The article which follows is a transcript of an introduction to an online meeting of CWO members and sympathisers on 21 November 2020.
The world is full of organisations claiming to be revolutionary, communist or even internationalist. The majority of these have a theory and practice that we would not recognise in any of those categories. Stalinism, Maoism, Trotskyism, and all forms of Social Democracy are to be found under the heading “false friends” of the working class. We have to expose these organisations as lost to the working class even though we may recognise that they contain people like us who are searching for an alternative to capitalism and who we should be ready to argue with as individuals.
We are also now very wary of the term “left communist” since it has become a general term which runs from ourselves to the various communisers and councilists who don’t actually share any of our framework. It is probably better to refer to us as a “part of the Communist Left”. As you will be aware we are not the only organisation of the Communist Left but we are a specific international current, with arguably the longest history, in it. We are also the only tendency in the Communist Left which was originally formed by the coming together of two organisations which arose in different periods, and with different historical roots.
Today we in the ICT trace our ancestry back to the left factions of Social Democracy before the First World War, the same left that recognised that the First World War was not a capitalist aberration but a real expression of its imperialist contradictions. Despite its later isolation and failure, the highest expression of this internationalist movement remains the Russian Revolution which culminated in the overthrow of the rule of the capitalist class in October 1917. It was in response to that event that the anti-war socialists inside the Italian Socialist Party started to agitate for affiliation to the Third International which was formed in 1919.
Various reasons conspired to delay the break with the right wing Socialists until 1921 but finally the Communist Party of Italy, section of the Third International, was founded at Livorno in January 1921. But by this time the class movement in Italy of the Red Two Years had ended in defeat and it was only two months before Kronstadt and the failed March Action in Germany demonstrated that the revolutionary wave was in retreat. This is important because from this we draw our first lesson that the party cannot be a product of the last minute (compare this with the Spartakists in Germany who issued an excellent manifesto breaking with the centrist USPD but only AFTER the workers had overthrown the Kaiser). What this means is that revolutionaries should not wait until a class movement appears but must try to build an organisation linked to the class even in the direst of circumstances. This was what lay behind Onorato Damen’s insistence that there is a permanent need for the party linked to the class.
This need of course cannot always be met. The defeat of the revolutionary wave led to the Comintern’s abandonment of world revolution and the adoption of policies which actually undermined the revolutionary consciousness of the class. When the founders of the Communist Party of Italy opposed united fronts and “workers’ governments” the Comintern leadership looked for ways to remove them as they still commanded an overwhelming majority in the Party. It took them some time and they were aided by Mussolini’s imprisonment of the main leaders of the Left. However what finally enabled Gramsci, who had been installed as leader by the Comintern to gain control of the party, was the fact that many of its organisers were paid by the party. If they did not toe the Comintern line they would lose their livelihoods.1 This is the second lesson we draw from our experience. Professional revolutionaries are not the way to build a revolutionary working class party. It has to be built by worker activists who are volunteers. This is not just because paid officials can be politically manipulated but any party of the working class has also got to be based on activists who live as others live and share their experiences. Only in this way will we create an organisation of revolutionaries capable of winning the confidence of the wider working class.
Recovering from the betrayal of not one but two internationals in the space of less than a decade was a massive blow to the revolutionary working class. To try to make sense of this the Italian Fraction (of the Third International) was formed mainly in exile. It still hoped that the course of the Comintern towards counter-revolution might be halted but by 1934 they realised that it was lost to the class and that the USSR was now part of the imperialist world order. This was why Damen and others were already prepared and quick to respond to the wave of strikes in Nazi-controlled Northern Italy in 1942-3. Damen, Stefanini, Bottaioli, Lecci and Atti, to name but a few of the comrades of those times, founded the Internationalist Communist Party in clandestinity in 1943. It was the only party founded during the second imperialist slaughter unambiguously opposed to both imperialist camps.
The formal history you can read in the many articles under the Italian Left tag on our website2 but we need to stress certain things about the new organisation which are not often expressed directly. In the first place the new party had also drawn the lessons from the experience of the failed revolution in Russia:
1. The Party as a product of rising class consciousness of the wider class would remain a minority of the class. It would not be a mass party like those of Social Democracy nor would it use any old tactical expedient or manoeuvre simply to widen the party membership but operate on the basis of a consistent revolutionary strategy. The party represents the revolutionary gains of the working class in all its episodes of struggle against the system.
2. The Party was an indispensable element in guiding and inciting the destruction of the state of the exploiters BUT…
3. It did this only by giving a lead to the wider class movement as only the working class in its mass organisations can actually build a socialist society through their actions. Socialism does not arrive by decree but by workers organising themselves across society.
Additionally, the party also differentiated itself from the previous Comintern positions on unions (which were now integrated into the state) and the national question (which the party took largely from Rosa Luxemburg’s view that in the era of imperialism, in the epoch of the decay of capitalism as Lenin put it, national liberation was no longer a preparatory ground for a future proletarian revolution). Central to its politics was the recognition that the USSR was both state capitalist and imperialist.
When the Second World War ended the Internationalist Communist Party continued to expand and according to some sources had 5,000 members. However, as the promised revolutionary wave failed to materialise some members of the party began to question its very existence after 1948. And Bordiga, who had been absent from the scene for almost two decades and who never joined the party but wrote for its journals, now began to agitate behind the scenes for its dissolution. Bordiga however was now behind the times. He had never accepted the break with the old positions of the Comintern and at this point did not see the USSR was capitalist (referring to it as “on the road to industrialisation” thus avoiding characterising it as a mode of production – a very strange position for a supposedly intransigent and invariant defender of the Marxist method).
