For at least four years now, with increasing intensity and in an ever more complex pattern of development, we have been living in a profound crisis of capitalist over-production. The bourgeoisie itself judges this crisis to be greater in terms of depth and effects to that of 1929, which goaded the huge campaign of repression following the international defeat of the proletarian revolution (1922-1927) for the whole of the ‘thirties, culminating in the second world bloodbath. The following brief crisis of 1974-’75 closed the cycle of post-war accumulation: “a golden age”, as it is often described. Only a little later comes a period of capitalist overflow in its imperialist form, the most violent ever recorded worldwide – which also closes the “cycle of national revolutions” and is punctuated by increasingly serious and frequent economic and financial crises, right up to the present: 1980-’81; 1987-’91; 1997-’98, 2001-2003; 2007- 201?. Since that year (1975), thirty-six years of more and more difficult accumulation have transformed the whole of the world’s economic and social scenario. The powerful capitalist dynamics that started in Great Britain halfway through the XVIIth century have now invaded every corner of the earth.
Some years ago, at the start of this crisis, when re-publishing articles printed in the party press in 1974 and 1975, entitled “Crisis and revolution” and “Once again on crisis and revolution”, we wrote (issues 1 and 2/2008 of our Italian newspaper): “The task of revolutionaries is to make a correct analysis of how the economic crisis proceeds and deepens and to equip the party to work in the rank and file of the proletarian class, to guide and direct the social crisis, which will arise out of the economic crisis in a way that is neither automatic nor mechanical.” An extremely important and decisive task for the fate of the future revolution.
In our introduction, we then stressed the lack of an automatic correlation between crises and revolution in economic-social processes and our renewed appeal not to give in, as the crisis develops, to the wave of idealistic ponderings that feed both the fatalist wait-and-see policy (“as it evolves, the crisis will lead to revolution”) and impotent activism (“action alone will set off the train of revolution”) – both of a mechanistic nature. The 1974-75 economic crisis (a historical crisis as we called it), which we predicted at the end of the ‘50s on the basis of a study of economic cycles, was examined several times by the party and in our General Meetings (“The course of world capitalism”) emphasis was laid on the basic economic causes that caused it to surface so violently and simultaneously in the same form in all the world’s leading capitalist countries – the same economic causes at the basis of the livelier dynamics between social classes at the end of the ‘60s and in the 70s.
What must be faced up to and clarified time and again are the dynamics that the proletariat is obliged to go through in the age of late capitalism: dynamics that do not occur in a straightforward and uniform fashion. Indeed, an extremely complex contradiction remains between the highly advanced degree of capitalism’s economic development and the historical delay in the proletarian revolution. The relations between politics, class alignment and production forces are undoubtedly linked by functions of a superior nature. But the latter, as Marx and Engels stated and Lenin and Trotsky continued to repeat, have a real solution: the nature of capitalism bears within itself the revolutionary solution and the class war is capable of undoing the knots of complexity. What is decisive, in terms of knowledge, is how the process in its potential state positions itself and evolves within the dynamic system.
“The course of a country’s development [this is Trotsky speaking], including its revolutionary development, can be dialectically interpreted only by the action, reaction and interaction of all the material factors involved and those related to the superstructure, both national and worldwide, and not by juxtapositions or formal analogies” (1)
This is how Trotsky indicates the path (historical-dialectic materialism) for research into the connection (action, reaction, interaction) of spatial (national and international) factors (relating to structure and superstructure) over the passage of time. The complexity, thus expressed, is the only one that deserves the name of scientific research into reality.
Building on Marxist science, we shall try to indicate, and not to “discover”, the historical and material parameters that make it possible to release the delay in the revolution from the fog that seems to obscure it. In order to do this, it is first as well to put the political history of the ruling bourgeois class at the centre of the material stage, since it is of quite a different nature to that of the proletariat, or the oppressed class. Only after this (however dialectically connected the two histories are), is it possible to place the history of the proletariat, with its profound objective and subjective contradictions, under the microscope. We shall limit ourselves above all to some very general observations by Trotsky. As regards the former (the bourgeoisie), he explains things as follows:
“Even though the bourgeoisie is in complete antithesis to what historical development demands, it still remains the strongest class. Not only, but it can be stated that from a political point of view, the bourgeoisie reaches the height of its power, the greatest concentration of its strength and political and military resources, violence and provocation, i.e. the pinnacle of its class strategy, at the very moment when the threat of social collapse is hanging directly over it. War and its awful consequences […] have revealed to the bourgeoisie the imminent danger of ruin. This is what has sharpened its instinct for conservation to the utmost. The greater the danger, the more keenly the class, like the individual, optimizes its vital energy for the fight for conservation. Moreover, we must not forget [and this is the great privilege of the ruling class – ed.] that the bourgeoisie has found itself in danger of extinction after having acquired an enormous amount of political experience. The bourgeoisie has created and destroyed forms of government of all types: it has developed under pure absolutism, under constitutional monarchy, under parliamentary monarchy, under the democratic republic, under Bonaparte’s dictatorship, in the State allied with the Catholic church, in the State persecuting the church, etc.; all this wealth of manifold experience that has penetrated into the blood and flesh of the bourgeoisie’s ruling caste, has now been summoned up by it to hold on at all costs to its position of power. And it moves with increasing inventiveness, sophistication, lack of scruples, the more its leaders recognize the danger threatening them” (2).
