At their most recent congress, the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP), changed its name to Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT). The ICT is an international grouping which places itself in the tradition of elements in the post WW2 Italian communist left. In the last issue of their periodical prior to adopting their new name, the group published a brief article on The Commune, and invited us to reply. Joe Thorne responds, discussing our politics in several areas.
Thank you for taking the time to review the politics of The Commune in issue 50 of Revolutionary Perspectives, and thank you in particular for your positive comments. You ask a good question: are we a radical new grouping, or the old left in a new form?
Perhaps the best method will be to consider some of the criticisms raised in your article, under six main headings.
There is no reference to the need to create an international proletarian party which we see as playing an essential role in developing class consciousness and organising the class.
One reason not to refer obliquely to the need for ‘a party’ is that the meaning of this term is very unclear, and subject to different interpretations. For instance, giving a typical Trotskyist interpretation, the AWL hold that “a combat party … is an army on the march. … The central leadership, democratically elected and controlled, must be in charge. As the highest active consciousness, its directives are binding.” This “central leadership” is, of course, the executive committee, and many Trotskyist organisations give this committee the right to proscribe at will the form that external and internal organising, debate and discussion may take. This idea of the party is most widely understood in the terms given to us by contemporary Trotskyists – in fact, an ahistorical representation of, the real Bolshevik experience. We do not know if this is what the ICT means when it refers to the “centralised party”: if it is, we disagree. We understand that the left communist milieu often uses the term “centralised” to mean something like “unified” or “coordinated”. But we ourselves do not believe that the revolution will have an executive committee (nor, if it did, would it be allowed to survive), and so it does not necessarily make sense for us to declare straightforwardly and without qualification for “the party”.
Of course, the term need not be used in this way. We know that Marx talked of the party at times “in the historical sense”, and in this sense we endorse the idea, in this sense we are for the party. What is more, we endorse the idea of an international revolutionary movement, perhaps working through a number of formal, and perhaps some informal, organisations, in as unified and organised a manner as possible toward the social revolution. In this sense, we are for the party, although this fact is not expressed in such terms in our platform. (We know that the class struggle itself is the important thing, and that it arises organically from below, creating its own organisations as it does so. It is not something ordered by any formal party, but at best, promoted, assisted, sharpened and generalised by it.) But as G.P. Maximov put it, “The issue is not in the name, but in its content, in the organisational structure of the Party, in the principles on which it is founded.” These are the grounds for real debate.
Their conception of organisation is somewhat nebulous, seeking to establish a ‘pluralist communist network’.
. . . This organisational model borrows from libertarianism and anarchism.
This latter judgement may be correct: but it is not of itself a criticism. There is, in fact, no orthodox theory of what a small political group in an advanced capitalist society should be like. (Although we are not, as such, concerned with what is orthodox and what is not). We do not formally describe ourselves, as an organisation, as libertarian, though several of our members may adopt this label.
What is pluralism? Just the idea that members, or groups of members, may disagree with each other, whether in public or private, provided they are nonetheless within the bounds of our platform. We seek to produce tendencies towards theoretical unity as an organic product of our own ongoing education, discussion and debate. But there are always countervailing tendencies: new facts, new ideas, new arguments. This tension is a real one; we hope to exist in it without drifting either to dogma, or a state of affairs in which differences are left unexamined.
At present, our platform is brief and not always clearly specified. We are a little more than a year old: for now, it does what it needs to. Perhaps in the future it will become more detailed. But the level of detail in a platform – a basis of unity – has no ideal level of specificity, it must relate to the mutual development of ideas amongst the people involved. Currently, it does.
One misunderstanding, at least, is entirely understandable, and we should welcome the opportunity to correct it.
They quite reasonably denounce national oppression but there appears to be no clear understanding of the fundamentally anti-proletarian nature of national movements. This was demonstrated at a recent Commune discussion meeting in London at which supporters of the Tamil LTTE were given a platform.
This was an inadvertent mistake on our part. Given the massacres of Tamils in Sri Lanka ongoing at the time, we sought a speaker with some knowledge of the situation. One was recommended to us at short notice, and we were not able to verify their politics in advance. We were not aware that we would be hosting a fully fledged LTTE apologist. However, despite the chauvinism of this speaker, the discussion was generally good, albeit slightly odd, and the relevant political criticisms were drawn out by our comrades, and others. To be clear, we give no form of support to groups such as the LTTE, and insofar as they attack the working class, as is generally the case, we oppose them.
However, we do not therefore say that national movements necessarily have a “fundamentally anti-proletarian nature”. If it is reasonable to denounce national oppression, it follows that it is legitimate for movements to take place in opposition to such oppression. For sure, within those movements, organisations like the LTTE take anti working class actions and stances, but it does not follow that we should be opposed to the idea of a movement against national oppression as such; we should not be so opposed.
The most problematic area is their perspective on how the class struggle needs to develop. They correctly identify the anti-working class nature of the trade union leadership and bureaucracy but, their solution is good old fashioned leftist rank and filism. In other words the rank and file should wrest control of the unions from the bureaucracy and in so doing transform the unions back into genuine working class organisations.
