thinking through the meaning of communism and socialism in the conditions of today

A document produced by comrades involved in l’Encontre and Carré Rouge (

As men and women members of the nuclei which publish A Contre-Courant, Carré Rouge, and L’Émancipation Sociale, and those associated with the Swiss journal-cum-website A l’Encontre, we have joined forces to organise work on the theory and practice of the actuality, the present-day relevance of communism or socialism (which are synonymous in the strong sense of the term socialism). In addition we have decided to link up with those who have similar aims and propose to undertake joint work or maintain detailed exchanges of opinion with them. The document submitted explains what urges us to undertake this task; it emphasises the considerable difficulties involved; it sketches our first attempt to map the very area involved.

The mutual understanding that unites us is the idea that the decisive dimension of political commitment is social emancipation; that is to say, the emancipation of all human beings. At once that idea clarifies every aspect of all militant activity. It includes the notion of collective self-emancipation as derived from self-organised activity and from every kind of self-organisation. The aim is a world society of peoples who would no longer know class divisions and who would have destroyed or dismantled the state – the state against which the oppressed masses were forced to face up in the nineteenth century; the state which appeared in its most terrible form in the twentieth century; the state which the peoples of the world must still confront now, in infinitely worsened, Orwellian, conditions. The emancipation of the proletariat can only be its self-emancipation: in as far as it is ‘the task of the workers themselves’ the workers will free themselves and thus the whole of humanity.

All the political currents that founded the workers’ movement in the nineteenth century understood and shared at the time the aim of universal social emancipation. They had many disagreements and later split into factions, but it was the common aim for all the militants who formed the International Working Men’s Association, known as the First International. Later, some of the same people, together with various libertarian groups, continued to pursue the same objectives as members of the Second International. They were thinking along the same lines and they saw the future in the same way. They became divided by different understanding of events, and from time to time there have been direct, violent political confrontations; but there have always been those who have inherited the tradition and have made repeated attempts to work together in the working class on this basis of commitment, especially in the trade unions.

Today the concept of social emancipation as the main object of political engagement has withered dramatically in the very sphere of action where it first appeared and which for a long time carried it along: the workers’ movement. It still underlies the commitment of participants in the social forums coming from countries where peasants and the oppressed classes are organised in unions, or among people close to them. But hopes for social emancipation as a main object have been marginalised and frustrated. The language of ‘realism’, that of ‘adapting to capitalism’, has won the day, temporarily. In the imperialist capitalist countries, social emancipation may still be in the political programme of some organisations, of a few political groups or of nuclei that stick to the fundamentals of social emancipation: but in most cases the idea exists in a formal, even desiccated way. The ideas of social emancipation or communism as the final object of political activity must not be mummified or monopolized by the one-track minds of the self-proclaimed ‘vanguards’. We believe these ideas must be brought to life and kept alive by interacting with the self-activity of the exploited, a process which is always renewing itself. Such a self-activity itself modifies the conditions of struggle and changes human beings themselves.

At present there is a crying need to show how necessary these objectives are and to reformulate them. The historic experience of the attempts known as the transition to socialism demands analysis in depth: even a rough sketch of such an analysis hardly exists. Because we are the distant but nonetheless true descendants of those who faced the Stalinist repression and the execution posts in the gulag, we understand the imperative necessity of facing up to the need of a renewed analysis. This is an urgent requirement for the present as well as the future, and that is what brings us to undertake this work. New unprecedented challenges are being thrown down to humanity by private property in the means of production and the rule of capital as it strives to accumulate profit. Since little or nothing has been done in the revolutionary movement to think about them in present-day terms, social emancipation and the perspective of communism have become merely personal convictions. They seem more like the creed of little circles of politically minded people than an activity in the public arena of politics.

The twenty-first century has got started in a dramatic way and certain signs of major catastrophe are discernable. Along with all those people whose political commitment is based on this platform, we want to take part in a collective effort of re-thinking what communism means today. Our priority must be to show that it exists and is necessary. This warrants that we put aside, or defer for the present, some differences which may exist between those with to become involved in the task and are ready to seek to undertake it without conceit, but with the consciousness of its necessity.

Everyday militant activity – in forms that each can develop the way she or he thinks best – can only enrich the discussions and exchanges of views that must take place as we work things out. However, it is becoming urgent that we should devote part of our time and energy to deal with this political and theoretical task. Only in this way can we hope to pass on to new generations the essential perspective of communism, as the men and women who have undertaken political activity in the past handed it on to us. As the stakes in day-to-day struggles become ever higher, with increasingly vital issues involved (all struggles seem to have that dimension now), those in struggle carry within themselves an aspiration for a ‘different’ society – something ‘beyond’ the capitalist system; and they try, more or less consciously, to ‘build a bridge’ towards that better society. They need to be able to define the nature of this bridge and to see more clearly where it should lead. If we do not help the men and women engaged in these struggles, we shall be responsible for amputating these struggles and even disarming them.

I: The Present Forms of the Question  ‘Socialism or Barbarism?’

Rosa Luxembourg and other revolutionaries formulated this slogan almost a century ago, warning that these were the alternatives. By doing so, they brought a radical change to the understanding of the fight for social emancipation, which was already at the time becoming a battle against terrible dangers quite as well as a fight for bringing about the potentialities of social and human progress. The invention by Stalinism and its understudies of slogans such as ‘building socialism’, and ‘humanity marching towards progress’, prevented this warning from being fully understood. Others have done their best to separate our understanding of Auschwitz from that of the course of capitalism and its convulsions. Others still have tried to convince us that the military and nuclear superiority of the United States is the guarantee of ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’. Today we have to give its full value to the expression, to proclaim loudly, ‘Socialism or Barbarism’, because it is more than ever justified by decades of chronic international economic crisis in capitalist society, because the threat of Barbarism is becoming ever more menacing. It is like the giant snake of classical legend that grew new heads each time Heracles cut one from its body.

