The reappearance of texts by Bilan on the events in Spain from 1936 to 1938 in a paperback collection is an important development. For so long drowned in the tide of the counter-revolution, internationalist positions are re-emerging little by little in the memory of the proletariat. In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the communist left in general, and in particular in the real Italian left, represented by Bilan.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the self-proclaimed ‘heirs’ of the Italian left -- the Bordigist current haven’t seen fit to publish the texts of Bilan. Their policy of silence isn’t fortuitous. The Italian left of the 30’s is an embarrassing ‘ancestor’ they’d rather forget about.
In fact, the Bordigists of today have only a very distant relationship with Bilan and can in no way claim a direct descent. In a few months time, we intend to publish a history of the Italian communist left from 1926 to 1945, in the form of a book, so that its contributions can remain truly alive for the new revolutionary generations.
In June ‘79, we greeted with the greatest interest the publication of a selection of texts from Bilan on the subject of the Spanish Civil War, edited by J Barrot. Some of these texts had already been republished by the ICC in the International Review (nos 4, 6 and 7); for our analysis of the importance of the work of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left, we refer readers to our introductions to these texts.
With the aim of situating the work of Bilan in the history of the 'left fractions' which struggled against the degeneration of the IIIrd International, Barrot has written a long introduction which, although based on the re-affirmation of revolutionary positions, will certainly leave the unfamiliar reader confused by the disorganization of its presentation: personal opinions are mingled with those of Bilan, historical and present day comparisons, definitions of concepts, histories of other groups and polemics against the ICC and Bilan. Although much of the annotation is correct, and we would not deny the need to criticize Bilan, like all groups, a product of its own period, it must be said that unfortunately Barrot sets himself up as a judge of history, and that his own opinions only serve to obscure political principles which are fundamental for the emancipation of the working class, as well as an understanding of the existence and historical role of the class.
1. ‘Practical measures’ and revolutionary perspectives
The Spanish experience, the spontaneous reaction of Spanish workers to arm themselves against attack by the forces of Franco, despite the attempts at conciliation by the Popular Front; but later these same workers accepting the authority of the left-wing of the Spanish bourgeoisie, shows the nature of the political barriers confronting the proletariat, and the defeat which awaits it if they are not surmounted.
“Bilan tended to see nothing but the defeat of the working class (which was true) and not the appearance of a social movement which, in different conditions, could have a revolutionary effect.”
“To denounce the counter-revolution without also drawing out the positive nature measures which were taken, and their roots in the same situation, is to act in a purely negative way. The party (or the ‘faction’) is not a mere ‘axe’”
If, by “social movement”, J Barrot means the inevitable overthrow of bourgeois institutions in times of crisis, for example through strikes and the occupation of land, then this is something that was never denied by Bilan. What Bilan said is that this is insufficient without the destruction of the bourgeois state.
When Bordiga said that it was necessary to destroy the capitalist world before attempting to construct a communist society, this was not just another fine phrase; he wanted to show, as Rosa Luxemburg had done before him that revolutionaries can do no more than show the way towards communism. But J Barrot undoubtedly thinks, like the ‘utopian socialist’, that it is possible to demonstrate in advance, and in detail, the development and constitution of a society which will be built by millions of proletarians, of which we know little apart from the broad outlines: that it will involve the ‘withering away’ of the state, the abolition of wage labor, and the end of the exploitation of man by man.1
J Barrot seems to have forgotten the fundamental importance of denouncing bourgeois society as a whole, when he himself, in passing, echoes the, traditional bourgeois accusation that revolutionaries (and in this case Bilan) are merely nihilists!
Thus it is true that, with regard to the massacre of workers in Spain, the role of the Fraction was and could only be that of an axe clearing bourgeois from proletarian ideas, and, without any nihilism, putting forward the perspective of autonomous class struggle -- which since it is autonomous has nothing to do with trade union struggles around demands put forward by the left. Their role was to affirm the need to oppose the sending of arms by one or the other imperialist bloc, and the need for fraternization between workers, without which death awaits them in local wars first of all, then in a global holocaust. These are the concrete political measures to put forward, and these were the ‘measures’ defended by Bilan!
