In an article on its recent International Congress the ICC saluted the appearance of a newly emerging generation of revolutionaries (see WR 306). Whether being engaged in online discussions on various web forums, receiving correspondence from people who've never contacted us before, discussing with new groups, or meeting people at meetings and demonstrations who have never come across the communist left before, we are finding ourselves in contact with a growing number of people who have fundamental questions about the nature of capitalist society and want to discuss the way to establish an alternative. Since we published our book on communism (Not a nice idea but a material necessity), with the whole range of subjects dealt with in its pages, there has been discussion on many aspects of the areas it touches. To develop this discussion, and because of our generally positive view of the potential of the current period, we decided to hold an invitation-only meeting to discuss some of the questions raised in the book. While it took place on one of the few warm weekends this summer, that did not diminish the enthusiasm of the participants, who came from across the country, as well as from Spain, Switzerland and Turkey (represented by a comrade of the group Enternasyonalist Komünist Sol). Some of these comrades are very close to the ICC (including some ex-members), some well acquainted with the positions of the ICC, one was from the Midland Discussion Forum and others maybe not so close to the ICC but interested in our approach and wanting to discuss seriously.
Communism is not a utopia
Non-ICC members prepared the presentations to the two sessions of the meeting, and they both did an excellent job in getting over the basics of difficult subjects. We started with the question ‘Is communism a utopia?' We were prepared for a wide-ranging discussion on such a broad theme, but most of the contributions could be seen as answers to the question ‘How do we get communism?'
For example, what is the role of revolutionaries? Are they organisers of the working class? Do they teach the working class the nature of capitalism and how it can be overthrown? Are the Trotskyists right to say that the crisis of humanity is characterised by the crisis of the leadership of the proletariat? Or, as the ICC understands it, is the role of revolutionaries to participate in the struggles of the working class, in the development of its self-organisation, and in the discussions that are integral to the process of clarification within the class and in the development of class consciousness and solidarity?
Revolutionaries identify the nature of the historic period; they try to grasp the material situation in which the working class finds itself and in which its struggle must develop. But, although the activity of revolutionary minorities has an absolutely essential role to play, it cannot substitute for the conscious mass activity of the working class as a whole. In leftism we find a current that not only denies workers' self-activity and tries to enrol it behind the forces of the bourgeoisie (we referred to the example of Trotskyism's support for the Allies in World War II), but also poses as the saviour of the working class and its struggle.
On a related subject we discussed the problems facing the class today. For example, while we can talk about workers' capacity to become conscious of their situation and the perspective it opens up for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, at the moment we have to be clear in understanding that the consciousness within the working class of what's at stake is very much behind what the historic situation demands. Similarly, while revolutionaries should not be dismissive of what they have achieved, they must be well aware of what is demanded of them by the struggles and discussions within the working class.
Also, we have to be aware of the difficulties facing the working class in relating to other non-exploiting social strata. In western Europe, where there is such a preponderance of those who work for wages paid by bourgeois big and small, it could be easy to forget the situation that prevails in so much of the rest of the world. In most of the so-called underdeveloped countries, not only are there landless and landowning peasants, there are also millions in the most precarious of situations, living hand to mouth by whatever means they can find. And, in many of the big cities in these regions, there are many extremely deprived neighbourhoods where wage-labourers live side by side with those who could be described as being part of the ‘informal' economy, living through crime, begging, scams, barter or through any arrangement that might possibly seem to work. The working class, even when sharing the same living conditions as other strata, faces capital and its state in a different relationship, as a force that can overthrow capitalism. But for this very reason its struggles can also inspire others, by example and by the force of persuasive argument in discussion, of the communist perspective.
The state cannot bring about socialism
The second session of discussion was started off by a thorough presentation on the role of the state, how it can't usher in socialism, and why it has to be destroyed by the revolutionary struggle.
We very soon moved to looking at the nature of the illusions within the ranks of the working class. With the force of the campaign around Chavez as the bringer of socialism to Venezuela, it is not surprising if some workers have been taken in by the propaganda around the state capitalist measures introduced there. However, the view that many workers have of the state is as a provider of some sort of ‘protection' from the worst excesses of capitalism. This goes along with the idea that democracy can be made to work in the interests of the working class. In the discussion we looked at things like education and the NHS. The services provided by the NHS (paid for through a lifetime of National Insurance contributions) are part of the social wage that workers depend on in times of illness. The whole bureaucratic apparatus of the NHS is, like any other part of the capitalist state, part of the means used by the ruling class to maintain its position against the interests of the working class. Ultimately workers need the social wage, but not the state institution.
Later we discussed the role of revolutionaries in the face of war. This was not in relation to current conflicts, or the major wars of the twentieth century, but through looking at Marx and Engels and their response to the American Civil War of 1861-65 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. For the ICC, these conflicts took place in a period when it was not possible to denounce every act of the bourgeoisie as reactionary. For example, Marx, and the workers' movement of the time, supported the North against the slave owning states of the US South, even though it affected cotton supplies that were still essential for the mills in the north of England. Opposition to slavery went hand in hand with support for the forces of the North as this would mean the development of capitalist America.
With the Franco-Prussia War Marx insisted on the working class being always conscious of its own interests. The position of Marx and Engels was one of opposition to France when it went on the offensive against Germany. As soon as it was no longer a matter of defence against attack they changed their position, because the situation had changed.
In each example we can only understand the intervention of revolutionaries if we see the historical framework in which they were acting. To fail to do this would be like saying that the English Revolution of the 17th century or the French Revolution of the late 18th had no significance for the workers because they were conflicts between exploiting classes. Marxists were not unaware of the class nature of belligerents during the wars of the 19th century but they put these events in the context of a capitalist mode of production that was still developing across the face of the globe.
To the next meeting
Throughout this day of discussion there was a very good spirit. Although there were a number of differences these were approached in an open and comradely manner. All who were there shared a serious commitment to the process of clarification. We asked for the response of participants at the end of the meeting - these were all enthusiastic. Already, in informal discussions after the meeting, there were suggestions as to what future subjects could be discussed. It's too early to say at this stage, as we want to get some more feedback from the participants, although one definite possibility is the lessons of the Russian revolution and the revolutionary wave of 1917-23. Given the success of this day of discussion, we would like to repeat it and widen it in the future: comrades interested in participating in the next one should write to us. We will also be publishing the presentations and summaries of the discussion on our website in the near future.
ICC August 2007