as a whole,

- the organisation’s practice within the class struggle,

- finally, its origins, and its historic dynamic.

However, these criteria obviously have meaning only if we first place the organisation within the historical conditions in which it existed; not only because it is vital to take account of objective historical conditions to determine what are and can be the proletarian struggle’s forms and immediate objectives, but also because it is vital to bear in mind the degree of consciousness reached historically by the proletarian class at a given moment, to judge the degree of consciousness of a particular organisation.

Consciousness develops historically. It is not enough to understand that the proletariat has existed as a politically autonomous class since at least the mid-19th century. It is also necessary to understand that it has not remained a mummy, a stuffed dinosaur, ever since. Its class consciousness, its historic program, have evolved, becoming richer with experience, and developing as historical conditions have ripened.

It would be absurd to judge a proletarian organisation of the 19th century by the yardstick of an understanding that was only made possible by decades of further experience.

Let us then recall briefly a few elements of the historical conditions within which the social-democratic parties were formed and lived during the last 25 years of the 19th century, until the period of World War I, when the 2nd International died, and the parties died, one after the other, under the weight of the betrayals of their opportunist leaderships.


According to the ICG’s static conception of a capitalism unchanged since its beginnings, the end of the 19th century appears identical to the present day. Its judgment of the erstwhile social-democracy thus comes down to identifying it with today’s social-democratic and Stalinist parties. In reality, this kind of childish projection that considers that what one knows is all that has ever existed is nothing but an insipid negation of historical analysis.

Today’s generations live in a world which has been overrun for more than 3/4 of a century by the worst barbarism in mankind’s history: the world wars. Outside open periods of world war, society is hit by economic crisis, with the sole exception of two periods of “prosperity” founded on the “reconstruction” that followed the First and Second World Wars. To this should be added, since the end of World War II, the constant local wars in the less developed zones, and the orientation of the entire world economy towards essentially military and destructive objectives.

The apparatus responsible for preserving this decadent order has unceasingly increased its grip on society, and the tendency towards state capitalism in all its forms and in every country has become ever more powerful and omnipresent in every aspect of social life, and first and foremost in the relations between classes. In every country, the state apparatus has adopted a whole panoply of instruments for controlling and atomising the working class. The trade unions and the mass parties have become cogs in the machinery of the state. The proletariat can only affirm its existence as a class sporadically. Outside moments of social movement, as a collective body the class is atomised, as if it had been expelled from civil society.

The capitalism of the late 19th century is altogether different. On the economic level, the bourgeoisie went through the longest and most vigorous period of prosperity in its history. After the cyclical crises of growth, which had hit the system about every ten years between 1825 and 1873, for almost 30 years until 1900 capitalism experienced an almost uninterrupted prosperity. On the military level, the period was just as exceptional: there were no major wars.

During these years of relatively peaceful prosperity, barely imaginable for people of our epoch, the proletarian struggle took place in a political framework which, although it remained – obviously – that of capitalist exploitation and oppression, nonetheless had very different characteristics from those of the 20th century.

The relationships between proletarians and capitalists were direct, and all the more dispersed in that most factories were still relatively small. The state only intervened in these relationships at the level of open conflicts likely to “endanger public order”. For the vast majority, negotiations over wages and working conditions depended on the local balance of forces between bosses (often of family firms) and workers, who for the most part came directly from the peasantry or the craft trades. The state was not involved in these negotiations.

Capitalism conquered the world market, and spread its form of social organisation to the four corners of the earth. The development of the productive forces was explosive. Every day the bourgeoisie became richer, and even made a profit from the workers’ improving living conditions.

Workers’ struggles were often crowned with success. Long, bitter strikes, even isolated, managed to beat bosses who – apart from the fact that they were able to pay – were often disunited in their resistance. The workers learnt to unite and organise on a permanent basis (so did the bosses). Their struggles forced the bourgeoisie to accept the right of working class organisations to exist: trades unions, political parties, and cooperatives. The proletariat affirmed itself as a social force within society, even outside moments of open struggle. The working class had a life of its own within society: there were the trade unions, (which were “schools of communism”), but also clubs where workers talked politics, and “workers’ universities”, where one might learn marxism as well as how to read and write (Rosa Luxemburg and Pannekoek were both teachers in the German social-democracy); there were working class songs, and working class fetes where one sang, danced, and talked of communism.

The proletariat imposed universal suffrage, and won representation by its own political organisations in the bourgeois parliament – the parliament had not yet been completely devoured by the circus of mystification; real power was not yet wholly in the hands of the state executive; there were real confrontations between different fractions of the ruling classes, and the proletariat sometimes managed to use the divergences between bourgeois parties to impose its own interests.

