Issue 50 of Revolutionary Perspectives, published by the Communist Workers’ Organisation, carried a critique of The Commune’s politics. Joe Thorne, a member of our network, wrote a response to that article, and here we publish the latest reply from the CWO.
We would like to thank The Commune for their reply to our critique of their group which we published in Revolutionary Perspectives No 50. We will start by clarifying the issue of who we are.
The Commune refer to us as the Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT) formerly known as the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party. This is only partially correct; Revolutionary Perspectives is the publication of the Communist Workers Organisation. We are the British affiliates of the ICT (formerly the IBRP) and whilst engaging in joint activities and theoretical development with the other ICT sections we are responsible for our own activities on the ground where we live. Neither the CWO, nor the ICT consider themselves to be the revolutionary party but part of an international tendency working towards its creation. Our website is now http://www.leftcom.org/ but we can still be reached on http://www.ibrp.org/.
On a very brief historical note, the origins of our tendency go back to the Italian left’s opposition to the Stalinisation of the Third International in the 1920s and not just to the post World War 2 Italian Communist Left as stated by The Commune (see, for example, our pamphlet on the Committee of Intesa of 1925).
Returning to The Commune’s reply to our article, we welcome your willingness to engage in discussion on the issues raised in our critique. Whilst there are number of points we can agree on, we do think that that your response indicated a number of misconceptions about our positions. We will now attempt to take the debate further by explaining this in more detail.
Organisation: The Party and the Class
The Commune accept that their stated ambivalence on the party question stems at least in part from their view that ‘the meaning of this term is very unclear, and subject to different interpretations’. The perceived complexity of the issue is not a principled reason for not having a clear position. We can see why you are wary of the concept of a centralised party as represented by the myriad Trotskyist groups that each claim to be the revolutionary party and then split off into ever more grouplets over the most arcane differences. This is not what the party is or what we envisage by advocating the need for a centralised party. We welcome this opportunity to clarify what our views on the party are. For the CWO the revolutionary party is not separate from the class. Its emergence is a product of the revolutionary development of the class. It is an essential historically-discovered tool (like the soviets or councils) that enables the working class to overthrow capitalism and establish a communist society. The party does not create the heightened class struggle that will be an essential precursor to any revolutionary situation, but we regard it is essential for the party to inform and be prepared to lead that struggle. Whilst class consciousness develops rapidly in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation, the historical evidence indicates that the class as a whole does not spontaneously develop communist consciousness. In such a situation revolutionaries who have made it their business to understand the history and past experiences of the class struggle and, have a clear vision of the way ahead, would be abdicating their responsibility if they did not bring those experiences back to the struggle and the revolutionary organs of the working class, such as workers councils. We consider that without such actions by a class party all revolts by the working class will be contained within capitalism. Whilst we believe that the most effective party is a centralised party, we do not advocate a monolithic party. Your quotation from the AWL shows that they adhere to a form of democratic centralism, as do we, but they then distort it by insisting that the central committee has “the right to proscribe at will the form that external and internal organising, debate and discussion may take”. This is not centralisation but a recipe for dictatorship. The norms of internal debate are governed by statutes which no executive can meddle with (they can only be established by the general assembly of all the militants or congresses or whatever). Our statutes actually give full rights to both factions (single issue groups) and tendencies (formed around more than one issue). The existence of factions and a considerable degree of local autonomy are essential expressions of a workers’ democratic organisation. What we do need though is an instrument for united action of workers across the world against a global enemy. Isolated and in small groups we can be picked off and defeated. United and organised we will be able to take on the historic task which the contradictions of capitalism daily makes more necessary. We know that many on the libertarian wing of communism take comfort in the current situation of many small groups but if they do not ultimately come together then capitalism will have a free hand to take us down the road to barbarism. Of course the other issue is fear. The development of the Bolshevik Party from Social Democratic stalwart to revolutionary instrument of the Russian workers and then into the ruler of the state dominating a new form of capitalist exploitation was a tragedy from which we have yet to recover. These developments were ultimately determined by the failure of the revolution to spread to the European proletarian heartlands and not by the weakness of the party form of organisation. It would be a mistake to draw from this experience that an international party is not just unnecessary but an outright danger. The key issue to the founders of our tendency was that the party leads the revolution but it does not become the government (as the Bolsheviks did). Once power has been transferred from the capitalists to the workers the task of building socialism/communism is the task of the working class as a whole. No vanguard, however clever, can do it as the new society will require a new degree of direct participation by all its citizens. The task of the party is to lead the fight against world capitalism, the task of all the class (including party members) is to begin building a new society which will also lead to a further transformation of human consciousness.
We are pleased to note that you accepted our criticism of holding a meeting with the bourgeois nationalists of the LTTE. However we probably still have some differences on this issue. In your reply you say “we do not therefore say that national movements have a fundamentally anti-proletarian nature”. We do, and the reason we do is not because of some ‘ultra left’ dogma but because every historical example we are aware of clearly shows that all national movements are fundamentally anti-proletarian. The nation state has historically been, and still remains, the vehicle of the bourgeoisie for developing capitalism nationally, achieving national capital accumulation, and projecting national bourgeois interests via imperialism. Hence all national struggles can only remain entrapped within these parameters. While we recognise that there were tactical arguments for the proletariat to support the national bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century, namely that this would assist the development of the proletariat as a class, we consider these arguments are no longer valid. The proletariat is now an international class and its agenda is the construction of a communist world. To achieve this, its struggles have to be international and necessarily against the national bourgeoisie. The history of the last century contains masses of empirical evidence illustrating that when sections of the proletariat shed their blood for the national bourgeoisie they also create the ideological weapons with which the national bourgeoisie oppresses and exploits them once the national struggle is won. The example of South Africa is only the latest of a very long list. Of course the oppression of a people by virtue of race, ethnicity or nationality is a manifestation of the brutality of class society, and by and large it is the working class that suffers the most. But, there can be no national solution to the emancipation of the working class, and wherever workers have supported national movement they have just ended up swapping one set of exploiters for another and often been massacred by their own bourgeoisie for their pains. Even where there is national oppression against a whole people, such as is the case with the Palestinians, it is clear that the so called national liberation movements of Fatah and Hamas not only have nothing to offer the working class, but actively work to curtail class struggle. The only way ahead is for workers to wage class struggle against their exploiters be they Israeli or Palestinian and to try to spread the struggle across national boundaries. For the CWO, the idea that there can be proletarian content in a national struggle is an unfortunate legacy of the Lenin’s support for the ‘right of nations to self determination’ which was already out of date in 1917 and has no relevance at all to the world in the 21st century.