As everyone knows this led to the followers of Bordiga splitting away from the Internationalist Communist Party (not the other way round as some histories have it – the majority stayed with the original founders) – but instead of dissolving the Bordigists set up their own International Communist Party which became a vehicle for Bordiga’s pet theories. Bordiga denounced the PCInt as “activist” (in a document which we can actually agree with since it is a caricature of our position and given that Bordiga had already written that “the Party loses no occasion to intervene in clashes and vicissitudes of the class struggle”3 the practice of the ICP has been little different over time). Bordiga himself came to amend his position on the USSR and accepted it was state capitalist but he left a poisonous legacy based on organic centralism and the idea that among all the Communist Left the ICP alone was the class party. The irony of an organisation in which there was no room for disagreement was that it has led to the opposite. There have been so many splits that there are now at least four ICPs each claiming to be the one class party. What they all agree on is that the Party does not just lead the revolution but in “the totalitarian seizure of power … it is the Party alone which therefore represents, organises and directs the proletarian dictatorship.”4
This stands in stark contrast to the real complex relationship between Party and class which we have gleaned from the Russian Revolution. We are for the Party, i.e. the coming together of the most conscious in advance of the wider working class movement of the future. But we are not that Party. This will be the product of the future class movement which will emerge from the continuing failure of the system to solve its deep contradictions and pose the question of revolution once again. Instead of the numerous splits of a retreating class movement which has characterised the recent past we will see old differences resolved by the real movement. Old ideas will be discarded and new ones appropriate to the situation may have to be adopted, as part of the process of the formation of a new revolutionary movement. This will be the mass movement which will create a real class party to guide the path to dismantling capitalist power and then capitalist relations of production.5
The CWO was founded in 1975 and you can read a potted version of our history on the website.6 Originally very close to councilism we were already beginning to question the KAPD legacy we began with (the giveaway is in our name) when we received the first response to our Platform from the PCInt. It took us some time to cover all the issues but the starting point was that we agreed with the notion that the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall explained both capitalism’s dynamism and its recurring crises. This is very important since it meant we began all our perspectives from the same solid material basis. This also led to a common analysis of the restructuring of the world working class and the fact that all the militancy which had opposed the return of the capitalist crisis in the early 70s was in retreat in the 80s. It is a work that is constantly revisited and revised because we have to keep up with the developments of both capital and class in our time. Unlike the other currents of the Communist Left which seem to see the working class as some idealist abstraction called “the proletariat” we have always seen that it is made up of real human beings. It is not endowed with any special or mystical character other than its place in production which makes it the natural antagonist of capitalism but which will only come to consciousness of the need to shake off exploitation under particular conditions. Our task is to become part of the wider class and learn with it in all its struggles.
This was the basis for our formation of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party which then became the Internationalist Communist Tendency when we were joined at the start of this millennium by comrades in Canada, Germany and the USA. We have tried to distinguish ourselves by the patient process of constantly explaining. In doing this we have tried to avoid what our late comrade Mauro called “idle polemics” which generate more heat than light. Comrades in other organisations which share our ultimate vision of a classless and stateless society may be rivals but they are not enemies. With them we must always start from where we agree and adopt a tone of comradely persuasion in our exchanges and avoid egotistical point scoring. Our purposes are too serious for anything else.
What is common to us all in the ICT is not simply a formal agreement in a Platform7 but also a materialist method which is based on the actual state of the struggle going on in front of us. We don’t invent a reality which isn’t there but face facts. The working class today has experienced 40 years of class retreat and has been subject to restructuring, fragmentation and dispersion as well as super-exploitation and increasing precarity of conditions – and it has experienced these in diverse ways and in different measures in different parts of the world. To make any impact we have to analyse and understand this social reality.
The current period of capitalist crisis didn’t start in 2008 with the financial meltdown but opened up in 1971 with the US abandonment of its own global system of domination based on the dollar as the substitute for gold as the basis of currency valuation. In the past, the end of a cycle of accumulation would have rapidly passed to a massive devaluation of capital which in the nineteenth century produced bankruptcies and shutdowns before a new value level was established allowing a new cycle of accumulation to begin.
In the twentieth century the mass of capital was so massive that a few bankruptcies were not enough – only the massive destruction of capital on a scale previously unseen could enable this to happen. This led to progressively more destructive wars. So destructive in fact was the war of 1939-45 that so far the capitalists have resorted to every manoeuvre imaginable to avoid a repeat. In this they were aided by the retreat of the working class which allowed them to undertake these manoeuvres. Proxy wars, globalisation and financialisation have all stood in for a quick resolution of the crisis.
Today as the draft perspectives document8 we shared with you shows, they are running out of options. Worse, life itself, in one way or another is under threat, unless capitalism and the forces that drive it are neutered.
And despite its decades of retreat the only force which can save humanity is the international working class. There are many over the years who have seen the weakness of the working class and have abandoned the struggle seeking some other way of finding fulfilment in their personal life. Good luck to them but for those of us who are committed to the struggle for a better life for the bulk of the planet’s population, there is no alternative but to patiently and consciously create the framework for an organisation of the class. We may fail. The class may fail but it remains the one viable option to save humanity from the disaster that capitalism threatens.
- 1. Platform of the Committee of Intesa 1925
- 2. Italian Communist Left
- 3. In Characteristic Theses of the Party (1951)
- 4. op.cit.
- 5. On the Future International
- 6. On the Forty-Fifth Anniversary of the Founding of the CWO
- 7. ICT Platform (2020)
- 8. Provisionally entitled Communist Work in a Covid Crisis: A Framework it will appear in Revolutionary Perspectives 17 in January 2021.