Revolution or War n°7

(Biannual - February 2017)

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Class Consciousness (Part 2)

The CWO and ICC Pamphlets on Class Consciousness

We publish the second part of the contribution on class consciousness published in the previous issue. During its conference (July 2016), our group had formally stated on the first part and had adopted it. We had no time to formally pronounce on this second part. Nevertheless, all members of the IGCL agree with the general orientation which emerges from it; in particular with the general evaluation of the CWO and ICC pamphlets on Class Consciousness. The CWO pamphlet closes the door to the danger of councilism while the ICC pamphlet opens it. The former works towards the development of the class political struggle for the formation of the Party; the latter, the ICC’s, tends to turn its back to the political class fight and to avoid the struggle for the Party.

The CWO and ICC Pamphlets on Class Consciousness

In the first part of this contribution on class consciousness (see previous issue #6), we demonstrated the continuity of Marxism in the form of a chronology of the acquired experience of the revolutionary and communist movement [1]. We now come to the discussion of the contemporary expressions of Marxism, that is the present Communist Left.

Thus we’ll consider two pamphlets which deal with the question of consciousness: the first Communist Organization and Class Consciousness [2] of the International Communist Current and the second, Class Consciousness and Revolutionnary Organisation [3] of the Communist Workers Organization, British affiliate of the Internationalist Communist Tendency. The choice of these two pamphlets is a political choice. In fact, we consider these two historical political currents, the ICC-GCF (Gauche Communiste de France of the years 1940-1950) current and the ICT-Battaglia Comunista (Partito Comunista Internazionalista) current, as the most complete and advanced expressions of the Communist Program in the present period. Obviously these two currents are not identical. But despite their divergences and slight differences, they share a common political heritage that we’ll discuss here. Unfortunately, our choice implies leaving aside for the moment a discussion of other important currents within the Communist Left, for instance the currents which claim Bordigism or Councilism.

Nevertheless, this article is not a full criticism of the two pamphlets. In fact, we’ll leave aside several elements of both which have already been tackled in the first part of our text on consciousness. Thus we’ll avoid repetitions. On the other hand, we’ll emphasize one question we deliberately kept for this second part, that is the question of the Russian Revolution and the role of the Party in the revolution.

CWO pamphlet
Class Consciousness and Revolutionary Organization

International Communist Current

If the ICC could be considered as one of the clearest expressions of the communist program at the time of the publication of its pamphlet on class consciousness (1979), this is absolutely no longer the case today. We call on our readers to refer to the previous issues of this journal to get informed of the degenerating turn that the ICC took from the early 2000s on.

This means that the ICC, which still formally exists, is no longer capable of bearing the political positions which it once represented. The degeneration of the formal organization means that the historical positions borne by the GCF and the ICC are today carried by militants who are outside or have been excluded from the ICC. For instance, some militants of our organization claim in a critical manner this historical current.

Councilism and Self-Organization

The main weakness which runs through the ICC pamphlet is that it appears to be the result of a compromise within the organization between two diverging tendencies. Indeed, as the ICC itself was the result of the regroupment between the historical “partidist” GCF-Révolution Internationale tendency and various post-68 groups with more or less councilist origins, even though they had adopted the RI platform this could only be expressed in a contradictory way in the ICC press. Thus in this pamphlet, the good mixes with the less good in a quite eclectic manner. As the most caricatural expression of this enduring councilist tradition, this pamphlet claims the slogan of self-organization. On several occasions, the ICC fetishizes the self-organization of the masses. Implicitly, this means that the proletarian masses must organize “by themselves”, that is without the help of the political organization which is thus seen as external to it. So under cover of a formulation which wants to be political, the false separation between the working class and its Party is reintroduced since the latter is considered at best as external to the class, at worst simply as bourgeois. For us the Party is the most politicized part of the class and any organization of the class will be “self-organized”. Thus we reject the fuzzy term of self-organization because it leads to the rejection of the Party and is therefore of the councilist variety.