We should add to all this the experience of the services rendered to bourgeois domination by international socialdemocracy, born directly from working class reality (mainly at the time of the IInd International but already an embryo within the 1st International), and, successively, the direct and brutal dictatorship of the bourgeoisie in the guise of fascism and nazism and the other liberal as well as democratic forms that saw the bourgeois State take to the battlefield openly against the proletariat in the two world wars. And again, the ultimate function of Stalinism, the monster that emerged from the waters of a IIIrd International totally at sea, cancelling and dispersing after 1926 the entire heritage and hopes of a revolutionary future on a worldwide scale. Upturning the sense of these experiences and appropriating them, our party has called them Lessons of counter-revolution, sparing nothing that might be of use for our future revolution according to the teachings of Marx who, from the first lines of The Class War in France from 1848 to 1850, writes: “In a word, revolutionary progress does not advance through its immediate, tragi-comical conquests but, on the contrary, by giving rise to a fierce and powerful counter-revolution, bringing to life an adversary, and only by fighting the latter does the party of rebellion reach the maturity of a true revolutionary party”.
A tangle of contradictions, resistances, clashes, objective inertia prevents the economic crisis, even in its most explosive form, from colliding directly and immediately with the subjective factors that promote, fuel and guide the historical leap, transforming them into factors which, on the contrary, delay, disperse and dampen the revolutionary crisis, whilst still being the conditions of economic development more than mature due to the running short of the drive to accumulate of the capitalist mode of production. The power of the experience accumulated by the bourgeoisie is described in the various different countries, once again by Trotsky, emphasizing the intrinsic causes of the delay that weigh upon the class.
In Great Britain it is the experience of “world piracy”, “the privileged position ensured not only for its bourgeoisie but also for a fraction of the working class”, “the reservoir of counter-revolutionary resources inherited by British capitalism from a long parliamentary tradition and from the art of juggling with the more refined means of corruption, both material and ideological, of the oppressed classes”; in France, “a ruling class that on the one hand seduces the masses, including the workers, with a dramatic display of anti-dynastic, anti-clerical, republican, radical, masonic etc. tendencies, and on the other exploits the advantages it gains from its birthright and its position as world money-lender to slow down the development of new and revolutionary forms of industrialism”; in Germany, “a country that benefits from the possession of ultramodern technology and from a ‘science’ of organization and combination unknown to the firstborn of the industrial revolution – and the no less giddy growth of an organized workers’ movement and the standard of living of the masses, until social democracy is transformed into the ‘live embodiment of organizational fetishism’ at the service and in the interests of the capitalist counter-revolution”. (3)
Trotsky’s conclusion has the weight of a law of physics: “The more powerful a country is, from the capitalist point of view – and given equal conditions – , the greater the inertia of ‘peaceful’ class relations, the greater is the impulse required to wrench the two hostile classes – proletariat and bourgeoisie – from their relatively balanced condition and transform the class war into open civil warfare. Once it has flared up, civil war, given equal conditions, will be more bitter and angrier, the higher the level of capitalist development attained by a given country; the stronger and more organized are the enemies, the greater is the volume of material and ideological resources that both can draw upon.” (4)
The relationship between the economic crisis and the dynamics of the proletariat thus responds to phenomena of a primarily objective and economic nature. But in society the proletariat also has a political function (the “tendency towards its dictatorship” over capitalist society as a transition to a classless society – which is Marx’s true discovery – is of an objective nature): the economic relationship of dependence, which binds the proletariat to capital, and thus to the crisis, depends not only on its numbers but also on the form of organization it has assumed for itself in different historical situations (union and political organizations of widely varying natures: reactionary, reformist or revolutionary), emerging at times as resistance, at others as the simple impulse to wage immediate battle or, more rarely, as an attack on the bourgeoisie under the guidance of a special organ: the class party. In this sense the objective tendency reveals itself as organization and subjective awareness. The crisis encourages the revelation of structural and superstructural incrustations, social pressure but also challenges, a programme of struggle, intrinsic aims. Thus no economicist “automatism and mechanicism” could predetermine the transformations that the proletariat undergoes over time, and thence its revolutionary action.