Nowhere do we express the “the belief that the trade unions can be transformed into revolutionary organisations”. We have not promoted such a view: though comrades are welcome to supply any quotations from our articles which take this position. We do not, on the other hand, abstain from ever supporting one candidate over another in union elections as a matter of principle: it is a matter of tactics. What good will it do? That depends: ordinarily not much, certainly not without a related increase in militancy at the base. But it is not necessarily entirely irrelevant, either.
We are not slavish apostles of the official methods, any more than we make their rejection an absolute. For example, a recent article on the suspension of the Royal Mail strikes on our website, reads,
CWU members should push inside the union for the action to be resumed, insisting on the most democratic forms of rank and file control. But they cannot rely on this strategy being successful. Therefore, they should also be prepared, should it be necessary, to take, support and spread unofficial action, from office to office, from one end of the country to the other. The tradition of not handling work from striking offices needs to be resurrected.
We think that most unions are working class organisations. They cannot fully express the universal, historic needs of the class as a whole. And, not infrequently, they act against the interests of the class. But they are overwhelmingly composed of working class people, and are often expressions of those people’s attempts to further their class interests, albeit in incomplete and mediated form.
The Commune do not appear to have a clear understanding of class lines which are forged from real historical experiences, thus debates with the bourgeois left are seen as a valid political activity.
We do see debates with what you call the “bourgeois” left as valid political activity. Do members of the ICT refuse to speak to Trotskyist workmates or neighbours about politics? If not, then you also debate with the bourgeois left. Do we seek ‘unity’ with members of the larger Trotskyist organisations? If it is possible to work together in some way which means we do not sacrifice our independence and political clarity, yes.
True, “it was the German Social Democrats who murdered revolutionaries such as Liebknecht and Luxemburg and destroyed the revolutionary potential of the German workers from within.” But the SWP, even if they were precise analogues for the SPD (they are not), are not a mortal threat to anyone. It is idealistic in the extreme to take the formal positions, or present day behaviour, let alone vague historical equivalents, of such groups, and project them into an imagined revolutionary scenario at an undetermined point in the future. This is not a serious method. The nature of organisations like those that make up the Trotskyist left is not necessarily fixed in stone. Given the fact that they incorporate a number of serious working class militants, we should value the possibility of shifting their positions in a communist direction. To say that we are in favour of left unity, under the condition of our own real independence, is only to say that we are in favour of an opportunity to make that possibility a reality.
Workers’ self management
Of course in a post revolutionary situation workers’ self management would prevail as a fundamental characteristic of socialist production. However The Commune appear to share an anarchist view that workers’ self management can develop within capitalism and contribute to its demise.
Our objective is not self-managed capitalism, an archipelago of cooperatives in the sea of the capitalist market. Our objective is communism, and we raise self management as an integral component of that precisely because that “fundamental characteristic” has been so maligned and abused by various statist socialists over the years. We consider it necessary to issue a corrective.
Can “workers’ self management develop within capitalism and contribute to its demise”? It depends what you mean. What do we say, for example, about the occupied factories in Argentina? Do these express, in a sense, workers’ self management? Clearly they do. Was – is – the battle to establish and defend them a class battle, expressing communist content and aspirations, just as militant strikes and action on the job do? Yes. So in that sense do instances of workers’ self management appear as part of the movement towards communism? They do. Is the appearance of such phenomena infrequent and highly contingent? Yes. So should we rely solely or even mainly on expropriation à la Zanon as a revolutionary vehicle? No, but we can accept it as one tactic among others.
And furthermore, in the crisis of capitalism of which the social revolution is a part, we assume that it will be necessary for some workers to engage in some sorts of production: for even a revolutionary class needs to eat. While not every workplace – perhaps not even most – will be appropriate to self management, being made redundant by the passing of the order to whose needs their product corresponds, some will. How will this production be managed? We suggest, by communist self management. In this second limited sense, then, self management can contribute to capitalism’s demise.
In one sense, we are the old left in a new form: several of our members are drawn from the large layer of militants experienced in, and disillusioned with, the Trotskyist movement. And we clearly adopt a more open form. But the old left is part of our roots. Do we discard everything from that experience? No.
Yet, are we a radical new grouping? Yes. We do not have the same ideas as the Internationalist Communist Tendency. The Commune represents a break with statism, nationalism, organisational authoritarianism, and crude accounts of various elements of class struggle, including the idea of the party. Our appraisal of the unions is critical, alongside our conviction that they represent, albeit often in bureaucratised form, attempts by workers to organise around their class interests: attempts that are worth relating to.
We would welcome further discussion. Members of the ICT continue to be welcome at our events.
 Letter to Freiligrath, 29th February 1860, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1860/letters/60_02_29.htm. Freiligrath’s letter, and more of Marx’s commentary, can be read here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1860/letters/60_01_11.htm
Final paragraph in section on nationalism added after original posting