Capital has managed to create the conditions for terrible competition between workers living in different countries, while in the heart of each national economy it develops competition among workers in their struggle for ‘a job’, so that they can sell their labour power. Competition of this kind is the vector of a pandemic that is destroying the lives of workers and what people have been calling ‘the world of work’. Competition for work affects people by impoverishing them. It makes them lose their place in society; and it does this only to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of capital for limitless increases in surplus value. What has become absolutely central to militant activity is ‘the unity of workers’ at all levels and in every possible way. Only unity can repel the dangers and find lasting solutions. We have the feeling that this unity could be built by bringing together the self-activity of the dispossessed and exploited deployed in almost every country over the world, generally in individual villages, working-class neighbourhoods and cities.

The gap between the majority of the population on the one hand, and, on the other, the upper reaches of the possessing and ruling classes and the ‘political élite’ they produce, has again become immeasurably wide. Parasitic amounts of finance capital find expression in both the form and content of hyper-privatisations, a way of extending as rapidly as possible the riches acquired from the work people do and from the plundering of the world’s ‘natural resources’ of all kinds. There are deep changes in the way cities are organised. There are administrative districts with area segregation; and phenomena of a new kind such as the creation of what are in effect ghettoes reserved for different social groups. The gulf between the classes goes along with a kind of de facto denial of the right of the poorest to exist, for instance in Africa. Entire populations are simply forgotten. By the expedient of the genetically modified breeding and the ownership by trans-national corporations (TNCs) of seed patents, peasant producers are being deprived of the rights they have always enjoyed of using their own saved seed for the next crop. This is another example of the continued practical relevance, touching on people’s very existence, of the separation of the producers from the means of production and their means of living. It is characteristic of the organisations concerned with economic mechanisms and of those who work for them (IMF, World Bank, WTO, OECD, etc.) that they live completely separately from the conditions of life of people they barely recognise as living on the same planet.

This is the context of our work: we have to identify and express the decadence of the bourgeois state in many countries, including those on the margins of survival, and to show how those institutions, described as ‘representative’ and ‘democratic’ in the imperialist countries, have lost credibility and legitimacy. International law is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by a system known as ‘arbitration’ that is controlled by the big private firms. Arbitration suspends the ‘rules of governance’, which, we have always been taught, are the basis of how states (or countries becoming states) should be organised.

What Is at Stake in the ‘Ecology Question’?

The most obvious feature of twenty-first century humanity is that there is a world ecological crisis of exceptional gravity. Every serious observer warns that it will be a major factor behind the danger of intensified militarism, which could go as far as launching so-called ‘easy-use’, ‘miniaturised’ or ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons. The perpetuation of the control of our planet by the owners of finance capital leads those who claim to be the heirs of modern civilisation (which was formed in a contradictory way under the rule of the bourgeoisie) to behave in ways that brutally destroy human beings and the social and natural resources that were developed by that civilisation in its particular way. In the twenty-first century the alternative may well be between Communism and hitherto undreamed of forms of social annihilation.

Approached as a worldwide phenomenon, the ‘ecological question’ cannot be separated from the ‘social question’. What is at stake, behind the expressions ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’, is nothing less than that, in a nearer and nearer future, the very basis of the conditions required for the social reproduction of certain classes and social groups, certain peoples and even whole countries, will be seriously threatened. We human beings occupy a space on a planet called Earth, and the planet has a very fragile ecosystem, though for a long time it appeared to get along by itself.  Ever since the Renaissance, and particularly since the Enlightenment, there has been a general idea that the relationship between man and nature was sometimes heroic, but always ambiguous. This relationship has quickly given place to one that is completely ‘utilitarian’ and short-sighted, invented by nineteenth century bourgeois positivism. ‘Man’ – the word ‘man’ in this context means ‘capitalism’ – can exploit the planet as ‘he’ wishes. This approach later received the support of the ideology and practice of the Stalinist brand of scientism (the regime simply got rid of the very well-versed theoretical critics working in this area). Neither has the question of man’s relationship with nature been carefully considered by revolutionary thought – which has also failed to make as acute a criticism of issues related to this political-social matter as it has of the exploitation of the proletariat or the oppression of colonial peoples. Revolutionary thought has long delayed taking up a fight against the complete indifference to questions related to the ecosystem of our planet, which was shared by the managers of finance capital and the ‘state planners’ of ‘actually existing socialism’, whose only concern was ‘development’ – a process that supported bureaucratic social layers of society and helped them to control and exploit the workers.

For almost twenty years, at least from the beginning of the 1990s, scientists have been giving warnings about gas emissions, particularly of CO2, and climate change. The warnings have not been heard. The cause lies in the anarchy of capitalist production, in the fact that realising profit implies the necessity of selling ‘goods and services’ and so of squandering resources in a frantic way. This has been accentuated by the imperative of increasing the value of capital invested in those industries that are the mainstay of the stock exchanges, of bringing to China and India the ‘civilisation of the automobile’, of planning cities in ways that force people to use cars however devastating the effects are for the process of global warning. All this has brought about a situation characterised by a total loss of government control. In other areas of the environment, we see countless examples of the consequences of political systems that are run openly in the name of the reproduction of world domination by finance capital. Increasingly rapidly, balance in society and in the resources necessary for life is being destroyed. Global warming and a crisis of water supply have come together inextricably in east Africa and the countries of the Andes. All the studies warn that the people affected are the most destitute and the most vulnerable, and that it is they who suffer first.