The European working class’ living conditions underwent real improvements: the working day reduced from 12-14 hours to 10; the outlawing of child labour and dangerous work for women; an overall rise in living conditions and general culture. Inflation was unknown. The prices of consumer goods fell as new production techniques were introduced. Unemployment was reduced to the minimum reserve army of labour that an expanding capitalism could draw on to satisfy its constantly growing needs for labour power.

A young unemployed worker today might have difficulty in imagining what this could be like, but it should be obvious for any organisation that claims to be marxist.


The workers’ social-democratic parties and “their” trade unions were the products and the instruments of the combats of this period. Contrary to what the ICG implies, the union and parliamentary political struggle of the early 1870’s were not “invented” by the social-democracy. The struggle for the existence of trade unions and universal suffrage (with the Chartists in Britain especially) developed in the proletariat from the first moments of its affirmation as a class.

The social-democracy only developed and organised a real movement that had existed well before it, and developed independently of it. Then, as today, the question has always been the same: how to fight the situation of exploitation in which it finds itself. And at the time, the trade union and parliamentary political struggle really were effective means of defence. To reject them in the name of “the Revolution” would be to reject the real movement and the only path towards the revolution that was possible at the time. The working class had to use it to limit its exploitation, but also to become aware of itself, and of its existence as a united and independent force.

“The great importance of the trade union and the political struggle is that they socialise the proletariat’s knowledge and consciousness, and organise it as a class” wrote Luxemburg in “Reform or Revolution”.

This was the “minimum program”. But it was accompanied by a “maximum program”, to be carried out by the class once it had become capable of taking its fight against exploitation right to the limit: the revolution.

Rosa Luxemburg expressed the link between these two programs: “According to the Party’s current conception, the proletariat, through its experience of the trade union and political struggle, arrives at the conviction that its situation cannot be transformed from top to bottom by means of this struggle, and that the seizure of power is unavoidable”.

This was the program of the social-democracy.

By contrast, reformism was defined by its rejection of the idea of the revolution’s necessity. It considered that only the struggle for reforms within the system could have any meaning. Now, the social-democracy was formed in direct opposition not only to the anarchists – who thought the revolution was possible at any time – but also to the possibilists and their reformism that considered capitalism as eternal.

Here, for example, is how the French workers’ party presented its electoral program in 1880:


That this collective appropriation can only derive from the revolutionary action of the productive class – or proletariat – organised as a distinct political party;

That such an organisation must be pursued by all the means at the proletariat’s disposal, including universal suffrage, thus transformed from the instrument of trickery that it has been up to now, into an instrument of emancipation;

The French socialist workers, in giving their efforts in the economic domain the aim of returning to the collectivity all the means of production, have decided, as means of organisation and struggle, to enter the elections with the following minimum program...” This program was drawn up by Karl Marx.

Whatever the weight of opportunism towards reformism within the social-democratic parties, their program explicitly rejected it. The maximum program of the social-democratic parties was the revolution; the trade union and electoral struggle was essentially the practical means, adapted to the possibilities and the demands of the period, for preparing to realise this aim.


1. The adoption of marxism

Obviously, the ICG recognises no contribution to the workers’ movement on the part of all these “essentially bourgeois” organisations. “Between the social-democracy and communism – they say – there is the same class frontier as between bourgeoisie and proletariat”.

There is nothing new in rejecting 19th century social-democracy and the 2nd International. The anarchists have always done so. What is relatively new [3] is to do so while claiming the heritage of Marx and Engels... (out of a concern for parental authority perhaps).

The problem is, that the adoption of marxist conceptions and the explicit rejection of anarchism is undoubtedly the 2nd International’s major advance over the 1st.

The 1st International, founded in 1864, regrouped, especially at its beginnings, all kinds of political tendencies: Mazzinists, Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Blanquists, British trade-unionists, etc. The marxists were only a tiny minority (the weight of Marx’s personality within the General Council should not deceive us). There was only one marxist, Frankel, in the Paris Commune, and he was Hungarian.

By contrast, with Engels the 2nd International was based on marxist conceptions right from the start. This was explicitly recognised by the Erfurt Congress in 1891.

In Germany, as early as 1869, the Workers’ Social-Democratic Party founded at Eisenach by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel after they split from Lassalle’s organisation (the General Association of German Workers) was based on marxism. After the reunification of the two parties in 1875, the marxists were in the majority, but the program as it was adopted was so full of concessions to Lassalle’s ideas that Marx wrote in the accompanying letter to his famous “Critique of the Gotha Program”:

“After the Unity Congress has been held, Engels and I will publish a short statement to the effect that our position is altogether remote from the said declaration of principles and that we have nothing to do with it”. But he added: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs”.