Another example of these confusions, the ICC quotes one of the theses of the 3rd Conference of the AAUD : The organisation of councils permits the working class to liberate itself progressively from the yoke of capitalism, and particularly from the yoke of bourgeois ideology. Within them gradually materialises the proletariat’s consciousness of itself and its will to give class consciousness a concrete and real expression(Theses presented to the IIIrd Conference of the General Workers Union of Germany – AAUD) in 1920) [4]. The confusions which are at the root of the councilist tradition are clearly expressed in this quotation. The narrower revolutionary organs where class consciousness is the most advanced are mixed with the political organs of the whole class, the workers’ councils. To claim that the workers’ councils, by definition heterogeneous, can be the center of the development of class consciousness is politically very dangerous as was, for instance, proven by the 1918 events in Germany when the councils remained in majority social democratic, that is to say with a counter-revolutionary orientation. On the other hand, the organ whose task is to be the core of class consciousness is the class party. The unitary organs of the class, of course organs of struggle, aim to regroup all workers in struggle regardless of their “ political opinion ” and their individual level of class consciousness. We can say, in a simple way, that the primary criterion is “ sociological ”. The fact that the workers’ councils are organs for the regroupment and unification of the whole class for the purpose of working class insurrection and the exercise of class dictatorship, does not detract from this “unitarian” character, nor from their political function as organ of the insurrection, organ of the dictatorship. The other distinct organization is the political organization whose main criterion for membership is adhesion to the communist program and the willingness for militant commitment – independently of the sociological situation of each member.

The ICC even drifts towards Anarchism. Indeed, the pamphlet claims that the Party can become a brake for the class struggle. While it is true that a party which betrays its program can become a brake for the class struggle, here the ICC claims that it is a brake by principle: “Likewise, to give the party the power to embody class consciousness is to prevent the full flowering of that consciousness; it means taking the immediate state of consciousness of the great mass of workers as a fait accompli, making rigid its weaknesses. It does no great service to the proletariat to entrust its rev­olutionary minority with all the tasks that demand consciousness and determination. On the contrary, this attitude can only encourage submission to the dominant ideology. By acting in this way, revolutionaries turn themselves into an obstacle on the path to revolution” [5]. And so, if the Party acts too much like a revolutionary party, it hinders the revolution. Go figure.

Lenin and the Italian Left before the journal Bilan of the 1930s

The ICC pamphlet also has some difficulties to take a position on the tradition of the Italian Left. In fact, even though the ICC claims the Italian Left, it marks the starting point of this tradition only with the group in France and Belgium around the journal Bilan. Thus the pamphlet dismisses out of hand the whole experience of the Italian Left before Bilan under the pretext that it had a substitutionist position on the party.

Let’s look at this more precisely. The ICC traces the substitutionist conception to the Socialist tradition of the 2nd International. This conception is supposed to have led Lenin to adopt Kautsky’s idea according to which the workers cannot attain class consciousness by themselves but only with the bourgeois Socialist intellectuals’ help. Even though the ICC rightly criticizes this particular passage of Lenin’s book What is to be Done?, it uses it to justify rejecting the whole book as being the bible of substitutionism [6]. The pamphlet mentions the same defect in regards to the Italian Left under Bordiga’s leadership in the 1920s. And thus, it rejects fundamental texts under the pretext that they focus too much on the Party and that they identify class dictatorship with party dictatorship.

