The following article, The Battle Against the Destruction of the Party, is part of the series on the History of the Left in Comunismo, our Review in Italian. Even though this article is self-explanatory, we are providing an introduction for English-speaking readers who may not have sufficient information on the history of the Communist Left and the relationship between the Left and Trotsky(ists).
The Left in Italy grew out of the struggle against the First World War, providing the basis for the formation of the Italian Communist Party. The post-First World War period saw fierce battles by the Italian workers until forced onto the defensive by the twin forces of the Italian state and fascist auxiliaries. The original leadership of the Italian Communist Party was replaced because of arrests and imprisonment – Gramsci was the first Stalin-imposed leader placed on a Communist Party outside Russia. The struggle to defend revolutionary positions continued both inside the Italian Party, as well as within the international meetings of the Comintern. The Left, along with the first General Secretary of the Italian Party, Amadeo Bordiga, where first slandered and then expelled, under the difficult conditions of illegality. The names of those expelled were published in the stalinised press, inviting the attention of the Fascist state. But this was after the decisive events of 1926 when the conflict between the Left and Stalinism was out in the open.
The stalinists realised that the Left could only be dislodged by the virtual liquidation of the Italian Party itself, but first they tried to keep the Left out of the brewing arguments in the Russian Party. In fact the Left was offered the leadership of the Italian Party again in 1924, with its own policies, if it undertook to stay out of Russian internal politics. It was symptomatic of a process whereby the Communist Parties were being placed at the service of the Russian state through the International, rather than remain instruments of the World Revolution through the International. Wild about-turns had become a feature of Comintern policies, but an unprincipled alliance with Stalin (that is what such horse-trading would have been) was out of the question. We had seen plenty of examples of those who became the temporary exponents of Moscow’s policies, who were cast to one side when the next change of ’tactics’ became apparent.
A meeting of the EC of the Comintern took place in Moscow in February 1926 to which a delegation from the Italian Party attended. A part of the delegation was Bordiga, who had an opportunity to investigate the accusations against Trotsky. At a private meeting between the Italian Delegation and Stalin on 22nd February Bordiga had the opportunity to probe out what the issues were behind the anti-Trotsky campaign. We are quoting from the minutes of the meeting made available when the stalinist Italian Party opened its archives for historical research purposes. Those involved in this part of the discussions were Bordiga, Stalin and Ercoli (Togliatti). The meeting was discussing the evaluation of the events in Germany before proceeding to other matters:
BORDIGA: However the fact remains that Trotsky made a comparison between the Russian October and the German October and criticised the weaknesses of those comrades in the new opposition. Then it was said that Trotsky took a position against the old guard. Today the same accusations are instead brought by the C.C. against the opposition.
STALIN: The difference lies in this: comrade Trotsky began with an analogy and constructed his entire critique on it. What was his goal? He wanted to change horses during the race without taking into account of the essentials. But one cannot build on an analogy. If one begins with an analogy one must end with an analogy. And this means to engage in literature, but not in political work.
BORDIGA; Trotsky made use of the analogy to study the causes of the defeat we suffered in Germany in 1923. It wasn’t without historical significance to establish that the same men who had erred in Russia in 1917 were at the head of the International when the German revolution failed in 1923.
STALIN: But as far as 1923 is concerned Trotsky is not right. The more extreme position on that occasion was taken by Zinoviev: and Trotsky supported the Brandler group, which behaved uncertainly and changeably. In spite of this Trotsky and Radek supported them.
BORDIGA: I don’t believe that the faith Trotsky placed in Brandler would have been better placed in Fischer.
STALIN: Brandler certainly merits more trust than Fischer. It often happens however that a worthy man takes an erroneous position and that vice versa an unworthy man is found in the correct position. In politics the line of positions and not that of individuals must be followed (...)
ERCOLI: I ask whether the questions which have been discussed in the R.C.P. Congress involve perspectives concerning developments in the world situation.
STALIN: Our perspectives are those of the International in general.
BORDIGA: With the aim of clarifying the question of perspectives I ask whether comrade Stalin thinks that the development of the Russian situation and of the internal problems of the Russian Party are linked to the development of the international proletarian movement.
STALIN: This question has never been put to me. I would never have believed that a communist could put it to me. God forgive you for having done it.
