May 68 (part 5): The international resurgence of revolutionary forces

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This is how we concluded our previous article on May 68:

"Thus, the fundamental historical significance of May 1968 is neither found in ‘French specificities', nor in the student revolt, nor in a ‘moral revolution' that we are told about today. It is in the emergence of the world proletariat from the counter-revolution and its entry into a new historic period of confrontations against capitalist order. In this period, proletarian political currents, that previously had been eliminated or reduced to silence by the counter-revolution, began to develop - including the ICC" (‘May 1968, part 4: The international significance of the general strike in France', WR 316).

That is what we will look at in the article below. 

The ravages of the counter-revolution in the communist movement

At the beginning of the 20th century, during and after the First World War, the proletariat engaged in titanic battles. In 1917, it overthrew bourgeois power in Russia. Between 1918 and 1923, in the principal European country, Germany, it undertook numerous struggles in order to achieve the same aim. This revolutionary wave reverberated throughout the world wherever a developed working class existed, from Italy to Canada, from Hungary to China.

But the world bourgeoisie succeeded in containing this gigantic movement of the working class and it didn't stop there. It unleashed the most terrible counter-revolution in the whole history of the workers' movement. This counter-revolution took the form of an unimaginable barbarity, of which Stalinism and Nazism were the two most significant representatives, precisely in the countries where the revolution went furthest, Russia and Germany.

In this context, the Communist Parties that had been at the vanguard of the revolutionary wave were converted into parties of the counter-revolution.

When the socialist parties, faced with imperialist war in 1914, betrayed the working class, this gave rise to currents within these parties that were determined to pursue the defence of proletarian principles: these currents had been instrumental in the foundation of the communist parties. In turn, when the latter also betrayed, we saw the appearance of left fractions committed to the defence of real, communist positions. However, while those who had struggled within the socialist parties against their opportunist slide and betrayal had gained strength and a growing influence in the working class, to the point where they were able to found a new International after the Russian revolution, it was nothing like this for the left currents that came out of the communist parties, because of the growing weight of the counter-revolution. Thus, although at the beginning they regrouped a majority of the militants in the German and Italian parties, these currents progressively lost their influence in the class and the greater part of their militant forces, or were scattered into multiple small groups, as was the case in Germany even before the Hitler regime had exterminated them or sent the last militants into exile.

In fact, during the 1930s, aside from the current animated by Trotsky more and more eaten up by opportunism, the groups who continued to defend revolutionary positions, such as the Groep van Internationale Communisten(GIC) in Holland (that advocated ‘Council Communism' and rejected the necessity for a proletarian party) and the Left Fraction of the Italian Communist Party (which published the review Bilan) only counted some dozens of militants and no longer had any influence over the course of the workers' struggle.

Contrary to the first, the Second World War didn't result in an overthrow of the balance of forces between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Quite the contrary. Learning from the historic experience and with the precious support of the Stalinist parties, the bourgeoisie was careful to kill at birth any new uprising of the proletariat. In the democratic euphoria of the ‘Liberation', the groups of the communist left were still more isolated than they were in the 1930s. In Holland, the Communistenbond Spartacus picked up from the GIC in the defence of councilist positions, positions that were equally defended from 1965 by Daad en Gedachte, a split from the Bond. These two groups did much publishing work although they were handicapped by the councilist position that rejected the role of an organisation of the avant-garde of the proletariat. However, the greatest handicap was from the ideological weight of the counter-revolution. This was also the case in Italy where the constitution in 1945, around Damen and Bordiga (two old militants of the Italian Left in the 1920s) of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista (which published Battaglia Comunista and Prometeo), didn't fulfil the promise its militants expected. Although this organisation had 3000 militants when it was founded, it progressively weakened, a victim of demoralisation and splits, notably the one in 1952 which led to the formation of the Parti Communiste International (which published Programma Comunista). The causes of these splits also lay in the confusion that reigned over the regroupment of 1945, which was made on the basis of the abandonment of a whole series of acquisitions elaborated by Bilan in the 1930s.

In France, the Gauche Communiste de France (GCF), which had been formed in 1945 in continuity with the positions of Bilan (but also integrating a certain number of programmatic positions from the German and Dutch Left) and which published 42 numbers of the review Internationalisme, disappeared in 1952. In the same country, outside of some elements attached to the Parti Communiste International, who published le Proletaire, another group defended class positions up until the 1960s with the review Socialisme ou Barbarie (SouB). But this group, coming out of a split from Trotskyism after the Second World War, progressively and explicitly abandoned marxism, which led to its disappearance in 1966.