Theoretical and political responses to issues that involve the natural world and the resistance of the exploited people have been belated and inadequate on the part of political currents that claim to be revolutionary and socialist. They shy back as if they are afraid to respond, as if this was not one of the main questions today. The idea of communism and why it is necessary must be thought through in ways that ensure that these questions are tackled. Before it is too late, we must think about our planet as being the common home of all humanity. If our priority is to ensure that three-quarters of the inhabitants of Earth do not go on living in conditions that resemble Hell, or that their lives are not threatened by ecological disaster brought on by modes of production and consumption based on private property and mercantile fetishism, what steps should we take? What actions should we take in response?  Knowing that would mean that working men and women, the vast social bloc that can potentially be seen in many different struggles of resistance – including counter-attacks bearing on the ownership of national resources as has happened in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru – succeed in setting up by their self-activity adequate rules and measures before implementing these themselves directly or through strict controls.

The Competition between Workers Unleashed by Globalised Capital

In every country without exception the ‘proletariat’ in the sense that Marx gave to the word – people who are forced to sell their labour-power and ‘find a job’ so that they can live and bring up their children – are being subjected to the ever more brutal effects of the political process of liberalisation and deregulation of direct international investment, trade and capital flows. Liberalisation and deregulation are being imposed simultaneously in all parts of the world on an unprecedented scale. Wage earners in countries with insurance schemes or stock-market pension systems of various varieties (the United States and the United Kingdom in the North, Chile or Argentina in the South) are under quite as much pressure as other wage earners. In these countries capital shows no respect towards those whose ‘savings’ feed the stock markets. Indeed ‘the market’ threatens them perhaps even more than elsewhere.

In the eyes of those who draw their wealth and power from it, the present process of liberalisation and privatisation has not yet gone far enough. However, it is well advanced. The newest, most dramatic consequence is to allow capital to create direct competition between wage earners, that is, proletarians who sell their labour power and produce surplus capital, on a continental or sub-continental scale. It is already the case for the area, of which the European Union is the heart, but which reaches east to the Ukraine and south to the Mediterranean countries. A similar area covers all America north of the Panama Canal, with Central America and South America as hinterland. In Asian countries where a growing part of industrial capacity has been transferred, workers are forced to wage a fierce competition one with another. This competition is used at the same time as a weapon against the level of wages and working conditions of workers almost everywhere in the world. The means capital uses are the de-localisation of industry through direct investment abroad; and the multiple, very sophisticated ways it subcontracts work in the countries where wages are lowest and job protection is weakest.

This process of increasing direct competition, on a planetary scale, between workers experiencing very different relationships with capital and the state, has benefited from the re-integration into the world market of the ‘Soviet bloc’ and the countries that were part of the former USSR. Direct competition has witnessed a qualitative leap since the complete passage of the bourgeois-capitalist élite of China to world capitalism and the entry of China into the WTO. The big industrial groups, helped by the most powerful governments, have deliberately focused on the development of information and communication technologies, because they have given capital the technical conditions for optimising productivity and profit, on a basis of dispersal of production (outsourcing etc.), labour flexibility, the precariousness of jobs and lack of protection for workers. As the position of the workers in the class struggle gets weaker, capital increases its leeway for concealing the social character of production, dismantling the working conditions it set up itself in an earlier stage of capitalism, and increasing the rate of exploitation. Working hours are getting longer; and physical wear and tear has been increased so much by the pace of work that it has been explicitly noticed by organisations such as the International Labour Office. These are two expressions of super-exploitation, which link the nineteenth century with the twenty-first.

There is also the question of the screening of immigrants by the police and the special laws that have been imposed (Sarkozy in France talks about ‘selective immigration’); to which we may add ‘illegal immigration’ known by the police but benefiting employers tremendously. Immigration laws are a further general instrument to bring wages and social security in the countries, which are also the sources of outward investment, down to the level prevailing in the countries the immigrants have left. Hundreds of corpses have been found floating on the waters of the Mediterranean; many have died in the frontier zone between Mexico and the United States: they are material examples and a symbol of the barbarity of a globalised market in work, structured by the existent laws of combined and unequal development. The foreign worker is seen not as competition but as the enemy. Defending the slogan: ‘Workers of all countries, unite!’ in present conditions implies the need to come up with responses to these problems, starting with the sort of words that can be understood by wage-earners threatened by unemployment and by the general precariousness of life.

‘Capitalism contains war within itself as a storm cloud holds the storm.’

For the last hundred years war has been one of the main expressions of barbarism, the central theme of those fighting for the alternative, socialism. The sentence quoted above remains as true as when Jean Jaurès first pronounced it. Wage earners and the youth recognise the dangers and unacceptable character of war. The demonstrations of 15 February 2003 against the invasion of Iraq by the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies were the high point of the anti-globalisation movement that began in the World Social Forum at the Seattle conference of 1999. The work of thinking what communism means at the beginning of the twenty-first century implies a specific stress and specific work on this issue. We cannot behave as if the question of war was settled theoretically.