Fifteen years later, his confidence in the real movement was vindicated by the adoption of marxist conceptions by the 2nd International right from its creation.

The ICG reminds us of Marx and Engels’ rejection of the term “social-democrat” which in reality reflected the Lassallean weaknesses of the German party: in “all these texts I never describe myself as a social-democrat, but as a communist. For Marx, as for myself, it is thus absolutely impossible to use such as elastic expression to describe our own conception”. (Engels in the pamphlet “Internationales aus dem Volkstaat”, 1871-1875).

But the ICG “forgets” to mention that the Marxists did not therefore deduce that they should break with the party, but on the contrary that they should make the best of it by engaging the combat on the fundamental question. As Engels went on to say: “Things are different today, and this word can pass if it comes down to it, even though it does not today correspond any better to a party whose economic program is not only socialist in general, but directly communist, i.e. to a party whose final aim is the suppression of all states, and therefore of democracy”.

The International’s adoption of marxism’s fundamental ideas was not a gift from heaven, but a victory won thanks to the combat of the most advanced elements.

2. The distinction between the proletariat’s unitary and political organisations

Another contribution of the 2nd International in relation to the 1st, was the distinction between two separate forms of organisation. On the one hand, unitary organisations regrouping proletarians on the basis of their membership of the class (in the trade unions, and later in soviets or workers’ councils); on the other, political organisations regrouping militants on the basis of a precise political platform.

Especially at the outset, the 1st International regrouped individuals, cooperatives, solidarity associations, unions and political clubs. Which meant that it never, as an organ, really succeeded in carrying out the tasks, either of clear political orientation, or of unifying the workers.

It was therefore quite natural that the anarchists, who reject both marxism and the need for political organisation, should combat the 2nd International right from its foundation. And moreover, many anarchist currents today continue to trace their origins to the IWA (International Workingmen’s Association). Here again, the ICG has not innovated and remains invariantly... anarchist.


Does this mean that the social-democracy and the 2nd International were perfect incarnations of what a proletarian vanguard political organisation should be? Obviously not.

The Gotha Congress was held four years after the crushing of the Commune; the 2nd International was founded after almost twenty years of uninterrupted capitalist prosperity, under the impulse of an outburst of strikes provoked not by worsening exploitation due to the economic crisis, but by this very prosperity, which placed the proletariat in a position of relative strength. The distance from capitalism’s cyclical crises, and the progress of working class living conditions through the trade union and parliamentary struggle, inevitably created illusions amongst the workers, even in their vanguard.

In the marxist vision, the outbreak of revolution can only be provoked by a violent capitalist economic crisis. The longer the period of prosperity lasted, the more the eventuality of such a crisis seemed to recede. The very success of the struggle for reforms lent credit to the reformists’ idea that the revolution was both pointless and impossible. The fact that the results of the struggle for reforms depended essentially on the balance of forces at the level of each nation state, and not on the international balance of forces – as is the case for the revolutionary struggle – increasingly limited the fighting organisation to a national framework, while internationalist conceptions and tasks were often relegated to a secondary importance, or put off indefinitely. In 1898, seven years after the Erfurt Congress, Bernstein openly called into question, within the International, the Marxist theory of crises and the inevitability of capitalism’s economic collapse (which the ICG also rejects): only the struggle for reforms was viable, “The goal is nothing, the movement is all”.

The party’s parliamentary groups were often all too easily caught in the nets of the bourgeois democratic game, while the union leaders tended to become too “understanding” towards the imperatives of the capitalist national economy. The extent of the combat conducted by Marx and Engels within the emerging social-democracy against the tendencies to compromise with reformism, the combat of Lenin, Luxemburg, Pannekoek, Gorter, or Trotsky within the degenerating social-democracy are proof of the weight this form of bourgeois ideology had within the proletarian organisations... But the weight of reformism within the 2nd International does not make it a bourgeois organ, any more than that of Proudhonist reformism makes the IWA an instrument of capital.

The proletariat’s political organisations have never formed a monolithic bloc of identical conceptions. Furthermore, the most advanced elements have often been in the minority – as we have pointed out previously. But the minorities that go from Marx and Engels to the left communists of the 1930’s knew that the life of the proletariat’s political organisations depended on a struggle not only against the enemy in the street and the workplace, but also against the ever-present influence of the bourgeoisie within these organisations.


Sweeping aside the half-heartedness, lies and corruption of the outlived official Socialist parties, we Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuators of the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations, from Babeuf, to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

If the First International presaged the future course of development and indicated its paths; if the Second International gathered and organised millions of workers; then the Third International is the International of open mass action, the International of revolutionary realisation, the International of the deed”.