2. Working class crisis, or necessary reassertion of working class independence?
By forgetting half a century of counter-revolution, by distorting Bilan’s conception of class autonomy, J Barrot seems to reduce the question of the independence of working class action to the danger that the economic struggle will remain on the economic level (later on he denies the primacy of politics on the grounds that class action must encompass both the political and the economic):
“... In these conditions to insist on ‘autonomous’ class struggle is not enough. Autonomy is no more a revolutionary principle then ‘leadership’ by a minority: the revolution calls for neither democracy, nor dictatorship.”
Although Barrot reminds us here of the importance of the content of autonomous class struggle, one might ask what he would see as the content of the dictatorship of the proletariat, of proletarian democracy, of the mass organizations of the proletariat?
One should understand that this author does not regard autonomy as a principle because he rejects the idea that the proletariat has a class identity distinct from other classes, that the proletariat’s experience is forged from a whole series of struggles taking place in a world dominated by capital. It is he who makes an artificial distinction between economic and political struggles, while neither Bilan nor the ICC, whom he accuses of doing this, has ever made one precede the other in a mechanical way; both Luxemburg and Lenin often demonstrated how succeeding economic and political phases of the struggle are intertwined with one another to the extent that it is difficult to distinguish between the two, since they are both parts of the same class struggle against capitalism.
Revolutionaries have always emphasized the need for workers to go beyond the level of struggle for purely economist demands; otherwise the struggle is doomed to failure. The setbacks encountered by workers in numerous struggles over the past few years thus act as stimulants towards the decisive struggles of the future; however J Barrot thinks he sees a contradiction here:
“... a contradiction (which) is the source of a veritable crisis within the proletariat, reflected by, among other things, the crisis of many revolutionary organizations. Only a revolution offers a practical resolution of this contradiction.”
To resolve this apparent contradiction, Barrot resorts to the word revolution as a cure-all, as a charm to chase off the devil.
It would be of little interest here to dwell on the tangled contradictions of Barrot’s own analysis, but if for example he claims that “proletarian experience is always rooted in day-to-day struggles”, how can he also defend the idea that it “is reformist activity around wages struggles which ties workers to capitalism”.?
What does it mean to describe as reformist, workers’ struggles against deteriorating living conditions? For one thing it means that Barrot identifies the working class -- as the leftists do -- with the counter-revolutionary parties who call themselves and pass as “reformists”.
If workers tie themselves to capitalism, then the left wing parties in Spain (and elsewhere!) cannot be held responsible for the imperialist war. Bourgeois ideas are no longer seen as a material force holding back the working class. In fact this conception implies that the proletariat no longer exists as a revolutionary class, and communism is just one more utopia!
Barrot could claim that we are distorting the questions he is asking if the nature of his questions was not confirmed by his own ‘modernist’ answers, and his a-historical judgments.
We have been told first that class autonomy is not a principle, then that workers tie themselves to capitalism. Later on we shall be told that the ICC “understands that the revolution must be an act of destruction, but not how the working class is to acquire the power to do this”. This brings us back to the “concrete measures” advocated by the Barrotian scheme. Here we shall see that it is Barrot who does not understand.
3. No significan change of the social structure is viable without the destruction of the bourgeois state.
We have already noted the incompleteness of certain social upheavals. For the working class to disrupt capitalist production, for landless peasants to expropriate the land, are not revolutionary actions in themselves, but rather moments in the process by which the class hesitantly moves towards its emancipation. But this will not be achieved if the control of production becomes merely self-management, or if the workers, like in Spain, submit to the authority of one fraction of the bourgeoisie in the name of “anti-fascism”. Barrot recognises the limitations of upheavals of this kind, but still presents them as “an immense revolutionary upsurge”.