Today one finds that the question is posed mainly in relation to the imperialists’ need to control the sources of primary production, energy, water, arable land and the ‘reservoirs’ of living matter that can be used for genetic modification. Our understanding of the relationship between such phenomena, and inter-imperialist rivalry generated by the way capitalism functions, has gone backwards. Because of the necessity of thwarting the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, made more urgent by the domination of financial investment, US capital, like that of the EU and Japan, has been impelled to allow, and indeed help, the Chinese bureaucratic-capitalist élite to implement the ongoing capitalist transformation of China in the space of ten years. On their own it would have taken the Chinese several decades, even assisted by Taiwan and Chinese people who have emigrated and are living all over the world. By putting a powerful rival into the saddle, United States capital has recreated the conditions for one of the most classic causes of inter-imperialist conflict.

The nuclear arms race has begun again in two forms: the manufacture of miniature or tactical weapons and the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries. The Japanese bourgeoisie is thinking about becoming a nuclear power despite memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ecologically produced catastrophes may arise affecting whole peoples. The governments most concerned with preserving the social and political order of the world, founded as it is on the private ownership of the means of production, may decide to respond by war. They will do so with hesitation. Meanwhile the possessing classes of the world are perfecting day-by-day systematic and permanent forms of control to repress those who are already exploited and oppressed.

The decision by the civilised powers to privatise and subcontract war and violence and making torture commonplace is another terrible aspect of barbarity. ‘Local wars’ are yet another. Wherever so-called ancient hatreds and resentments exist into the present (the bourgeoisie likes to speak of ‘ancestral hatreds’); wherever there are massive levies on the local economy by foreigner capital; wherever petroleum and mineral producing areas are transformed into closed, closely controlled, enclaves, the collapse of former cohesive relationships will take place, and the exploited and dispossessed will be encouraged to transfer their frustration and hatred against those who are weaker than themselves. The excuse they will be supplied with is a form of: ‘they are different from us’. The exploited and dispossessed will not understand the real causes of their problems, since these are carefully hidden from them. You can see where this has already been happening in Africa. The germs of violence may have been there, but it is in the context of the globalisation of capitalist activity, and on account of the forms this takes, that it bursts out.

The Emancipation of Women is Central to Social Emancipation

Since ancient times, women have suffered a status of inferiority, presented as a natural state of affairs. It has been accompanied by various forms of social humiliation and violence. And women are still being ignored in all matters concerning power structures. There have been many attempts to make a breach in male privilege, but they are thwarted by the manipulation of social understanding. More or less cunning arrangements have been made concerning the importance of obedience and general submission of women and new versions are still being invented.

Capitalist globalisation requires a renewal and restructuring of society in order to keep things the same as they were, because that suits the needs of maximum return on capital; it explains why archaic as well as modern forms of oppression and exploitation of the vast majority of women are needed. Most of the female population of the world know the conditions of life which are implied: extreme poverty; exploitation; being confined to factories where they make goods to be sold in the metropolitan countries; daily violence; laws against migration for those whose land and everything else has been taken away; and, for some, conditions of semi-slavery or even slavery itself. We must treat this as an urgent issue: women must be emancipated from patriarchal as well as class domination. However difficult both forms of domination are to tackle, they must be confronted. Individual and collective emancipation, that is, opposing all forms of oppression and domination, are written into the commitment to the universal right to live as free human beings.

At present women are going into the paid workforce in huge numbers. They do so with a dual status – as wage earners, and as reproducers of life in a private area, the family, established by the evolution of the capitalist system with the dominant male at its centre. It means that women’s working time has to include paid time at work, everything to do with looking after small children and a husband, and according to their country, they may have to look after a very widely extended family. There is twice as much unpaid work at home as there is paid work, and the woman’s working time is limited only by her home. Nowadays, in the oldest capitalist countries, where some progress has been made in reducing this state of dependence, there are once again threats to close certain institutions such as nurseries for small children (or not to finance them according to elementary needs). Attacking the social wage, in all of its dimensions, is one of the main objects of the attempt to rehabilitate conservative social, economic and individual attitudes. Another area of attack is the threat against abortion rights, another is the attempt to lower the status of certain professions, and yet another is the material devaluing of what are called ‘personal services’.

All over the world, the struggles of women who are taking part in self-activities in many forms not only lead towards collective self-emancipation; they are also a central component of these. Inequalities and oppression do not exist separately from each other. They translate into concrete realities the way in which this mode of production, capitalism, functions. In order for capital to reproduce itself, it has to create misery and oppression. The rulers of the world constantly attempt to present individual inequality, injustice and oppression as multiple and ultimately unavoidable. It is one means they use to prop up their power. The various movements of struggle for the emancipation of women belong, in the strictest sense, with the battles for survival of part of humanity; and for a future, which is socialism.

II: Facing up to Contemporary Theoretical and Political Challenges

Our approach stems from our conviction that in the present state of relative strength between the bourgeoisie and the working class, in which the latter has been greatly weakened by the multi-dimensional assaults of capital, it is not enough to follow a strategy of defending what are often called ‘the past gains of the struggle of the working class’.  That purely defensive orientation, which is adopted in the best cases in what remains of the workers’ movement, appears doomed to failure. Actions aimed at stopping redundancies and reduction of wages or the standard of living, run into the means the capitalists and their governments have of imposing the changes they plan. The main means being their ability to force workers to compete between themselves for jobs across countries. The failure of the defensive methods can result in increased subjection to the needs of capital, even among institutions that most people regard as neutral: property, money, the law, the state. What is more, the ‘best examples’ are the exceptions. One characteristic of the bureaucratic apparatuses of the trade unions is their belief that globalisation is irreversible. On that basis they cannot do anything but fight a rearguard action. They cannot fight to build a movement united against capital.