Only those who, once again, “use pure formalism to connect the economic situation to the political” could believe this, forgetting that for Marx if “the working class has a winning element, numbers,” (and the very pattern of capitalism’s development unceasingly increases this number), on the other hand “numbers only make their weight felt when they are united by organization and guided by knowledge”; and the former (organization), from a strictly economic point of view, is constantly undermined by competition between proletarians, whilst the latter (knowledge, possessed by the party alone and imported by it, as an avant-garde action in the class struggle), even when and where has been acquired, is in constant danger of destruction by the enormous weight of the dominant ideology’s historical inertia, with profound and lasting effects which make, or risk making, the organization itself not an engine but an inhibiting element.
Numbers, organization and awareness define a social class, the proletariat, looking towards its own dictatorship. Yet the number of proletarians, whilst growing (its active and potential critical mass is in all events decisive in the course of the struggle), cannot be effective without organization, which is undermined by competition (thus by the fight going on within the proletarian camp itself) – a type of organization that is never unitary, since it follows the processes (never uniform or linear) of economic development, thus varying in time and space, that the proletariat has gone through (precariousness, flexibility, concentration, dispersion throughout the territory). Lastly, the awareness of their own historical condition, which only a small number of proletarians manage to acquire: on the one hand, there are the class avant-gardes, those arising on the battlefield (immediate and spontaneous) of economic defence and those that instead go further towards organized forms and union structures, and on the other, those who dialectically organize into forms that are already political, the embryos or nuclei of class power (the soviets, for example).
The political form is something quite different – the origin and function of the party that presents itself as an organ and guide for the proletarian class. In the relationship between party and class, in the function that the party performs both in the primitive forms of defensive struggle and in the more politically advanced ones (the class avant-gardes), the party’s success as a guide is measured by demonstrating that it does not “make” the revolution, but guides it. These weights and measures (the working class population, economic and political organization), whilst deriving from the production process, thus intervene when the crisis explodes: time lags, unexpected outbreaks (revolts), long depressions and sudden accelerations, paralysing corporatism and local outbreaks of class struggle alternate and overlap with no periodization.
Those who believe in a mechanical and automatic relationship between crisis and revolution do forget that Marx and Engels had already recorded the phenomenon of a “working-class aristocracy”, arising out of the body of profits from commercial and colonial expansion and the flux of young, potentially virgin recruits from the proletariat into trade unions that had by then fallen into the clutches of “bourgeois lieutenants from the rank and file of the working class” marching under the banner of the three-headed siren “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; that the factory is at one and the same time the school of discipline (Lenin) and the penal colony (Marx) of wage-earners; and that objective factors alone – unemployment, an insecure existence, poverty, periodical downward slides into the lower ranks of the industrial reserve army, the recurring phantom of war, etc. – that drive, and will without doubt once again drive, the masses into the arena of decisive social clashes, not infrequently have a discomforting and demoralizing effect, propelling towards open or veiled strike-breaking.
Thus, we insisted in those 1974 and 1975 articles, re-published in 2008, there exists no automatic mechanism that propels the proletariat towards revolution in a situation of crisis, even the deepest, because not only within the party, but also within the class itself, over time a powerful system of conservation forms. When talking of working-class aristocracy we are not looking at a particular, contingent aspect that arises and then disappears according to the historical situation. Just as the extent to which bourgeois ideology has penetrated society can transform the revolutionary party into a party of social reform and thus a reactionary party (a totally irreversible pattern), in the same way the counter-revolutionary structure we call working-class aristocracy (arising from the fact that the class is also a class for capital, functional to capital), once it has formed (Marx and Engels called it the “bourgeois party”), never goes away again. The bourgeois system’s state of conservation is fuelled and feeds almost exclusively on all the elements that have had and continue to have a parasitical existence inside the working class. Every sort of “workerism” (an ideology belonging to the working-class aristocracy) exalts, with the factory, the corporative emancipation of the proletariat, its professional status, its technical conscience and political self-awareness and not the school of discipline and mortal struggle against the class enemy, not the penal colony.