While recognizing in a partial sense that the republican bourgeois state “disliked” (of course) using methods of social struggle to enlist workers to the imperialist battle front, Barrot thinks that
“The non-destruction of the state prevents socialization and collectivization from organizing an ‘anti-mercantile economy’ on the level of society as a whole”.
This is true in one sense, but for this author socialization and collectivization are quite clearly “a potential tendency” towards communism. For us, if there is a potential tendency towards communism it is expressed in the capacity of the working class to generalize its struggles, to centralize and co-ordinate its organization, to distinguish itself from the bourgeois parties, and to arm itself to put an end to capitalist domination, as a precondition for social transformation -- rather than in the control of production which aims to ‘organize things better’ than the bourgeoisie, or worse, claims to have inaugurated a new wave of production before the destruction of the bourgeois state!
In Russia in October 1917 the experience of this type of self-management of the factories was short-lived. What is necessary first of all and above all, is the centralization of the struggle, a centralization which either never existed in Spain or else was taken in hand by the bourgeois state. Workers in Russia, after the destruction of the bourgeois state, believed for a short time that they could organize an anti-mercantile economy despite all the apparent difficulties: what this experience continued was the impossibility of doing this within a national framework, even after the destruction of the bourgeois state.
It is evident that in the period of maturation of the revolution before the assault on the state, workers will interrupt the process of exploitation, bring about a reduction in working hours (cf 8 hour day in 1917) and impose their will on questions of land and peace, but these measures in themselves are not communist. Their application is merely the success of demands which capitalism is no longer capable of granting. And even if capitalism gives way on some of the these demands, the understanding acquired by workers during the course of these struggles is of the necessity for political insurrection.
After the insurrection, the proletariat in any one geographical area will continue to be subject to the rule of the law of value. If this is not recognized, then one would have to deny that, as long as capitalism exists, it imposes its domination over the whole planet -- leaving the door open to the Stalinist thesis of ‘socialism in one country’. All that we know is that the proletarian revolution is not associated with a definite stable mode of production; it will have to constantly overturn existing economic relations in an anti-mercantile direction.
To attempt today to show precisely how social wealth will be distributed according to long term needs (quite apart from the satisfaction of immediate needs such as food and shelter, and the abolition of hierarchical wages structures, etc.), would be to indulge in hazardous speculation or political gimmickry. At this stage we find ourselves in a society in transition from capitalism to communism, the necessity of which has always been affirmed by Marxism.
4. From class struggle under capitalism to the affirmation of the proletariat
It is easy for sociological innovators to theorize the weakness of the workers movement -- to see workers as recuperated by the ‘consumer society’ or integrated into capitalism. The aim of these ‘ideas merchants’ is really nothing less than the destruction of Marxism as a method and a tool of class struggle -- which tends towards the destruction of the infrastructure of their own class, the bourgeoisie. Barrot is in great danger of being into this kind of analysis.
Poor workers of Spain 1936 who did not obey the rules drawn up by the great observer of history! At the start, workers “adopt a communist stance, well reported by Orwell”; later “they do not organize in a communist way because they do not act in a communist way”. Understand who can! In reality Barrot is putting the cart before the horse:
“The communist movement cannot win unless workers go beyond struggles (even if they are armed) which do not challenge wage labor itself. Workers, as wage earners, can only wage armed struggle by destroying themselves as workers.”
Barrot plays with dialectics to draw the lesson of events in Spain, failing to see that at this stage it was still not a question of an armed insurrection against the state. After showing himself incapable of understanding how workers, as atomized individuals, can become the proletariat, a revolutionary force against the existing order, except by resorting to formulas like “the destruction of the theory of the proletariat”(!) he now wants us to believe in the simultaneity of the abolition of wage labor and the destruction of the bhourgeois state. Yet another dream of the immediate establishment of communism!