For the ICC, as soon as the Party takes on the political leadership within the class struggle, this is considered as being substitutionist. On the contrary, for us, to take first position in the class struggle and to guide it towards revolutionary aims is not at all substitutionist. Indeed it is one of the fundamental roles of the class party. Genuine substitutionism would not care about raising the proletarians’ class consciousness and, instead of taking responsibility for the political leadership of the class, would give to specialists of the revolution the role of making the revolution in place of the class itself. We often can find this kind of conception in the Bordigist documents. For instance: “For decades we have been reproached for wanting a revolution carried out by those who are unconscious. We could have responded that provided that the revolution sweeps away the mass of horrors created by the bourgeois regime and provided that the terrible encirclement of the productive masses by bourgeois institutions which oppress and suffocate them is broken, then it would not bother us in the least if the decisive blows were delivered even by those who are not yet conscious of the aim of the struggle” [7]. Against the Bordigist conception, we must recall that it is in the very process of the revolution that the proletariat becomes conscious of its revolutionary goals under the leadership of the class party. The party thus provides the political capacity to the rest of the class to destroy the old capitalist system. A Party which attempts to lead an unconscious mass like a general leads an army will be able to utilize only substitutionist expedients. Since it won’t lead the class, it will carry out its task in its place.

The Tasks of a Communist Party in the Revolution

Ultimately, it is on the question of the Russian revolution where the main mistake is found. Indeed, the pamphlet identifies rightly that one of the roles of the party is to raise the proletariat’s class consciousness :“What do revolutionaries do to ensure that class consciousness moves forward? They participate in every struggle and in its organisation, and from beginning to end they use the driving force of each combat to take the greatest possible number of steps towards the constitution of the proletariat as a force capable of overthrowing the dominant system. The aim of communist intervention is to contribute to this apprenticeship (...) The intervention of communists thus consists essentially in stimulating the forward march of the workers’ consciousness and combat — in using each moment of the proletariat’s combat to make it evolve qualitatively and collectively towards the world revolution and communism.” [8]. This is correct but insufficient. While it is true that one of the roles of the class party is to favour and accelerate the process of attaining class consciousness, we also have to underline the other equally important facet of the party: the political leadership in the class struggle.

Thus, if we take the example of the Russian revolution, the ICC pamphlet sanctifies a mythical revolution in which a pure working class is supposed to have made the revolution. “During the seizure of power in Russia, the action of armed detachments of the proletariat took place under the control of the collective will of millions of proletarians. It was the whole, conscious proletariat that directed the march of events, even if this participation did not take a spectacular, anarchic form. The fusion of the revolutionary wills of the whole proletariat really existed in this moment. It lived through a thousand channels, through the contacts and innumerable exchanges between the soviets, the districts, the revolutionary committee and the workers, between the Red Guards and the Bolsheviks… Everywhere, the revolutionary flame burned unceasingly, setting light to people’s energies, unleashing initiatives from every quarter. Propositions and decisions were born spontaneously from this mass of millions of workers. And at the same time, the consciousness gained by all these proletarians in arms, their wills welded together in pursuit of the same aim, gives the overall picture a remarkable appearance of calm, decision and precision.” (idem). This picture would be truthful if the fundamental importance of the Bolshevik Party in the very process of the revolution had been underlined. In fact, it is Lenin’s party which gave the working class the political capacity to make the revolution by leading it towards the revolutionary aims of the Communist Program. If this pamphlet erases from history the basic role of the Bolshevik party, it is because it denies on principle the leading role of the party during the revolution and reduces it to a mere “educator” of the working class.

Internationalist Communist Tendency

Before sifting through the CWO pamphlet, we have to make a preliminary observation. The pamphlet is only signed by the Communist Workers Organization, the British section of the Internationalist Communist Tendency, and has not yet been translated into other languages. According to us, this is a political weakness. First, we don’t know what is the position of the other sections of the ICT on this pamphlet. For instance, does Battaglia Comunista, the Italian section of the ICT, agree with it? Are there any divergences, slight differences, debates? We don’t know. We believe that the ICT would greatly benefit from a statement on this pamphlet. Second, the fact that the pamphlet has not been translated, at least into the other main international languages, strongly reduces its international influence. These two facets of the same weakness have their roots in a different understanding that we and the ICT have on political centralization. We hope we’ll be able to discuss this question more deeply with the ICT in the future.

We agree and support the method that the CWO utilizes in its pamphlet to present its position on class consciousness. Instead of taking a “philosophical” and abstract point of view, like we can reproach the ICC pamphlet for doing in some parts, the CWO starts from the historical point of view, thus from a Marxist point of view. It explains the difference between bourgeois materialism and historical materialism, the difference between bourgeois and proletarian class consciousness. Then it goes over all the main debates of the revolutionary working class movement during the 19th and 20th centuries. We won’t discuss these questions in this text since they have already been dealt with in the first part (see RG #6). Let’s just note the broad community of ideas between the CWO and ourselves.

The Mass Strike

The only divergence we can point out and which is worth debating is the rejection by the CWO of the mass strike. On this point, in her book Mass Strike, Pary and Unions, Rosa Luxemburg “argues that in the mass strike the economic and the political are of equal importance.” [9] According to the CWO, Luxemburg “consistently fails to analyse the content of the struggle and this in the end appears to leave her as a worshipper of spontaneity.” [10]

Rosa Luxemburg does not give equal importance to the economic and political factors of the class struggle. More precisely, she affirms that the economic and the political are two indissociable factors of the class struggle in general and of the process of acquisition of class consciousness by the proletariat in particular. Thus it is a dialectical conception which conceives that political consciousness is also based on the economic needs of a class which is revolutionary from the historical and political point of view because it is economically exploited under the capitalist system. On the contrary, the mechanical schema of the class struggle tends to conceive the party as a disembodied leadership, external to the proletariat, which must then inject the revolutionary program into the class struggle.

In short, the CWO arguments are weak on this point and we fully claim Luxemburg’s conception of the mass strike. “If we now leave the pedantic scheme of demonstrative mass strikes artificially brought about by order of parties and trade unions, and turn to the living picture of a peoples’ movement arising with elementary energy, from the culmination of class antagonisms and the political situation – a movement which passes, politically as well as economically, into mass struggles and mass strikes – it becomes obvious that the task of social democracy does not consist in the technical preparation and direction of mass strikes, but, first and foremost, in the political leadership of the whole movement.

The social democrats are the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat. They cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the “revolutionary situation,” to wait for that which in every spontaneous peoples’ movement, falls from the clouds. On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events. This they cannot do, however, by suddenly issuing the “slogan” for a mass strike at random at any odd moment, but first and foremost, by making clear to the widest layers of the proletariat the inevitable advent of this revolutionary period, the inner social factors making for it and the political consequences of it. If the widest proletarian layer should be won for a political mass action of the social democrats, and if, vice versa, the social democrats should seize and maintain the real leadership of a mass movement – should they become, in a political sense, the rulers of the whole movement, then they must, with the utmost clearness, consistency and resoluteness, inform the German proletariat of their tactics and aims in the period of coming struggle”. [11] This is a dialectical conception of the class struggle. It would not be fair to label it as spontaneism.

The Tasks of a Communist Party During the Revolution

Contrary to the ICC pamphlet, the CWO constantly underlines the leading role of the party during the revolution. « The proletarian party is a guide, a leadership to direct mass proletarian action towards the overthrow of the old order. Whilst the party has an important guiding role in the actual process of insurrection, and will have to lead in that insurrection, in the last resort it has to be this mass of the class, not the party which finally overthrows the old order by drawing an even greater mass into the process which begins to build a new one. » [12] It is effectively thanks to the Party’s political leadership that the class can massively elevate its consciousness and thus set up the goals and the strategies of the communist program in the revolutionary process.

Consequently, the question of who seizes the power, the party or the class, in the revolution becomes in a sense a false question. As the CWO emphasizes when it deals with the events of the Russian Revolution, « the distinction between party and class will blur in a situation where the party, by all measurable criteria, has the overwhelming support of the mass of the class. » However, we must notice that if the distinction between class and party in the revolution tends to fade, it is because the working class rises to the Party’s level and not because the Party descends to the class’ level.

The question won’t be posed as “who is taking the power? The class or the Party?” It will be “what direction does the revolution takes?” The Communist Program under the leadership of the Party or the different dead-ends that the various bourgeois parties claiming to represent the working class will present? Thus, if we take the example of the Russian Revolution, there is no need to question who will actually take the power, the class or the Party. However, the correct analysis of the October 1917 revolution highlights that the revolutionary program of the Bolsheviks responded to the needs of the mass of proletarians and this orientation prevailed over the reformist, Kerenskyist and Menshevik orientations.

The Party having a role of political leadership and being an active part within the class struggle, it goes without saying that its militants will exercise functions of power within the unitary organs such as the workers’ councils. But, and herein lies a fundamental distinction, they’ll do it as a political leadership which must ensure the political elevation of the rest of the class. They may never carry out these tasks as specialists. The Party is the vanguard of the class, not a separate elite.

The State during the Period of Transition

In conclusion, we have to admit that despite some mostly secondary divergences with the ICT, we find ourselves much more in agreement with the CWO pamphlet than with the ICC one. Even though the ICC pamphlet makes some good developments, it does not categorically claim the need for the leading role of the class Party and, consequently, it opens the door to councilist conceptions. On the other hand, the CWO pamphlet, from firm theoretical premises, strongly claims the leading role of the Party. This reinforces our point of view according to which the ICT has a central role today among the groups of the Communist Left and in the process of their regroupment.

Also, we must reaffirm the basic principle of the Communist Left in relation to the lessons that the Russian Revolution passed on to us, a principle which is by the way a common heritage of the ICC and the ICT. The class Party must never merge with the state of the period of transition. As the CWO rightly writes on different occasions in its pamphlet, proletarian parties are not governmental parties.” [13]

This is simply due to the fact that, after the seizure of power by the proletariat, two antagonistic poles form in the post-revolutionary society. The first pole is that of the world revolution whose interests are most clearly expressed in the world Communist Party. The other pole is that of the administration of the revolutionary territory by different organs which represent the “semi-state”, that is the state of the period of transition which manages a society which, even though it has entered a process of revolutionary transformation, still contains leftovers of capitalist society [14]. The tension between these two poles depends of the relation of forces within the revolution. If the world revolution wins ground, then the economic transformation accelerates and the state of the period of transition tends to fade. If, on the contrary, the world revolution is suffocating, then the state of the period of transition quickly becomes “socialism in one country”. If the class Party becomes a state Party, then it shows it has lost any revolutionary character to become a government party such as Social Democracy and Stalinism in their times.

It would be beneficial to the Communist Left to again put on the agenda a discussion on the period of transition which would be one moment of the general discussion that is part of the process of regroupement of revolutionaries.

Robin, February 2017.

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Notes:

[4ICC pamphlet, Communist Organization and Class Consciousness, ch. Organization and Class Consciousness (http://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/classconc/2_cconc/orgn).

[5ICC pamphlet, Communist Organization and Class Consciousness, ch. The heritage of the CI and the reactions to its degeneration (http://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/cconc/3_heritage_CI).

[6See the first part of this article in the previous issue in which we explain our critical claim of What is to be Done?

[8ICC pamphlet, Communist Organization and Class Consciousness, ch. How to Homogenize Class Consciousness (http://en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/cconc/5_homogenise).

[9Class Consciousness and Revolutionnary Organisation, CWO, p. 27

[10Class Consciousness and Revolutionnary Organisation, CWO, p. 28

[11The Mass Strike, part 6 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1906/mass-strike/ch06.htm). Let’s note that the CWO utilizes this passage to lighten its own criticism to The Mass Strike... which comes to weaken even more its argumentation against it.

[12Class Consciousness and Revolutionnary Organisation, CWO, p. 35

[13Class Consciousness and Revolutionnary Organisation, CWO, p. 39

[14. “an evil inherited by the proletariat after its victorious struggle for class supremacy, whose worst sides the victorious proletariat, just like the Commune, cannot avoid having to lop off at once as much as possible until such time as a generation reared in new, free social conditions is able to throw the entire lumber of the state on the scrap heap.” (Engels, Introduction to The Civil War in France, 1891)