And again. This mechanical and automatic pattern can only be conceived of arrogantly by those who today forget (and there are legions of them!) that a century and more of bloody defeats, absurd haemorrhages, nameless holocausts following battles, that may also have been glorious, weighs upon the world’s working class and that, most importantly, there have too often and at key moments been breaks – whose accomplices or direct perpetrators come directly from the working-class movement – in the one connection that can alone stably combine “organization” and “consciousness”, placing one at the service of the other and both at that of the preparation of the revolution, first, and then of the “upturning of praxis” in the revolution: that is, the Party.
If, as we communists have always argued, consciousness comes from the party, the organ of the class and not simply a part of it, this theoretical basis (consciousness) is always in a critical condition inside the party. It (consciousness) is in constant danger even when and where it has been acquired. Who is responsible for this? It is the immense weight of historical inertia that the dominant ideology carries in itself through its strong reflections, that transform political organization (programme, tactics, strategy) into a factor for conservation. The organ through which the proletariat becomes a class and not simply numbers and pure organizational form, is attacked from within, so that its task is not respected but slowed down, hindered. The economic crisis regenerates party dynamics at the same time as the degree of conservation increases, transforming its condition. Dialectic materialism always reminds us that the only absolute is movement: the content and form of the party at the height of the crisis experience changes in one sense and serious counter-attacks in another. The party has to maintain the relationship with the class, its revolutionary function, its work, it has to carry out its militant function. The two errors of activism and wait-and-see, which are in fact reflections of the bourgeois ideology, come into play at this point, when collective operational capacity, firm reactions, tactical and organizational realism are called for, and at the same time it is feared that the theoretical basis, principles and objectives may be lost and above all that the reawakening of localism may affect the individual combat units, the party sections. From this arises an increasing need for the centralization (not only from a formal point of view) and organic integration of forces, best sustained by the collective capacities acquired over time.
The direct accomplices or executors of this reactionary situation, which acts as a strong brake on the class, are those that have filtered in from the bourgeoisie, passing through the workers’ movement, within the party. They are those who should be establishing – as we wrote above – the only connection that can stably unite “organization” and “consciousness”, placing one at the service of the other and both at the preparation of the revolution, first, and then of the “upturning of practice” in the revolution: that is, the Party. This function of theirs has been known ever since it first emerged and Lenin made a scientific study of their presence in the party, denying them freedom of criticism from the very beginning. What is Lenin’s intention? He speaks of a basic instability that arises out of their social background. This is why he argues in What Is To Be Done? and in many other texts that the party can only be founded exclusively on theoretical clarity and clarity of programme, tactics and organization; that “freedom of criticism” means eclecticism, lack of firm principles, indeterminate objectives and tactics: it means disorganization, the resort to expedients in tactics, anarchy. Ever since 1921 our party has understood the significance of this danger, this “necessary and inevitable” presence, because the class party arises on the terrain of bourgeois society but its programme, its objectives do not; they come from the class struggle. It is not a direct emanation of the people or of a part of it, the workers, nor of bourgeois forms of organization (popular democracy, social democracy, working-class democracy): its sources and its strength reside in a historical class, the proletariat, which only appears in all its revolutionary determination for brief periods of time. The party’s vital nucleus is not the form of organization in itself but the historical programme of this class. The ground into which Marxism sinks its roots in the mid XIXth century, explains Lenin, is the immense field covering the tradition of economic history, politics and human philosophy, and not that of liberalism or labourism. The change of name from “social-democratic” to “communist” demonstrates that a historical leap forward took place with the October Revolution, because ties were cut with liberal-democratic, even radical, workerist origins, reconnecting instead to the origins of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Our organic centralism, which underlies our organization, is the solution that Lenin and the class movement were looking for, because it does away once and for all with a bourgeois type of internal organization, i.e. a democratic one. On this basis, those who enter the party are not free to create new theories, tactics, strategies, forms of organization.
Thus there are many conservative and reactionary dynamics at work, all the greater in an age of social parasitism, in the final phase of the capitalist mode of production. In an extreme need to sum up the real condition in which we found ourselves after 1926, the 1975-1976 articles conclude that the proletariat is overcome by a profound “crisis of direction”, which imposes the “construction” of the party. It was not just a question of losing a form of organization, but of losing track of revolutionary theory: “we must have the courage to state that, however great and deep-rooted is the crisis of the capitalist world, it is not as great as the crisis of the direction of the proletarian movement: this does not just affect ‘the main part’ but the vast majority. […] Either we realize that this means using these bricks to build the fundamental, subjective condition for the revolution – the party – building it and defending it throughout all its conditions of existence, or else we have already surrendered before a crisis that will come, as so many others have, and pass rough-shod over the battered body of the working class and its militant avant-garde, as too many have already.”