The first step that the union apparatuses take is that they divide one struggle from another, wherever they break out. It follows from this attitude that they manage both to enrage and to disillusion workers. The double reaction, which all the forces of conservatism as well as capital itself make use of, is not the result of simple ‘objective’ sociological factors. It depends in great part on the refusal on the part of the union bureaucracies to come openly into conflict with the ruling class and their direct political representatives and to participate in the types of social, cultural, economic and political battles which would help the workers to identify another road for them and for their children, a need they feel ever more strongly. A new kind of corporatism that takes the line already described believes in two-way negotiations between ‘social partners’. There are ‘tripartite’ negotiations, too. This expression means that the government of the state is involved as well; or there are ‘consultations’ within individual businesses. While the unions are developing this orientation, in the background capitalist management is attempting to smash all collective agreements in favour of what they love to call ‘flexibility’, ‘promotion by merit’ and ‘adaptability’.

Only revolutionaries can contribute to the work of helping wage earners, and more widely all the exploited, to overcome the weakness, the complete impotence, of their reaction to the general assault upon them by the capitalists and their governments. The political parties that claim to represent the workers, and the unions as well, refuse to do anything to help them recognise the nature and underlying mechanisms of the present-day state of things. It is up to the anti-capitalists to do it. The dearth of an overall political project capable of offering an alternative to capitalism that is coherent and credible simply paralyses the workers.

As the violence of social relationships becomes stronger and more obvious, it makes the (re)construction of a class identity necessary and more easily grasped. It could and it should be articulated round the glaring inequalities that exist, and round the theme of exploitation. It could and should draw its strength from the struggles and the self-activity of those who produce the social wealth. Of course the increase in numbers of the working class in the world does not automatically mean that it possesses a capacity for subverting the present order and constructing a project for radical change. But there are plenty of examples to show that, whenever class struggles reach a certain size and involve direct action by workers, one sees the emergence of centripetal processes, attempts to unify demands and make breaches in the multiple differentiations, grades and statuses designed by corporate ‘human resources’ managers. These movements tending towards greater unity get stronger when they are based on democratic self-organisation, and when there are social and political forces that develop the interactions between spontaneous and semi-spontaneous processes – helping the emergence of awareness of how important the objectives of their struggle are, and of how great are the obstacles that they will meet.

This is where the historical memory of class confrontations in a country – or in an industrial area – can help people to understand the present. This can make it easier for workers to constitute themselves as a class. They change themselves from what they were before into a proletariat in struggle, they discover their potential in conflict and the way they can act to change society radically. An alternative route to that of the union and party officials must find its starting-point in the capacity of the workers to combine and act together. What they can achieve rests on the reality of the social character of work and what they actually do can shake up the fetishlike forms that they have acquired in their day-to-day activity and social relationships.

The parties that claim to represent the workers (the social-democratic parties) use history quite differently. They exploit politically, almost in the same way as the bourgeoisie, the outcome of the struggles waged under the banner of communism in the twentieth century, as well as of the massive crimes committed in its name. They tell us over and over again that ‘capitalism has won the day’. According to them, the only way forward is ‘the best possible adaptation’ to its new forms. Private property in the means of production might have to be controlled a little, but never be abolished.

What remains of the old communist parties now toe the line of the social-democracy. They are paralysed by their role in relation to the history of state Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and by what they did at the time contemporary political forms of capitalist domination were starting to develop: think of the part played by the French Communist Party in 1968, the Italian Communist Party in 1969 to 1970, the Spanish Communist Party in helping restore the monarchy to the bosom of the Spanish state. In Italy, the old communist parties are modernised, social-democratic parties. In France, the CP only survives at all because it allies with the social-democrats. When ‘splits’ occur in these parties, which have always kept an element of continuity with their Stalinist past, they follow a rapid evolution towards reformism, which at one time was called ‘Eurocommunism’ (see the case of the Party of Communist Refoundation in Italy). Their members are still more or less nostalgically attached to the idea of communism and from time to time they try to revive it. But you cannot expect any of these parties to try to reconstruct an alternative illuminated by the idea that communism is a present-day living and conceivable option. Moreover, never forget that, taking into account their significant social and political evolution in the last few decades, the social-democratic parties, and those called ‘Communist’, have had the same main strategy – centred on the state, and not in any way based on the self-activity of the workers and their allies.

Since the end of the 1990s the anti-globalisation movements have tried to approach the problems faced by the most exploited and impoverished people in the world, whose extreme importance to human civilisation is recognised by all who care. These movements, notably the World Social Forums, offered an institutional basis that has allowed activists to work on the problems ignored or rejected by the political parties and unions that claim to represent wage earners. Often strengthened by their positions in stable institutions, the opponents of neo-liberalism, who possess more substantial material means than other currents, have placed fixed limits on these discussions. The effect is that, however useful it may be, the theoretical political work we have been able to develop in the last ten years, with others at the heart of the World Social Forums, remains quite inadequate in relation to what is at stake and the social nature of the questions. In the best case, opposition to neo-liberalism will evolve (this is already partly the case) in the direction of a new reformism of classic social-democratic stamp, with its characteristic impotence. At its worst, it risks weakening the resistance of the oppressed by feeding their illusions.