We can also cite the existence of other groups in other countries. But what marked the situation of currents that continued to defend communist positions during the course of the 1950s and beginning of the 60s, was their extreme numerical weakness, the confidential character of their publications, their international isolation, as well as various political regressions. These led either to their disappearance pure and simple or into a sectarian withdrawal, as was notably the case with the Parti Communiste International that considered itself to be the only communist organisation in the world.

The renewal of revolutionary positions

The general strike of 1968 in France, then the different massive movements of the working class, which we've mentioned previously, put the idea of communist revolution, back on the agenda in numerous countries. The lie of Stalinism, which presented itself as ‘communist' and ‘revolutionary', had begun to fall apart. This evidently profited the currents who denounced the USSR as deviating from the ideals of the ‘Socialist Fatherland', such as the Maoists and Trotskyists. The Trotskyist movement, particularly because of its history of struggle against Stalinism, went through a second youth from 1968 and came out of the shadows cast up to then by the Stalinist parties. Its ranks were swollen in a spectacular fashion, notably in countries like France, Belgium and Britain. But since the Second World War this current had ceased to be part of the proletarian camp, above all because of its position on the defence of the alleged ‘workers' gains' in the USSR, i.e. the defence of the imperialist camp dominated by this country. In fact, the workers' strikes that developed from the end of the 60s showed the anti-working class role of the Stalinist parties and the unions. They also showed the electoral and democratic farce as instruments of bourgeois domination and this led to numerous elements around the world turning towards political currents which, in the past, had most clearly denounced the role of the unions and parliamentarism and which had better incarnated the struggle against Stalinism - the currents of the communist left.

Following May 68, the writings of Trotsky were distributed massively. Also those of Pannekoek, Gorter[[1]] and Rosa Luxemburg who, shortly before her assassination in January 1919, was one of the first to warn her Bolshevik comrades of certain dangers that menaced the revolution in Russia.

New groups appeared that drew on the experience of the communist left. In fact, the elements who understood that Trotskyism had become a sort of left wing of Stalinism turned much more towards councilism than towards the Italian Left. There were several reasons for this. On one hand, the rejection of the Stalinist parties often accompanied the rejection of any idea of the communist party; and the fact that the Bordigist current (the sole descendent of the Italian Left that had any real international extension) defended the idea of the taking of power by the communist party and defended the idea of ‘monolithism' in its own ranks, strengthening mistrust towards the historic current of the Italian Left. At the same time, the Bordigists completely overlooked the historic significance of May 68, seeing only the student dimension.

While new groups inspired by councilism began to appear, those who had existed beforehand experienced an unprecedented success, seeing their ranks strengthen in a spectacular fashion at the same time as being capable as acting as a pole of reference. This was particularly the case for the group Informations et Correspondances Ourvieres (ICO) coming out of a split from SouB in 1958. In 1969, this group organised an international meeting in Brussels attended by Cohn-Bendit, Mattick (an old militant of the German Left who had emigrated to the United States where he published diverse councilist reviews) and Carlo Brendel, animator of Daade en Gedachte. However, the success of ‘organised' councilism didn't last long. Thus, ICO pronounced its self-dissolution in 1974. The Dutch groups ceased to exist as their main animators grew too old or passed away.

In Britain, the group Solidarity, inspired by the positions of Socialisme ou Barbarie, after a success similar to that of the ICO, underwent a split and exploded in 1981 (although the group in London continued to publish a magazine up to 1992). In Scandinavia, the councilist groups which had emerged after 1968 were capable of organising a conference in Oslo in September 1977, but it didn't lead to much.

In the final account, the current which developed the most during the course of the 1970s was the one which attached itself to the positions of Bordiga (who died in July 1970). It benefited largely through an influx of elements coming out of the crises that had hit certain leftist groups (notably the Maoists) in this period. In 1980, the International Communist Party, was the most important and influential group of the communist left at the international level. But this opening out of the Bordigist current to elements strongly marked by leftism led to its explosion in 1982, reducing it to a myriad of small sects.