BORDIGA: I ask then that comrade Stalin say what will befall in Russia if the proletarian revolution does not take place in Europe within a certain period of time.
STALIN: If we are able to organise the Russian economy well, it is destined to develop, and with it the revolution will develop. The program of our party says – on the other hand – that we have the duty to spread the revolution to the world by every means and we will do that (...)
BORDIGA: This collaboration should have taken place in the recent discussion. The questions dealt with by the Russian Congress ought therefore to have been dealt with in the present C.I. Executive.
STALIN: I must point out that these questions are essentially Russian. Besides the Western parties are not yet ready to discuss them. That’s why the R.C.P. Central Committee has sent the parties of the C.I. a letter which requests that the recent Russian discussion not be carried on in the other parties. This resolution has also been approved by the opposition and has been affirmed by the Presidium of the C.I. We have also done this to avoid the repetition of what came about in the preceding discussions with Trotsky, which were carried on in some parties in an artificial and mechanical way.
BORDIGA: I don’t think that these arguments are decisive. First of all, if discussion on Russian questions was not wanted in this Executive, it should have been the Executive itself which decided this. Secondly, the problems which have been touched on in the Russian debate could not be considered exclusively Russian. They concern the proletarians of all countries. Finally the fact that the opposition has consented is of no importance.
On the same day as the private meeting with Stalin, Bordiga spoke to the full Enlarged ECCI. He took the opportunity to review the policies of the Comintern back to 1921, the Third Congress, the March Action in Germany and the united front tactics: from that time a catalogue of disasters, ’mistakes’ and about-turns. True, there had been some admissions that there had been errors, but that did not lead to any changes to Moscow’s policies. Indeed, it led to even worse attitudes: «After the October defeat in Germany in 1923, the International recognised that the mistake had been made. But instead of introducing a thorough change into the decisions of the Fourth Congress, all that was done was to hit out against certain comrades. Scapegoats had to be found. And they were found in the German Party. There was an absolute failure to recognise that the entire International was responsible».
Bordiga then went on to outline a balance-sheet of an even worse disaster – Bolshevisation! It had not yet shattered the Italian Party: that was to come in the next couple of years. As far as other parties in Western Europe were concerned, they were lifeless relics: the French party had not been able to put its affairs into a satisfactory state: the German party had been purged into oblivion: the British party was held to be a model party (only because of its lack of factions), but disaster was only months away, in the form of the General Strike. The Russian party itself was soon to be torn apart and submerged by the full tide of counter-revolution – stalinism / socialism in one country. Most of those at the sessions of the Enlarged ECCI who approved of the attacks against the Left, who joined in all the abuse and insinuations, were soon themselves to be attacked and ridiculed, marginalised and finally swept away in the purges.
Against all the hysterics from the centrists and the right, we refused
to see the fate of the Russian Revolution as being mainly a Russian question.
Its fate was intrinsically bound with that of the workers in the rest of
Europe. The policy of Socialism in One Country (in fact, Socialism in none
– especially in Russia) was for assigning the workers movement
in Western Europe to defeat and destruction. It in effect sealed the fate
of the Russian workers themselves, who would equally pay with lakes of
blood for the abandonment of revolutionary perspectives.
The Left, Purged, and into Exile
Because of illegality, the Congress of the Italian Communist Party was held later on in 1926 at Lyon in France. The position of the Left was presented, which was rejected by the Moscow-backed (that is Stalin) leadership of Gramsci. The Left had held the majority in 1924, even though it had been removed from the leadership and banned from forming a fraction. To ensure that the Leadership could appear to speak for the ’majority’, and drape themselves in a discredited mantle of democracy, all those sections who were not represented at the Congress (because of Fascist terror, members operating illegally or in prison) were taken to have voted for the leadership – a device Stalin himself probably would have baulked at at that time.
The Fraction in Exile was formed in 1927 at Pantin, near Paris, in France. This was done for two reasons, firstly to continue to exist as an organisation, but also more importantly for the second reason of standing out against the counter-revolutionary events growing apace around the world. To act as a pole for the forces still holding to revolutionary positions, Prometeo recommenced publication in 1928. Prometeo was not only there to organise the forces of the Left; it also campaigned to defend all those who opposed stalinism. The events with regards to Trotsky is dealt with in the following article. It is worth recalling that the defence of Trotsky and his supporters was not merely confined to publications. The leader of American Trotskyism, James P Cannon, stated in his History of American Trotskyism (p. 69), that Italian comrades living in New York were involved in protecting the first public meeting of the American Trotskyists. These comrades were members of what later became known as the New York Federation of the Communist Left. Of course this assistance was provided in a comradely spirit, a defence of people who were then regarded as fellow revolutionaries. We did not foresee at that time the abuse to come from Trotsky’s direction.
Having identified Stalin as representing the forces of the counter-revolution, unlike Trotsky, we were never unprepared for any of the changes in the policies of Moscow. The final defeat of the German workers, with the victory of Hitler, showed the results of Stalin’s actions. Hitler’s Germany was not a threat at that time to Russia, as the Trotskyists maintained, for it opened up the best relations between Moscow and the other capitalist capitals. Soon afterwards, Russia signed an alliance with France and joined the League of Nations, an indication of acceptance into the capitalist world. By studying constantly the evolution of the Russian regime, the final line-up for war came as no surprise. We were not caught out by the Stalin-Hitler Pact, with the division of Poland (which Trotsky defended!), although it split the American Trotskyists into two defencist camps – the Shachtman-Burnham defenders of Liberty (American patriots) and the supporters of Trotsky and Cannon, defenders of Russia.
To the publications in Italian was added Bilan, in French, in 1933. It was an important addition to our international work already being carried out by Prometeo. Bilan was superseded by Octobre in 1938, published as the monthly bulletin of the International Bureau of the Fractions of the Left, which was intended to be produced in German and English. However, the difficulties imposed by the Second World War (particularly illegality) restrained the work being undertaken. The illusions that war would be inevitably followed by a revolutionary wave, as after 1914-8 had to be confronted.
During 1943 party sections were able to resume work again. In Italy the Party was reformed (publishing Prometeo in that year and Battaglia Comunista started in 1945), the Fraction in France was formed producing L’Etincelle (The Spark) for the first year being replaced by L’lntemationaliste, both joining the work which had continued in Belgium. A Conference was held in Paris on 7-9 December 1946 at which the International Communist Left was constituted, which was composed of the Partito Comunista Internazionalista of Italy (the "Italian" section), as well as the French and Belgian Fractions of the Communist Left. They were joined a little while later by the small American Fraction of the Communist Left, which published an International Bulletin later renamed Internationalist.
Recognising that there wasn’t present a revolutionary period in which to work did not lead to complacency. Class struggles did break out during this period. The French Fraction through L’lnternationaliste, was able to exert some influence during the Great Renault Strike of 1948. Opposition was also made against the imperialist war being waged by French forces in Vietnam. The Belgian Fraction was able to intervene during a Dockers’ Strike of that same year.
At the same time as interventions were made in the class struggle, the necessary theoretical work continued throughout. The notion that in Russia there was still something positive from a proletarian point of view was remorselessly combated. Despite the depth of the counter-revolution, the examining of the nature of the period continued to be an important aspect of the work of the organisation.
The Fractions of the International Communist Left was consolidated into
the Internationalist Communist Party, formed at a meeting in Italy in 1951,
in which national fractions were swept away, and so a single organisation
replaced the former International Communist Left. The name International
Communist Party was adopted in 1965.
THE BATTLE AGAINST THE DESTRUCTION OF THE PARTY
The Left Fraction was clear from its inception about how it should relate to the other groups who opposed the International’s official line. In the first issue of Prometeo, we read: «No one group yet represents a basis on which to organise all those sound forces dedicated to (...) rectifying the party. No one group has taken up satisfactory positions on basic questions such as the ’united front’, ’party and masses’, and ’workers’ and peasants’ government’. This fact is very significant. For some everything was fine up to the 4th World Congress, whilst for others the degeneration didn’t set in until after the 5th Congress, and so on and so forth. The fact of the matter is that these various groups were liquidated by bolshevisation at different times, and each is inclined to think the degeneration started with their own liquidation. Everything would be resolved for them if their was a return to the 4th or 5th Congress. For us the problem is much more complex and is directly connected with the dissenting opinion of comrade Bordiga regarding the process of the constitution of the 3rd International. The course of events has shown comrade Bordiga to have been correct. The Communist International hasn’t succeeded, in practice, in eliminating its own internal opportunism. Opportunist infection within the proletariat is, as ever, disguised behind thundering phrases and only in times of depression, or when the conquest of proletarian power is in the balance, do all its negative aspects become apparent – with disastrous consequences for the proletarian movement. German October, Aventino in Italy, Anglo-Russian Committee, bloc of four classes in China, theory of socialism in one country in Russia».
On the other hand, despite the fact the theoretical elaboration of the opposition groups was entirely unsatisfactory, or else non-existent, the Fraction could hardly fail to recognise that these groups, for better or for worse, represented an attempt at opposing the counter-revolutionary degeneration and that they had some influence over sound proletarian strata. The Fraction therefore proposed «to carry out, by appropriate methods, a serious work of assimilating these sound layers, guiding them onto left-wing terrain by exposing the inadequacies of their positions». It certainly didn’t want to adhere to organisational pacts just in order to be able to count more heads.
On June 2 1928 the French group Contre le Courant sent an open letter to all opposition groups extant in France in which it was stated: «the impending prospect of very aggressive bourgeois policies directed against the proletariat imposes ever more important duties and tasks on communists. Given the incapacity and shortcomings of the party, it is the responsibility of the communists of the opposition, reduced to silence inside the party or excluded for having struggled against opportunism and its corrupting influence, to make a more vigorous and coherent effort, adopting new methods of action».
Having indicated the existence of several opposition groups and how inconvenient it was to be so dispersed, the letter specified that even if an immediate fusion wasn’t feasible, nevertheless one could propose the creation of a «single organ which would be the political and doctrinal organ of the bloc of opposition communists (...) the common organ – the letter said – will be to begin with, in a certain measure, a juxtaposition of the various tendencies». In conclusion, it would issue an invitation to an international conference of the opposition.
The Left replied with a categorical refusal.
Prometeo replied that, according to the thinking of the Left, what was incumbent on revolutionaries was not «adopting new modalities of action» as Contre le Courant suggested, but learning from proletarian experiences and acting in such a way that «the degeneration of the international is resolved through a genuine regeneration of Left revolutionary Marxism, by placing the revolutionary vanguard back at the head of the really resolute combatants (...) It is inconceivable that all the events we have lived through can be summed up in a narrow anti-stalinism, and it is certain that on such a basis – anti-stalinism – no guarantees are provided for the reorganisation of the revolutionary movement».
As regards the second issue, the existence of lots of opposition groups giving rise to the inconvenience of a dispersal of forces, the Fraction specified: «There are many oppositions. It is a misfortune, but there is no other remedy than a comparison of their ideologies (...) If many oppositions exist it means there are many ideologies whose substantial differences must be revealed, not glossed over through simple discussion in a common organ. Our watchword is to go deep without allowing ourselves to be driven by a sense of having achieved a result which would in fact represent nothing but another failure». The Fraction went on to invite the various groups to elaborate a programme of action and to see, then, if it formed the basis for possible meetings.
The Fraction’s reply was in essence a reiteration of the ideas expressed in the 5 points which it had outlined in its letter to Korsch.
An altogether different stance was adopted, on the other hand, towards the Russian Opposition: the only group besides the Italian Left to elaborate systematic directives of action, and one which had never strayed, as far as the central questions were concerned, from the political line defended by Lenin.
Prometeo would express from its very first issue onward the solidarity of the Left with the Russian Opposition. Republishing "The Trotsky Question" to begin with, it would go on to take up positions in favour of the comrades of the Russian Left and publish Trotsky’s letters and articles.
In issue number 5 of the paper (Sept. 1928) in the report on the Fraction’s congress held in Belgium in July, it was stated: «we moved on to attend to the issue of relations with the other oppositions and the Congress approved the line of absolute intransigence towards all other groups, though bearing in mind the exception made by comrade Bordiga with regard to the Trotsky group which has a Platform that is satisfactory from the point of view of principles».
Following this the Fraction’s Central Committee would pass a resolution declaring that: «Differences in the political positions of the Left Fraction and the opposition group led by Comrade Trotsky exist despite the Left and Comrade Bordiga supporting the criticisms formulated by this group against the state policy of the Russian Party»; despite these differences, the Fraction «declares its solidarity with the activity carried out by this group in October 1927 in defence of the principles of the victorious October 1917 proletarian and communist revolution». Therefore, when Trotsky enquired about the Fraction’s positions, the latter was very pleased to establish links with the Russian Opposition.