We happily stand corrected on our comment that you believe that the unions can be transformed into revolutionary organisations and accept that you have not made that claim.
We note your willingness to criticise the trade union bureaucracy but we are not convinced that your position on the unions is significantly different from the Trotskyists on the one hand, and the majority of anarchists on the other. Being critical of the bureaucracy is self evident and does not require a great deal of class consciousness. Your position on the unions appears to be riddled with contradictions; you say that ‘most unions are working class organisations’ but at the same time say that ‘not infrequently they act against the interests of the class’. The fact that you can make two such seemingly contradictory statements suggests the lack of a coherent analysis of the nature of trade unionism. For The Commune the unions are working class organisations because they are ‘overwhelmingly composed of working class people’. By using that definition, the same could be said for the British National Party or the Catholic Church. The class composition of an organisation does not determine its class orientation, and as you have correctly observed the unions often (we would say almost always) act against workers’ interests. You also say that ‘most’ unions are working class organisations but there is no explanation why some are working class organisations and why others are not.
A proper analysis of the unions has nothing to do with whether or not they have left or right wing leaders or, have a membership composed of blue collar or white collar workers. It must begin with the function of the unions in contemporary capitalist society which on an economic level is to make negotiate the sale of labour power in the context of increasingly narrow constraints. Politically the unions in the advanced capitalist countries are more or less wholly integrated into the state, and they play a conscious role in keeping workers divided along union and geographic lines. The fact that you concluded in your article on the CWU’s predictable sell-out of the postal workers that:
“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”
seems to demonstrate that you too can see the futility of keeping the strikes within union forms.
An understanding of the fundamentally reactionary nature of the trade unions in this period does not mean that the CWO ignores the unions or makes abstract calls for workers to leave the unions unless there is a concrete alternative. The extent to which we participate in the unions is largely a tactical question; we clearly could not become part of the union bureaucracy but because they are places which regroup workers (albeit on sectional and national bases) we join them in order to get a direct entry to workers’ assemblies etc. The main thrust of our intervention is to point out to workers the limits of trade union struggle and pose an alternative of developing a broader struggle beyond trade union constraints. We do try to organise workers outside of unions in workplace, territorial or factory groups. Currently in Britain this is just an aspiration but our comrades in Italy have managed to organise a small number of such groups which are made up of our members plus other militant workers who recognise the role of the unions in their workplace. This is because we don’t think a communist presence can be built up solely by propaganda or theory but by communists demonstrating in practice that they “understand the line of march” of the working class.
The Commune believes that joint work with the bourgeois left is appropriate provided that independence and political clarity is not sacrificed. We do not share this view. Despite the sincere nature of some of the militants of these organisations, revolutionaries cannot participate with organisations whose role is to defend capitalism in one form or another. The SWP may have been the first Trotskyist organisation to apprehend the state capitalist nature of the Soviet Union, but this has not prevented it from advocating state capitalist measures in the West. The ‘socialism’ of the SWP and other Trotskyist groups is indistinguishable from the state capitalist programme of the Labour left (as far as it still exists) who they regard as comrades. Working with ‘the left’ is not therefore just a tactical question, if it were we would in principle be prepared to do it. The real issue is that the Trotskyist / Stalinist / Social Democratic left, as well as having perpetrated bloody betrayals of the working class in the past, also have no vision of what Communism is. Of course we relate to sincere but misguided militants in these groups as individuals and seek to win them to our arguments. But to seek to change the nature of these organisations is a futile and corrupting endeavour. Just try to raise real communist arguments at a leftist meeting and count the seconds before you get closed down by the Chair. If The Commune can produce any example of a bourgeois leftist organisation that has transformed itself into a genuine communist organisation we would be interested to know about it.
Workers Self Management
We probably don’t have a huge disagreement with you here. We would never advocate the principle of self management within capitalist society as a step towards communism, although we recognise as you have pointed out, that self managed enterprises may emerge in the course of class struggle or to meet local needs. What we do reject is the notion that islands of self-management can be built up under capitalist conditions as a step towards the dismantling of the capitalist system. This was the illusion of many in the 1970s (Lip, Fisher Bendix etc), an illusion fostered by the Labour Left. The first step on the road to real emancipation has to be the smashing of the capitalist state – this then opens the door for all kinds of workers’ experiments.
We are still not clear as to the direction of The Commune and we suspect you do not yet know yourselves where your journey will take you. However we judge this dialogue to be mutually beneficial and if it helps others to define their own world outlooks more clearly so much the better. The Commune members are also welcome at our open meetings and we look forward to a further serious engagement as we both sincerely try to grapple with the thorny task of proletarian emancipation.
For the CWO