The beginning of the International Communist Current

In fact, the most significant long term expression of this renewal of positions of the communist left has been our own organisation.[[2]] It was first constituted 40 years ago, in July 1968 in Toulouse, with the adoption of a first declaration of our principles by a small group of elements who had formed a discussion circle the year beforehand with a comrade, RV, who had entered political life in the group Internacionalismo in Venezuela. This group had been founded in 1964 by Marc Chirik who had been the main animator of the Gauche Communiste de France (1945-52), after having been a member of the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left from 1938 and having entered into militant life from 1919 (at the age of 12), first of all in the Palestinian Communist Party and then the French Communist Party.

During the general strike of May 1968, elements of the discussion circle published several leaflets signed Movement for the Founding of Workers Councils (MICO) and undertook discussions with other elements which then finally formed the group that published Revolution Internationale from the end of September 1968. This group made contact and discussed with two other groups belonging to the councilist movement. One was l'Organisation conseilliste de Clermont-Ferrand and the other published Cahiers du communism de conseils and was based in Marseilles.

Finally, in 1972, the three joined together in order to constitute what was going to become the section in France of the ICC and which began the publication of Revolution Internationale (new series).

This group, in continuity with the policy undertaken by Internacionalismo and Bilan, engaged in discussions with different groups who had appeared after 1968, notably in the United States (Internationalism). In 1972, Internationalism sent a letter to about twenty groups claiming links with the communist left, calling for the constitution of a network of correspondence and international debate. Revolution Internationale responded warmly to this initiative while proposing that the perspective should be of holding an international conference. Other groups belonging to the councilist movement also gave a positive response. For their part, groups claiming the heritage of the Italian Left were either deaf, or judged this initiative premature.

On the basis of this initiative several meetings took place between 1973 and 1974 in England and France, involving World Revolution, Revolutionary Perspectives and Workers' Voice, the first two coming out breaks with Solidarity and the last coming out of a break with Trotskyism.

Finally, this cycle of meetings ended in January 1975 with the holding of a conference where the groups sharing the same political orientation - Internacionalismo, Internationalism, Revolution Internationale, World Revolution, Rivoluzione Internazionale (Italy) and Accion Proletaria (Spain) - decided to unify within the International Communist Current.

The Current decided to pursue this policy of contacts and discussions with other groups of the communist left. This led it to participate in the 1977 Oslo conference (as well as Revolutionary Perspectives) and to respond favourably to the initiative launched in 1976 by Battaglia Comunista with a view to holding an international conference of groups of the communist left.

The three conferences that took place in 1977 (Milan), 1978 (Paris) and 1980 (Paris) aroused a growing interest among elements claiming links with the communist left but the decision by Battaglia Comunista and the Communist Workers' Organisation (coming out of a regroupment of Revolutionary Perspectives and Workers' Voice in Britain) to henceforth exclude the ICC sounded the death knell for this effort.[[3]] In a certain way, the sectarian closing up of BC and the CWO (who regrouped into the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party in 1984), at least towards the ICC, was an indication of the exhaustion of the initial impulsion given to the communist left by the historical resurgence of the world proletariat after May 1968.

However, despite the difficulties that the working class has met these last decades, notably the ideological campaigns on the ‘death of communism' after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, the world bourgeoisie has not succeeded in inflicting a decisive defeat on it. That is shown by the fact that the current of the communist left (represented principally by the IBRP[[4]] and above all by the ICC) has maintained its positions and is now experiencing a growing interest in them from elements who, with the slow reappearance of class combats since 2003, are turning towards a revolutionary perspective.  

Fabienne (6 July 2008)

[1] The two principal theoreticians of the Dutch Left.

[2] For a more complete history of the ICC, read our articles "Construction of the revolutionary organisation: 20 years of the International Communist Current" (International Review n° 80) and "30 years of the ICC: learning from the past to build the future" (International Review n° 123).

[3] Regarding these conferences see our article "The international conferences of the Communist Left (1976 - 1980) - Lessons of an experience for the proletarian milieu" in International Review n° 122

[4] The fact that the IBRP has grown less compared to that of the ICC is principally down to its sectarianism as well as its political opportunism towards regroupment (which has led it to build on sand). On this subject see our article "An opportunist policy of regroupment that will only lead to ‘abortions'' (International Review n° 121)

Historic events: