In defence of discussion groups

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In the last two issues of World Revolution we have published articles concerning discussion groups: in WR 257 we reproduced a text on the Paris Commune of 1871 that introduced a discussion in the Midlands Discussion Group; in our previous issue, WR 258, we published a brief history of the MDG. In the following article we want to look at some more general aspects of what a discussion group is, what function it fulfils and what in our view a discussion group is not, and what objectives it shouldn't try to serve.

In our previous articles we have explained the context in which discussion groups emerge. The MDG was first formed in the wake of the NATO intervention in the Kosovo war, reflecting a need to clarify, in the face of all the justifications by different sectors of the bourgeoisie, the nature of the war and the working class response to it. Discussion groups have emerged in other countries around different events or sometimes have been created without a specific impetus. In our view these groups are one aspect of the coming to consciousness of the working class in a period that is historically favourable to the development of class confrontations. This phenomenon also reflects the relative weakness of the forces of revolutionary organisations, since they tend to emerge in countries or regions where the latter are absent or lack a regular presence. The emergence of discussion groups in the recent period also corresponds to another factor: despite the undefeated nature of the working class today, the period since 1989 and the collapse of Stalinism has led to a profound disorientation within proletarian ranks that echoes the bourgeoisie's deafening propaganda campaigns about the death of communism and marxism and the disappearance of the working class, and the growth of all sorts of radical campaigns along populist lines (the so called anti-capitalist one for example) and the development of anarchist trends that reject a clear class perspective.

The appearance of discussion groups are also a reaction to this disorientation and an attempt to overcome it.

Discussion and class consciousness

Human consciousness is essentially a product of social interaction and language has been its main vehicle. Discussion, the debate of different ideas and thoughts between individuals, is in turn a powerful driving force for the development of consciousness, for the clarification of human goals and objectives, and is therefore indissolubly linked with human action and practical activity.

The discussion of working class interests and aims represents a particular development of consciousness corresponding to a particular phase of human history.

The working class, in distinction from all previous revolutionary classes, has no economic or institutional power within the old society and so its main weapons of social transformation are consciousness and organisation. In addition, as a non-exploiting revolutionary class it has no new relations of exploitation to create; thus its consciousness tends toward dispelling all the mystifications that the bourgeoisie has used to its advantage. It must also extend class consciousness to the whole of the proletariat whereas previous revolutionary classes have left the theoretical and political defence of their interests to a minority of intellectual specialists.

In contrast with previous exploited classes, working class consciousness cannot limit itself to the immediate struggle of any particular moment but has to be historical and global. Discussion about the future, even the distant future, is extremely concrete and practical for the working class.

A gigantic task! Proletarian consciousness must become historically precise and accurate enough to be a principal means for the overthrow of capitalist society, and it must extend throughout the whole class.

We don't of course expect discussion groups to take this entire work on their shoulders, but it indicates the seriousness and importance of their work. It shows that they are not 'talking shops' and correspond to a real need in the proletariat. The revolutionary nature of class consciousness means that these groups are far from academic in preoccupation, since academicism is not synonymous with discussion without an immediate practical outcome, but means trying to stand above classes and pretending to have an objectivity that is really the defence of the status quo. Thus the activist denial of the role of discussion groups as 'academic' expresses an ignorance of what the working class must become; which is why, when activists wax theoretical, it is they who fall into academicism.

The ICC, basing itself on the above conception of class consciousness, has always insisted therefore that discussion groups take themselves seriously and thoroughly prepare for discussions: the quality and coherence of the text on the Paris Commune is an indication that the discussion group is not about talking for the sake of it. The ICC has also insisted, not always successfully, on the need for a systematic study and discussion of the history of the workers' movement within the discussion groups, since this is the only sure means of arriving at a self-awareness of the working class.

Discussion groups are not schools of the party

If the preparation for discussion requires serious study of the workers' movement and its theoretical riches, this doesn't imply that they are a forum of pedagogy where the political organisation or party is the teacher of unquestioned truths. On the contrary the revolutionary nature of class consciousness demands that all militants have a highly critical attitude to the patrimony of the revolutionary movement, must question everything, express their doubts and arrive at a solid conviction in class positions instead of a passive consumption of them. This is why the ICC believes that the discussion group should be open to all those, irrespective of their political persuasion, who want to discuss class politics, and has opposed a political delimitation of the discussion group. In the MDG it successfully opposed the attempted exclusion of those who considered themselves to be councilists, sympathisers of ecologism or the cooperative movement.

Nor does the ICC consider that the discussion group is a sort of 'transmission belt' to the party, a kind of political group that is easier to get into than the party because it has less of a programme to agree with. Such a conception falls between two stools; neither fulfilling the tasks of a discussion group which is to explore class consciousness in depth, nor the tasks of a real political organisation which has to delineate itself completely from bourgeois ideology and opportunism as a whole.

In our opinion the Sheffield No War But The Class War group (NW), influenced by the proletarian group, the Communist Workers Organisation, has fallen into this conception since it has defined itself according to a mini-platform of seven points, which on the one hand limit the group as a forum for discussion, and on the other give it political tasks that it is poorly equipped to carry out. In particular, as the last Stop the War march in London showed, it made the group particularly vulnerable to the leftist carnival around this effectively pro-war parade (see WR 258). The Sheffield NW group unfortunately participated in a march where its slogans of proletarian internationalism were drowned out by the deafening chants of 'Allah Akbar' from the reactionary Islamist supporters of a Palestinian state and of Iraq.