In August 1929 a series of documents characterising the positions of the Italian Left was sent to Trotsky. These were accompanied by a long letter which, as well as going into how the fraction abroad had come about, expressed the Italian comrades’ viewpoint both on the nature of the Russian State, and the politics of the International. No attempt though was made to disguise the points of disagreement with the Russian Opposition.
Trotsky’s reply, dated the 25th September 1929, could scarcely have been more encouraging.
Referring to the material he had received from the Italian comrades, Trotsky would write: «These documents, along with a reading of articles and speeches by comrade Bordiga, beyond the fact that I know him personally, permit me, to a certain extent, to assess your main ideas and the level of solidarity that unites us (...) The "Left Platform" (1926) has impressed me greatly. I believe that it is one of the best documents to emerge from the international opposition, and that in many respects it retains its importance to this day. It is a very important thing, above all in France, that the Platform highlights the revolutionary politics of the proletariat, the question of the nature of the party, the essential principles of its strategy and its tactics. Lately we have seen in France how for many well-known revolutionaries the opposition has simply served as a stage in an evolution from Marxism to syndicalism, to trade-unionism, or simply to scepticism. Almost all have hesitated on the issue of the party. You are bound to know about the pamphlet by Loriot, in which the latter proves his total incomprehension of the nature of the party, of its historical function from the point of view of class relations, and where he slips into the theory of trade-unionist passivity which has nothing in common with the ideas of the revolutionary proletariat».
Moving on to talk about Monatte’s group, Trotsky says «Having arrived at the threshold of Marxism between 1917 and 1923, this group has since made several backward steps to syndicalism, but no longer is it the combative syndicalism of the beginning of the century, which constituted a step forward for the French workers’ movement, rather it is a syndicalism which is retrograde in comparison. It is passive and negative and relapses, more often than not, into simple trade-unionism (...) Souvarine, struggling against the bureaucracy and the disloyalty of the Communist International, has similarly arrived at a negation of the political action of the party itself (...) These are the reasons why I give so much importance to the solidarity that exists between us on the question of the party, on its historical task, on the continuity of its action, on its necessary struggle to bring its influence to bear on all aspects, whatever they may be, of the workers’ movement».
On this matter a Bolshevik, that is a revolutionary Marxist, passed through Lenin’s school, can make no concessions. «The 1926 Platform provides excellent answers to a number of other questions (...) and thus it declares with absolute clarity, that the so-called "autonomous" peasant parties inevitably fall prey to counter-revolutionary influences. We can boldly declare that in the present epoch there neither can be, nor are, exceptions to this rule. Wherever the peasant class does not march behind the proletariat it marches behind the bourgeoisie against the proletariat (...) Your platform underlines with good cause, in connexion with the struggle of the oppressed peoples, the necessity for the communist party’s complete independence. Forgetting this essential rule leads to the most fatal consequences as the criminal experience of the subordination of the Communist Party to the Kuomintang has shown».
Trotsky concludes his long letter with some remarks about the leader of the Italian centrists: «As concerns the official leadership of the Italian party, I’ve only been able to observe it in the International Executive in the person of Ercoli. Gifted with a pliable mind and a somewhat inflated style, he is best – there is none better – at making solicitors speeches, of a lawyer on a point of order, and, in a general way, he is good at carrying them out. The sterile casuistry of his speeches, ever tending in the end towards the defence of opportunism, is the opposite, and very clearly so, of the muscular, prolific revolutionary thought of Amadeo Bordiga (...) Having thus Ercoli-type centrists on one side and ultra-left confusionists on the other, you are called, comrades, to defend under the harsh conditions of the fascist dictatorship the historical interests of the Italian and international proletariat. With all my heart I wish you good luck and success. Yours, Leon Trotsky» (Constantinople - 25 September 1929).
At about the same time, in France, the La Verité group was formed out of a meeting between a highly heterogeneous set of splinter groups from other organisations, including a fraction of Revolution Proletarienne grouped around Lutte de Classe and elements from Contre le Courant and Bulletin Communiste. The group immediately issued a proposal that an international review of opposition studies be organised. It was practically an identical initiative to the one taken the previous year by Contre le Courant, except this time the initiative was supported by opposition groups in Belgium, Austria, Germany, Poland and the Cannon group in America.