To sum up: it is not enough to announce that ‘the world is not for sale’ and to protest against privatisation and the extension of commodity relationships. One must name capitalist relationships of production unambiguously as the basis for this commoditisation of the world and organise the struggle in consequence. There are no relations of production in the globalised modern world other than the capitalist ones. This understanding, and the discussions and exchanges of views that arise from it, is beginning to emerge among forces within the World Social Forum, and in other areas too. Some political currents and groupings are beginning to set themselves the aim of overcoming the limits set by the hegemony of the opponents of neo-liberalism, without falling back into ancient political postures.

A number of political groups think that possessing an answer to the degeneration of the Russian revolution – considered as the key to every defeat and/or degeneration which followed – absolves them from the necessity of thinking about the content and meaning of communism today. Their programme of revolution is to remain untouched, requiring at most a few minor amendments. As we bring this new work forward, we hope to convince them that one cannot behave as if the idea of communism (or socialism in its full sense, which is synonymous with communism) had emerged undamaged from the history of the twentieth century. Similarly, one should not cultivate the illusion that the development of the world for several decades under the complete control of finance capital did not require redefining the necessity and content of communism in contemporary conditions.

We put the greatest importance on the self-activity of the workers, the exploited and the youth. Therefore we separate ourselves from ‘substitutionism’. This is a disease that affects, to various degrees, the small political groups as well as the biggest anti-capitalist organisations claiming to be Marxist. Often, in these organisations, one finds some recognition of the need to undertake work of a programmatic nature, bearing on some of the issues we are raising. But this recognition coexists with a headlong flight into activism and pragmatism, which puts such organisations into the perilous position at times of tagging along behind the social-democracy, or the union bureaucracies. We want to convince activists who understand the nature of our project and how necessary it is, to join with us in pushing it ahead. On our side we shall pay great attention to any proposal for joint political activity, which might develop in the same direction.

III: Thinking about Communism Today: the range of issues

Day after day, the brutal blows delivered by capital against the vast majority of the working class, against various so-called ‘marginal’ social layers in the cities, against the masses of peasants throughout the world; the radical nature of the neo-liberal economic project; and neo-conservative social attitudes, are the signs of an offensive by capital, unprecedented over the past many decades. Capital intends to wipe out nearly every gain that has been made by the workers’ movement, and other organised social forces, in the past. It is imposing a ‘new epoch’ and ‘making the world take a sharp turn’, and already strongly affecting the lives of a large proportion of the world’s population in many ways. In Europe we often hear people say: ‘Our children will have a harder life than we have had, and it will be worse for our grandchildren.’ Those of us whose goal is social emancipation are obliged to begin to reply to the challenges of such attacks by establishing multiple dialogues and discussions at the level theses challenges are posed. We are confronted by ‘this sharp turn’: is it not time to reassert and rethink the most radical historical perspective the class struggle of the proletariat has brought us – namely communism? This means specifying its necessity in current conditions and the possibility of bringing it about. We repeat that if some people prefer the term ‘socialism’, we shall not argue with them.

When we set out to define our field of work, we are not going to ignore the immense problems, both theoretical and political, that underlie such a project. On the contrary. All our political and theoretical meetings and seminars, and the website, once it is launched, will look for a way to formulate these problems and define as clearly as possible the conditions for resolving them.

Defining the Concept of Communism: where should we begin?

Not the least among many problems to be tackled is the almost total discredit into which the very term ‘communism’ has fallen following the disastrous experience of Stalinism and in the appraisal of those states that enjoyed so-called ‘actually existing socialism’. Particularly in the media, but also among many intellectuals, or people who claim that they are, the expression ‘totalitarian’ is used to discredit every communist project. Hence our first aim must be to (re)define the very concept of communism in its various aspects and dimensions.

So as to begin the work on a minimal base of agreement among those taking this initiative, and without prejudging the results of the efforts and further researches carried out by us and with other people, we shall define communism as:

a society based on socialisation of the social means of production, distribution and consumption, with democratic planning of social production designed to satisfy every social need, and with worker-management of units of production in a socialised framework; these will be the foundations of a profound change in the way the world’s natural resources are used and a way of setting into motion measures to preserve the reproduction of the conditions of life on the whole planet;

a society in which the administration of social power, in the sense of the capacity of society to run itself, to determine its own aims and rules of organisation and functioning and its own methods of control, takes – at different levels of the social organisation – the form of organs of discussion and decision involving all the members concerned by the decisions, which will not be monopolised by a minority, however ‘enlightened’; it supposes the end of a state raised above society and its absorption into self-created democratic organs of society, which provide the necessary conditions for the state’s complete subordination;

a society which is in consequence free from relationships of oppression (such as capital, and the state, with all their apparatuses), a society in which an end has been put to all social class divisions including that between the government and the governed; a society where the free association of each implies on the one hand that they control what they produce (quite different from past practice in which their products became commodities), and on the other that there are no constraints on the producers; a society where the conditions of production put an end to the status of wage-earner as much as of wage-slave;

a society in which the free exchange of activities between social individuals forms the basis of the free development of all, at all levels, which becomes the condition of the free development of everyone, and vice versa; a society which puts an end to every type of oppression, especially that whose victims are, ancestrally, women; a society that organises the division of time so that non-working time increases qualitatively beyond the time needed for dealing with everything that is required to live;

a society, in consequence, in which humanity tries to reconcile itself with itself, knowing that new conflicts and new contradictions will arise and that their resolution will demand the creation of new examples and institutions with their own rules at each step of the evolution of society.