Today, thirty-six years on, we must add that there is something even deeper that hinders the “construction” of the fundamental, subjective condition for the revolution – the party: something that dates back to the defeat experienced due to Stalinism. It incorporates within itself all the counter-revolutions: social-democratic reform, production fetishes, social nationalism. The theoretical reconstruction of our party from 1952 onwards took place on the basis of the lessons of counter-revolution: the militants that preceded us passed on, as though through a mother’s milk, not only the teachings of the past but also the horror of what happened; they also handed down to us in their narrations, the sense of loss, loneliness and waiting for rebirth. And on this extraordinary basis what was never lacking was the vital command not to give up before this gigantic task.
It should not seem strange that the formal “political disappearance” of that monster called Stalinism did not “free” the proletariat, that its “setting aside” was not the result of a struggle that turned into critical revolutionary awareness, that the “confession” (i. e., that was being “built” in Russia was capitalism, and not socialism) did not take place on our own territory but on that of the enemy: democratic anti-Stalinism, the worst legacy of Stalinism. The bourgeoisie’s immense “field of (anti-proletarian) experience” cannot be overturned by ideologies, the spirits of revenge, various sorts of voluntary commitment or by the intervention of historical nemesis. However rich in experiences they were for the proletariat, the final rounds of the three Internationals were essentially part and parcel of the bourgeois camp. And it could hardly be otherwise: the dominant culture is always, in every age, the culture of the ruling class. The revolutionary class war of the future will come about under explosive objective conditions during which the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will be obliged to fight a mortal battle. At these key points (crises of over-production and the approach towards a new world conflict), the bourgeoisie’s desire for power, conservation and reaction and the revolutionary drive of the proletariat will present history with their final accounts. If we defined the “cycle of national bourgeois revolutions” closed in the mid-‘70s and the “cycle of the final crisis” open, it should be remembered that the capitalist mode of production did not overflow throughout the entire planet until three decades ago. The proletariat has accompanied the development of the bourgeoisie, shared its genesis attempting to outstrip it, resisted, opposing it, during its reformist and dictatorial transformation and undergone terrible and open aggression in its imperialist phase, precisely during the course of its first dictatorship.
Today, in a situation of prevailing counter-revolution, in the absence of real defensive battles (not to speak, for the moment, of attack), in a situation in which the space for struggle still reveals a vacuum of combative proletarian avant-gardes between the party in its embryonic state and the class, it would seem that the only prospect is still resistance whilst waiting. Nevertheless we must be sure to remember that the greatest expressions of proletarian vitality and struggle were to be seen in periods of deep economic-social or wartime crises: 1848-1850; 1870-1871; 1905; 1915-1918. Revolutionary communists are bound to an aggressive attitude towards bourgeois society on the basis of the theory, programme, organization and tactical plan that history has handed down to us: no voluntary cooperation, no fatalist wait-and-see attitude, no automatic passage from crisis to revolution, no sectarianism, but revolutionary realism, learning the art of insurrection from the pages of class history and on the battlefield. Only confidence in the future, only the will to fight will make it possible to pass through and outstrip capitalist hell, when the conflict reopens in its most violent form. Communists will not give in and will prevent other tragedies from once again striking the body of their own class. They must return to their origins, even to the time when they fought in their bourgeois revolutions, attempting to exploit the revolutionary situation to wrench victory from the hands of the bourgeoisie and bring it under their own control (the permanent revolution, as Marx defined it).
Well before the October Revolution, in 1912 young Italian revolutionaries wrote: “Conviction is the daughter of enthusiasm and sentiment and there is something that keeps this sentiment alight: the instinctive solidarity of the exploited. Those who no longer have faith in this and wish to replace it with theoretical rote learning, study, the awareness of practical problems, are […] sadly distant from communism” (5). On the basis of this enthusiasm and this sentiment, on the basis of class solidarity, under the guidance of a party that has merited the name of class party, the conviction will become so strong that nothing will be able to stop us from wrenching the future of the human race from the criminal hands of the bourgeoisie.
(1) Here and in the footnotes that follow, we quote from Italian or German translations, not having been able to find English translations. L. Trotsky, “In viaggio. Pensieri sulla marcia della rivoluzione”, April 29-May 1, 1919.
(2) L. Trotsky, Die Neue Etappe, Hamburg 1921.
(3) L. Trotsky, “In viaggio”, quoted.
(4) L. Trotsky, “In viaggio”, quoted.
(5) The text can be found in our Storia della Sinistra Comunista. Vol. I: 1912-1919, Edizioni Il programma comunista, 1992, p.182.
International Communist Party
("Il programma comunista", n°01, gennaio-febbraio 2012)