The fact that the initiative had been supported by Trotsky was certainly responsible for this wider support. Needless to say, the proposal was also extended to the Fraction of the Italian Left.
In its reply, published in issue no.23 of Prometeo (15.10.29) the fraction sought above all to clarify certain issues, especially the fact that the publication of an international review, drawn up by representatives of different groups whose areas of agreement and disagreement it was still impossible to gauge, could run the risk of causing still greater confusion and discouragement, something the proletariat could well do without. Far from clearing the way for a regeneration of communism, it might in fact gravely compromise it, and provide opportunism with new points of support. «What is certain – wrote Prometeo – is that the course of the centrist crisis, and the disintegration of the communist parties, has established the objective conditions for the first efforts at international contact between the groups that have taken up the struggle against opportunism and who have kept to the directives which led to the foundation of the Communist International. But, as all too happens, even when the objective conditions exist, the subjective ones, namely the preparation of militants and groups in this case, lag behind. What is apparent to Marxists is that when the objective conditions do arise it is up to proletarian communists to do their duty as much as they can. When it comes to taking an initiative in response to the requirements of a given situation, an extremely important part is played by the method by which one sets about the task, with which one takes the first steps, and which go on to condition the ones after».
The Fraction insisted that any group had to first of all elaborate a platform which would define its main political contours, and it would be on the strength of this that the proletariat would be called on to give its support to the new organisation.
This way of setting out the problem would be the grounds on which, as we will see later on, the first disagreements and then the split with Trotsky would take place.
Trotsky would take the view that the French experience proved that the line of formulating a precautionary platform led to nihilism or sterile lucubrations. He would maintain that there was a pressing need to attend to the prior condition on which a drawing up of the programme could take place; namely a movement had to be created first.
It may appear strange that Trotsky had written to our fraction emphasising that «the revolutionary politics of the proletariat, the question of the nature of the party, the essential principles of its strategy and tactics» should be brought to the fore, whilst at the same time becoming embroiled in attempts to form spurious organisations lacking in any homogeneity.
The only plausible explanation is that Trotsky had in mind to regroup the various opposition groups and to forge afterwards the required level of homogeneity in the furnace of the class struggle, as was Lenin’s intention at the time of the foundation of the 3rd International.
Leaving aside the reservations that the Italian Left has always expressed about this method, we are nevertheless obliged to say that even if Lenin did make a courageous gamble with history, the outcome of which wasn’t positive, one should remember that at that time we were on the crest of the revolutionary wave; that in Russia the proletariat had taken power; that it was vitally important that the revolution triumph in other countries, and possibly industrialised ones; that it was not to be ruled out that even parties which weren’t 100% Marxist, in a situation of extreme crisis for the bourgeois class, might, with support from the International, lead the proletariat to victory. At the end of the twenties, on the contrary, capitalism had settled down and was moving onto the offensive on an international scale. The working class, even if not entirely cowed, was unable to conduct the struggle to a revolutionary conclusion. Taking power was not on the agenda; the duty of communist revolutionaries was to stand firm on positions of extreme theoretical clarity so as to salvage what was salvageable of the wreck of the 3rd International.
Going back to La Verite’s proposal to link-up the opposition groups, the Fraction expressed the opinion that these contacts were necessary with a view to the revolutionary reorganisation of the proletariat on an international scale, but warned of the possible dangers of hurrying the movement into action without developing the necessary clarity and, in conclusion it said: «In any case our fraction has decided it won’t take part if this method isn’t substituted by that other one which has given far too good a proof in our camp for us not to find in our experience one more reason to insist on our old demand».
The International Conference of the Oppositions was held in Paris in April 1930 and concluded with the constitution of an International Secretariat composed of Kurt Landau for Germany, Alfred Rosmer for France and Markin (that is Trotsky’s son, Leone Sedov) for Russia.
The invitation to the meeting, misdirected for reasons that were never made clear, but not intentional in any case, was received by the comrades of the Italian Fraction too late to allow them to present a document they had been preparing which clarified their positions to the comrades who managed to attend the meeting. This document (also republished here) analysed in depth several key issues, namely: the situation of the International and the communist parties; the spontaneous response of the proletariat in opposition to the deviations from the principles on which the International had been founded; the events in the international field that pointed to the revival of the capitalist offensive, and this analysis, along with its recognition of the necessity for an international organisation of those forces remaining faithful to revolutionary Marxism, stood as a further caution to the comrades of the various groups not to try and rush into a unitary organisation at the expense of clarity of political and tactical content.