To Establish the History of Communism Means that We Must Examine and Appraise It

If we are to redefine communism and to be more specific about each of the preceding aspects, and if we are not to neglect the new problems that they raise, it cannot be enough to struggle against the discredit that surrounds the term ‘communist’ today. We must go over the history and even the prehistory of communism, and of the long struggle of the oppressed such as slaves, serfs, peasants and proletarians, to free themselves and to attempt to create the conditions for a human identity free of all oppression. This is not only a question of revealing the glorious pages of history – which are today hidden and forgotten when they are not consciously distorted – to promote awareness of political struggles and the ideological works that informed them, or to tell afresh the stories of the movements, the groups and the people who were the main actors. We insist that, when we open the saddest chapters of this history, we shall take note of the bloody and bitter defeats that punctuate them. The worst pages, without a doubt, are those which recount the movement to emancipate the workers turning in a particular way against itself and engendering new regimes of oppression and new structures of exploitation and domination. We must again take up these discussions, which have always perturbed the communist movement, including the way it has split into opposing tendencies and exhausted itself in fratricidal struggle.

It must be obvious that we do not view this journey back into the history of the communist movement, its good times and bad, its fights and debates, purely in a historiographical perspective, even if it must make use of the work of historians. We must take this journey into the past because of the problems which are raised today, problems we must face here and now. The central axis of the work must be to affirm the topicality and necessity of the communist perspective. This topicality refers first to the length and depth of the present contradictions of capital and the crises in which the contradictions express themselves, but also to the potentialities of social transformation that they open.

Communism as a Necessity Arising from the Crisis of Humanity

Hence the third aspect of our work will consider how to proceed with a methodical analysis of these contradictions, and the potentialities at the heart of the transformation of contemporary capitalism. This will give us our perspective. We intend to pay particular attention to:

the ecological crisis of the whole planet, the range of which is potentially catastrophic. It shows us the vampire nature of capital, its tendency to destroy its own natural and social conditions for economic development, land and work. We shall document the stage the planet has reached today through the contradiction, on the one hand, between the socialisation of the productive forces (which include every kind of natural resource and the whole of scientific knowledge), and, on the other hand, private appropriation, in the form of capital – of which the productive forces are the object. More than ever, this perspective makes actual the prospect of putting an end to the crisis. We shall examine the present forms of the merging of science and capital. We shall show how the appropriation of the whole of social work by capital, through advances in science and technology, have created an obstacle to possible improvements in the organisation of industrial and agricultural production, as well as in distribution. Without a complete break, economic, social and political, new technical innovations, which have become urgent in response to the definite aspects of the ecological crisis, can no longer lead anywhere; and proposals for the management of space, the organisation of work, of housing or of transport cannot be realised;

the worsening of unequal development between continents, sub-continents, nations and regions, is at the heart of this new phase, coming into being, in the world of capitalism – driven by finance capital and transnational business, the aim of which is to extend considerably the social and spatial scale of the reproduction of capital. At one extreme, the ranks of the world proletariat are swollen as parts of an industrial reserve army of labour, sometimes working, sometimes unemployed. There are billions of individuals who are doomed to poverty, in direct relation to the degree of super-exploitation, to lives of wretchedness and social marginalisation – excluded from the normal framework not only of their social lives, but of humanity itself. At the other extreme, social riches continue to pile up, diverted to the end of social domination (in the forms of what is called ‘security’, the most oppressive social surveillance ever undertaken, and even war) of the human and technical means that are capable of liberating humanity from the ancient business of satisfying basic need, and the archaic necessity of working;

the globalisation (or rather the transnationalisation) of capital and capitalism, tends towards the abolition of former political and cultural divisions of humanity – nation states and civilisations – thus provoking strong cultural-identity based tensions in reaction. But at the same time globalisation lays the foundations for the constitution of the human race as a political community;

the increasingly contradictory socialisation of individuals. Capital and capitalism open more widely and more rapidly to the whole world; the world offers potentially all its cultures, past as well as present, and creates out of it more and more concretely the production of the whole of humanity, in its present development and in its historic heritage. But through this opening to the world, jointly and in contradiction, capital increasingly expropriates the individuals of the world with regard to their control over their institutional, cultural and material conditions of life. This loss of control deprives people of all possibility of building a stable identity, of communicating with others and taking part in the construction of the world. In doing so, capital is taking from them a part, more or less important, of the potential riches we have mentioned. It is a contradictory socialisation in which the immense majority of the people who live on this planet see their time and space wrenched from them, so radically that they will undergo an anthropological change which will affect everything to do with man, our society and the capacity to change it.

Self-activity and Self-emancipation

The immediacy of communism must also (some people might say ‘especially’), first and foremost be understood in the context of the challenges and the present possibilities of its principal dynamic: the self-activity of the proletariat. This is the lever of change, before it becomes the basic rule of the new society to be built. More perhaps than in any earlier period, the first thing we should always proclaim is that ‘the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves’. Why?

First, on account of historical experience. Every model of ‘socialism’ based on the ‘substitutionism’ of an enlightened, anointed élite, a self-proclaimed ‘vanguard of the proletariat’, has failed to allow the workers to emancipate themselves. The most they have achieved is some temporary lightening of the weight of capitalist oppression in one country or another, before establishing new forms of domination and oppression, and finally delivering the society back to capitalism. Emancipation is not a gift. You have to win it.