(Manifesto of the Founding Congress of the Communist International to the Proletarians of the Whole World! March, 1919)



For the ICG, this kind of combat was meaningless, and only helped the counter-revolution.

“The presence of marxist revolutionaries (Pannekoek, Gorter, Lenin...), within the 2nd International did not mean that the latter defended the interests of the proletariat (whether “immediate” or historic), but cautioned for lack of a split, the social-democracy’s counter-revolutionary activity”.

Let us note in passing that all of a sudden, the ICG here raises Pannekoek, Gorter, and Lenin – the left wing of an organisation separated from communism by a “class frontier” – to the rank of “marxist revolutionaries”. How nice to them. But in doing so, the ICG gives us to understand that organisations “essentially bourgeois in nature” can have a left wing made up of authentic “revolutionary marxists”... for decades! It is presumably the same kind of “dialectic” that leads the ICG to consider that the left wing of Latin American Stalinism (the “Shining Path” maoists in Peru) can in these countries be “the sole structure capable of giving a coherence to the ever growing number of proletarian direct actions”.

Whether our punk dialecticians like it or not, Peruvian maoist Stalinism is no more a “structure capable of giving a coherence” to the actions of the proletariat than the “marxist revolutionaries” in the 2nd International “cautioned a counter-revolutionary practice”.

Marx and Engels, Rosa and Lenin, Pannekoek and Gorter, were not incoherent imbeciles who thought they could struggle for the revolution as militants giving life to bourgeois organisations. They were revolutionaries who, unlike the anarchists - ...and the ICG – understood the concrete conditions of the workers’ struggle according to the system’s historic periods.

We may criticise Lenin’s lateness in realising the gravity of the opportunist disease within the 2nd International; we may criticise Rosa Luxemburg’s inability really to conduct the organisational work of the fraction within the social-democracy at the turn of the century, but we cannot reject the nature of their combat. By contrast, we should salute Rosa Luxemburg’s lucidity, at the end of the 19th century, in criticising mercilessly the revisionist current emerging within the 2nd International, and the Bolsheviks’ ability to organise as an independent fraction with its own means of intervention within the Russia Social Democratic Workers’ Party. This is why they were in the proletariat’s vanguard in the revolutionary struggles at the end of World War I.

Does the ICG really think that those it sometimes calls “marxist revolutionaries” came from the social-democracy by accident, rather than from anarchism or some other current? It is impossible to answer this elementary question without understanding the importance of the continuity of the proletariat’s political organisations. And this cannot be understood without understanding the analysis of capitalist decadence.

The whole history of the 2nd International can only appear as meaningless chaos if we do not bear in mind that it existed at the watershed between the period of capitalism’s ascendancy, and that of its decadence.


Today, the proletariat is preparing to wage a decisive battle against a capitalist system no longer capable of escaping an open crisis that has lasted for almost 20 years, ever since the end of the reconstruction period in the late 1960’s.

It is heading for the combat relatively free of the mystifications heaped on it for 40 years by the Stalinist counter-revolution; in those countries with a long-standing tradition of bourgeois democracy, it has lost many of its illusions in the trade union and parliamentary struggle, while in the less developed countries it has lost those in anti-imperialist nationalism.

However, in breaking free of these mystifications, the workers have not yet managed to reappropriate all the lessons of their past struggles.

The task of communists is not to organise the working class – as the social-democracy did in the 19th century. The communists’ contribution to the workers’ struggle is essentially at the level of conscious practice, the praxis of the struggle. At this level, they contribute not so much by the answers they give, but by showing how problems should be posed. Their conception of the world and their practical attitude always put forward the worldwide and historic dimension of each question confronted in the struggle.

Those like the ICG who ignore the historic dimension of the workers’ struggle by denying the different phases of capitalist reality, by denying the real continuity of the proletariat’s political organisations, disarm the working class at the moment when it most needs to reappropriate its own conception of the world.

It is not enough to be “for violence”, “against bourgeois democracy” to know where you are and to establish at every moment perspectives for the class struggle. Far from it. Maintaining illusions like this is criminally dangerous.




[1] Unless otherwise stated, all the quotes of the ICG are taken from the articles “Theories de la Decadence, Decadence de la Theorie” published in numbers 23 and 25 of “Le Communiste” (Nov 1985 and Nov 1986), and translated by us.

[2] See “Understanding Capitalist Decadence”, International Review no. 48 (1st Quarter 1987), and “Understanding the Political Implications of Capitalist Decadence”, International Review no. 49 (2nd Quarter 1987).

[3] In reality, this is the old refrain of the modernists and “embarassed” anarchists, especially since 1968.


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