The temptation for a discussion group to try and become a political group is very strong today. But rather than a 'natural' tendency, this expresses a widespread disorientation in the proletariat as a whole about the conditions for the creation of the revolutionary vanguard. The latter is a historical product and must be in continuity with the revolutionary parties of the past; it must be a part of a trend towards the centralised international unity of this vanguard since the working class has no local or national interests. Its platform and statutes must therefore be highly developed. Moreover, it must be able to accurately analyse the conditions and balance of class forces within which it operates. The Sheffield NW group is not only ill-equipped at the programmatic level to carry out this political role, but seems to have also significantly overestimated the possibilities of its influence in the current conditions.

While the MDG hasn't fallen into this trap of trying to become a political group, its preoccupation with having public meetings imply a political unity that it can't have.

Discussion groups, like revolutionary organisations, must modestly carry out what is possible in the present period and beware falling into the trap of localism and activism, the privileged terrain of leftism and opportunism. [1]

No doubt our differences with the CWO about discussion groups reflect wider differences between our organisations on the questions of class consciousness and the role of the party which we will touch on below. But there is a fundamental agreement between us on the indispensable role of the party within the development of class consciousness and the need for the discussion groups to be open to their intervention. That's why whatever differences that might exist, the Sheffield NW group has been open to the participation of members of the MDG and of the ICC, and the meetings of the MDG open to the interventions of the CWO.

If there is a danger of discussion groups losing their compass as a result of trying to be political groups, there is a far greater and more immediate danger of losing their class identity, a danger which has at times taken the form of efforts to exclude the intervention of revolutionary organisations. And we don't say this out of self-interest!

Discussion groups and the intervention of revolutionaries

The liberation of the working class is the task of the working class itself, said Marx, in helping to construct the Ist International. He meant that the working class had to become politically independent of all bourgeois parties and form its own political party. Anarchism has always given a different spin to this famous slogan: the working class liberates itself without a party, and without politics, which can only be the expression of the ultimate evil of 'authority'. For anarchism (in all its various guises) class consciousness and therefore discussion can only develop autonomously from the political organisations and their 'dogmatism'. This way of thinking can only, if it is taken to its logical conclusion, close up the discussion group in a clique defined by personal interests and deliberately prevents the quest for clarity and coherence that is an essential component of the development of class consciousness. [2]

The latter inevitably has a political character because it expresses the historical process by which the proletariat overthrows the bourgeois state and installs its own class dictatorship. The formation of a class political party is therefore an indispensable expression of class consciousness, indeed its highest expression, since it must delineate in a global and historical way the parameters of the proletariat's interests and goals. However, given the mass character of the proletarian revolution, the party cannot be the 'general staff' of the working class, as Zinoviev proclaimed at the 2nd Congress of the Communist International. The party doesn't take power on behalf of the working class.

The existence of discussion groups is an expression of the fact that the party is not the sole repository of class consciousness.

Nevertheless the development of the latter can only proceed along certain common political bases that are shared both by discussion groups and the revolutionary organisation: separating the latter two expressions of class consciousness inevitably puts these common bases in question.

A concrete example of this danger is provided by the evolution of the London No War But The Class War group that first appeared at the time of the Kosovo war and subsequently excluded the ICC from its discussions (see WR 228, October 1999, 'Political parasitism sabotages the discussion'), even though the ICC had up till then been the most intransigent defenders of internationalism within the group against the 'right of oppressed nations to self-determination', and the need for a militant discussion instead of academicism and activism. The justification for this expulsion - narrowly agreed to by the group - was the supposed dogmatism and domineering tendencies of the ICC in the discussion.

The London NW resurfaced after the September 11th attacks and the preparation for the US war in Afghanistan. Again we participated in this group, believing that it could be a forum for class debate. The CWO also took part in the discussions. But now, once again, the ICC has been excluded, and seemingly also the Sheffield NW group from their deliberations.

But this time there has been even less attempt to explain the reason for the exclusion, which was realised by simply no longer informing us and the Sheffield group of where their meetings were to take place, nor supplying information about their discussions.

We think that behind the accusations of 'dogmatism' there is the attempt to portray the revolutionary organisation as intolerant of opposing points of view, when in fact the ICC wants to see the widest possible debate of different viewpoints. In reality what the London NW group wants, by excluding revolutionary organisations, is the freedom to express incoherent points of view without being criticised for it, a closed environment where discussion is simply the exchange of individual opinions instead of the search for a common clarification. They are looking for personal autonomy not class autonomy, the right to one's own consciousness instead of class consciousness.

The consequences of such a policy, which is certainly influenced by political parasitism, is not only a short circuiting of political discussion, but also a betrayal of their supposed class opposition to imperialist war, and a growing espousal of the worthy pacifist sentiments of the leftist coalition that they claim to oppose [3]. Not surprising the London NW group also ended up traipsing behind the pro-war march, but unlike the Sheffield group is cutting itself off from the means of correcting such errors.  

Como, 2/11/02.

1. Its worth noting that while the CWO sees, mistakenly in our view, the possibility of creating a broad internationalist anti-war coalition of various disparate forces, it presumably still doesn't accept the necessity for the existing groups of the communist left to make common statements against imperialist war, as the ICC proposed to it, without success, at the time of the war in Kosovo.

2. The predominance of personal interests over the political needs of discussion, can threaten the existence itself of a discussion group, as the MDG discovered, (see history of the MDG in WR258).

3. See the London NW leaflet given out at the march 'War, what is it good for?', which fails in the crucial task of criticising the 'pacifist' (in fact, pro-war) ideology of the Stop the War Coalition and other sponsors of the march.

Communist Workers Organisation: P.O. Box 338, Sheffield S3 9YX

Sheffield No War But the Class War: [email protected]

Midland Discussion Group: c/o Little Thorn Bookshop, 73 Humberstone Gate, Leicester

London No War But The Class War: [email protected]


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