Second, because of present-day experience. It is clearer every day that, in the current phase of the class struggle, the workers and other exploited and oppressed sectors of humanity, can only count on themselves, not just to defend themselves from the general attack that capital is making on them, but to attempt to preserve basic conditions for social reproduction. Latin American countries as well as Russia, offer us a zone of experience to study, and the same processes are already at work in Asia and to some extent in Africa. In the old capitalist countries, self-activity is the only way to defend previous gains. Much that remains of the unions and politics of the old workers’ movement has been transformed into the transmission drive of the capitalist order. By ‘the old workers’ movement’ we mean social-democracy and the various manifestations of Stalinism that were once renamed ‘Eurocommunist’: the only difference between them is the way they make deteriorating conditions acceptable to the workers.

To reaffirm the self-activity of the proletariat as the active principle of communism obviously demands that we have to explain this point (as we do all the others) without neglecting the theoretical and political problems it raises. We have no intention of transforming it into a noble but abstract utopia, cut off from its actual conditions, and certainly we are not going to prophesy lovely hypothetical days to come.

In particular, we must guard against spontaneity. For us, the self-activity of the proletariat is always the result of a relationship of forces in the class struggle, a relationship that is always fragile and can always be reversed in a struggle where the working class does not only confront the class enemy but confronts itself as well.  It supposes forms of organisation capable of facing up to the challenges in which organised political forces have a real place. This is so because the workers are influenced by the class that rules them, and therefore by the political expression organised by the rulers in their ranks; and also by the ‘interiorisation’ of the relations of being ruled. The development of self-activity by workers implies that there must be a break, at least a partial one, with the behaviours, attitudes, values and ideas that are brought to it every day through different aspects of this rule.

Nevertheless, we think that the self-activity of the proletariat is the ‘red thread’ of an activity that can disentangle the web of contradictions and difficulties workers all over the world are discussing today. We can see examples in every domain where their conditions of existence are threatened by capital, at work and outside work (on issues of housing, for instance). Even modest resistances by workers and other exploited groups to capital have characteristics of this kind. We intend to pay particular attention to the way in which, in the resistances and struggles, though they are often not at all spectacular, understanding comes out of the necessity and possibility of collectively reclaiming the social means of production and consumption, and finding new ways of living in common.

From this point of view and to establish the reference to the self-activity of the proletariat in our immediate experience, we shall seek to understand in what way this self-activity is at one and the same time both defeated, and also permanently stimulated, by the attacks of capital. For example, we see that when businesses are closed and there are massive redundancies, something urges workers to ‘seize their tools back’, to occupy their factories. Similarly, privatisations lead in a contradictory way to the emergence of a new approach to public service by wage earners. Similarly, the conditions imposed on immigrant workers and their families, and the scale of repression of which they are the objects, stimulate movements from below in favour of rights for immigrant workers and of a mutual understanding of different cultures. Similarly, too, worsening persistent famine stimulates new, well-thought-out proposals for agrarian reform. And the intensification of capitalist appropriation of natural resources incites resistances, as has happened in Ecuador and Bolivia – resistances based on self-activity, when self-emancipation is at least a half-conscious goal. The acuteness, too, of the oppression of women and their violent double-exploitation sees the beginning and the development of emancipation movements. And the possibilities opened by the internet immediately pose the question of free access to cultural goods.

We shall call on the work of sociologists, historians and anthropologists as well as on the personal testimony and analyses of militants who will know how to explain this aspect of self-activity in the daily practice of the proletariat. We must show such self-activity opens up the perspective of realising communism. We shall do everything we can to try to connect our discussions with those professionals whose enquiries and researches we use.

From all that has been said above, we see that self-activity — must be combined in a long-term project as a process that will consist of advances and retreats. In this perspective we intend to take up again the question of the mediations in the process. There will be programmatic mediations that throw a bridge between the demands that come out of the present-day struggles of the proletariat on the one hand and on the other the perspective of a communist society. Mediations in forms of organisation, starting from embryonic forms of self-activity which combine practical experience and current struggles leading subsequently to the level of revolutionary breaks, that make self-emancipation possible. But again, we do not intend to lead these discussions in a purely theoretical manner, or only with reference to the past experiences of history, but to relate everything in a practical way to the situations the proletariat finds itself in today. and, even more, the self-emancipation of the proletariat

IV: The need for the convergence of discussions with communism as the theme

From this document, you will see that we hope to move ahead in ways which allow everyone who recognises the reference to communism, or who perceives that updating its appropriation or re-appropriation is an essential political necessity – whatever her or his previous political trajectory – to join us in this work in some way.

This method and this call are based in particular on our conviction that we have entered a new historical phase of the class struggle. This is due along other things to the unprecedented crisis into which the workers’ movement has been plunged by the transnationalisation of capital; the brutality of neo-liberal policies; the end of the ‘Fordist compromise’; the shameful and ostentatious way in which the social-democrats and the ‘Eurocommunists’ have rallied to the neo-liberal pattern of politics; and the political dissolution of ‘state socialism’ following its ideological collapse.

We are convinced that is now possible as well as necessary to take another look at the causes of splits and divisions inherited from older phases of the workers’ movement. The reason is simply that, albeit in different and unequal ways, the new phase makes null and void all models of social transformation that have previously been thought up, whether they came from the heart of the movement or from the periphery. The new phase shows their inadequacies and also puts them in perspective.

That is why it has become possible again to work together. Cooperation can develop of a sort that in the past would have seemed improbable, even impossible, among individuals, groups, organisations and tendencies from the various traditions of the workers’ movement – a kind of cooperation that before now was ignored when it was not being bitterly fought against. Obviously the condition of cooperation is that the groups should acknowledge, at least in good part, the obsolescence of their differences, and accept to the need to establish a critical relationship with the political tradition they come from.