It is true that insurgent proletarians can no longer really be called wage earners, but do they stop working in factories, even with guns in their hands? Will they work for nothing for the millions who have no work? In the sector under proletarian control, will it be possible to do away with remuneration completely, given the legacy of the anarchy of international capitalism, which by its attempts to crush the revolution will make necessary an even greater production of arms and raw materials? And in any case, who can decide the method of remuneration or the best way to move rapidly towards the abolition of wage labor? Marx and his labor-time vouchers, proposed in the Critique of the Gotha Program? Barrot? The Party? Or the living experience of the working class?
Today what distinguishes communists from all those who only construct communism in their imagination, is the affirmation that all the measures for economic or social transformation will be taken by the dictatorship of the proletariat, under the political control of this class. There can be no definitive economic measures which in themselves guarantee the victory of communism, or which could not be used against the proletariat, until bourgeois politics has been completely destroyed. Barrot has lifted no more than a corner of the veil obscuring the society of transition towards communism. In fact he defines the revolution itself as “the reappropriation of the social and economic conditions of the new social relations” -- and by revolution he means the decisive insurrectional phase. One can understand why, like all modernists, he reproaches the Italian Left for their “working class formalism amounting to economism”, even though he is obliged to recognize the key role of the working class. Surely his lack of clarity on all these questions is based on the implicit rejection of the proletariat as subject of the revolution?
All those who declare that the proletariat is already dead, who would have us believe that there is a “crisis of the proletariat” because it has still not broken from the trivial struggles that tie it to capitalism, all those who envisage the disappearance of the proletariat before the revolutionary assault, before communism, are of no use to the proletariat because they obscure the real difficulties confronting the proletariat on the path towards communism. All their nebulous theories will be consigned to the dustbin of his history!
Far from helping us to appreciate the role of left fractions and the lessons that our generation can draw from their work, Barrot deforms their work by accusing them of political hypertrophy, of refusing to break from a conception of revolution “in stages” (political then economic); and what is more, although Bilan traced the general characteristics of the future communist revolution, Barrot accuses the group of having “opposed” the movement to the final goal.
This type of commentary is simply charlatanism. To see how far the truth is different from Barrot’s description of the group, it is enough to read the selection of texts published in this book. There one can see how carefully Bilan analyses the relation of class forces in order to show the real advances made by the proletariat, the sacrifices undertaken by the working class and to show how the class lives in struggle, even when handicapped by the weight of anarchism in Spain, and diverted from a communist perspective. Bilan shows how the experience of the struggles of 1936 are an irreplaceable part of the experience gained by the class in its long striving towards the final goal, communism.
The war in Spain did not halt the theoretical development of the Italian Left; on the contrary, it verified the analyses of Bilan, confirming that proletarian politics must not be abandoned even under the greatest pressure. As for the “potential” movement which Barrot uses to illustrate his theory, the concrete measures such as socialization and collectivization, their importance has been greatly exaggerated, and they have been used by the bourgeoisie to obscure the fundamental political problem the assault on the bourgeois state.
For Barrot, it is now or never for communism. He announces, to anyone who wants to listen, that “communist theory no longer exists, except as the affirmation of the need for revolution.” (Our emphasis). With this in mind, the reader of the preface to the texts from Bilan might well ask what is the basis of the “Barrotian” revolution -- whether it is more than something that leads nowhere and goes anywhere.
The careful reader will discover from Barrot’s preface that the revolution will come along one fine day to solve the “crisis of the proletariat” by the negation of the proletariat; that it will pass by the trivial little groups of revolutionaries which are “really no more than publishing houses”, and groups like the ICC “who don’t know how the revolution will be made”. Barrot, with his mighty pen, has eliminated the programmatic acquisitions of the revolutionary movement, the debate on the period of transition, rejected class consciousness and the importance of revolutionary activity -- and taken a great leap into the void!
Barrot has one great merit: that of having published texts from Bilan on the war in Spain.
1 For more on the period of transition, see the work of Bilan on this question, and various texts in the International Review of the ICC.