The absence of the Fraction from the conference of the oppositions, despite it being due to a mere mishap, would anger Trotsky greatly and prompt him to send a very curt letter to the comrades of the Prometeo group. He would write, amongst other things, that «in order to adhere to the left international a false ’monolithism’ in the spirit of the stalinist bureaucracy is entirely unnecessary. What is required – Trotsky continued – is a real solidarity on the principal questions of international revolutionary strategy borne out by the experience of recent years. Of particular divergences in tactics, these are completely inevitable, however they mustn’t become an obstacle to strict collaboration within the framework of international organisation».
Trotsky also accused the comrades of the Fraction of being "ill-defined elements" and asked questions which, frankly, we never would have expected from a Trotsky. He enquired: 1) «Do you admit that communism can have a national character? (...) Do you consider yourselves as part of a national movement, or as part of an international movement?» 2) «At present there are three currents of international communism: the centre, right, and left (Leninist) (...) Which tendency do you belong to?» 3) «What are your divergences with the left Opposition? Are they of the nature of principle or episodic? (...)» 4) «(If) it is divergences of principle which separate you from the left opposition (...) Why don’t you think about creating an international fraction of your tendency?».
The Fraction’s reply to Trotsky was as clear as it was frank: «Your letter of 22 April 1930 (...) is in complete contrast to the reply you made to our open letter (...) We haven’t departed in any way from that platform which you judged to be one of the best documents of the international Opposition. What has happened in the meantime? (..) In essence you invite us to declare whether or not we are communists. To the first two questions the reply is found in your open letter where you affirm: I don’t doubt that you consider yourselves internationalists’. And that is that (...) We also draw your attention to the fact that in October 1929, that is, well before the preliminary conference in Paris, we wrote in issue 21 of Prometeo, that the course of the centrist crisis presents us with the objective conditions for the first efforts on an international scale (...) We are not thinking of creating an international fraction of our tendency because we believe we have learnt from Marxism that international proletarian organisation isn’t an artificial agglomeration of groups, or individuals, of all countries around a given group. On the contrary we believe that this organisation must arise as a result of the experience of the proletariat of every country. The fact that some group – in particular the Russian left – may give impetus to this organisation isn’t an idea which worries us at all, what we are concerned about is that this impetus be founded on real proletarian formations which have already made a serious ideological effort».
There was no hesitation about pointing out that not even the positions of the Russian Left could be accepted en bloc: «with regard to the documents of the Russian Left we have already had occasion to underline our solidarity on matters of principle and our disagreement on tactical matters, namely, that of the united front – the slippery slope towards the workers’ and peasants’ government, the Anglo-Russian Committee, the Kuomintang, the proletarian anti-fascist committees etc.».
Indeed the international Trotskyist Opposition would eventually be washed up on these very shores, and much sooner than expected.
The Fraction would conclude by drawing attention to another very delicate matter which showed how the Left Opposition still clung to that artificial and contrived organisational method which the Comintern had sanctified under the name "bolshevisation", that manoeuvrism, in other words, which had played such a large part in the degenerative process of the International, and which has never ever been of any help in achieving revolutionary aims.
In the letter sent to Korsch in 1926 it had been explicitly spelled out that we weren’t convinced of the validity of those "flexible" tactics which, through the use of manoeuvres, aimed to push groups further to the right or to the left by way of accusations of opportunism and suchlike. We said that we had never ever based our line of conduct on manoeuvrism and diplomacy; on the contrary, the indispensable thing was «a work which tended towards the elaboration of an international left political ideology, based on the eloquent experiences undergone by the Comintern. Since very little progress has been made in this regard any international initiative will prove difficult» (letter to Korsch - 1926).
The international opposition, unlike the Italian Left, never considered repudiating the former method and went on to make use of it in an increasingly unrestrained way.
The fact that the International Conference had taken place without the directing bodies of the Fraction knowing about it was certainly due to a mistake, but when the International Secretariat, again unknown to the Fraction, entered into relations with a group of ex-functionaries of the Communist Party of Italy, an organisation with no political base indicative of a reaction orientated to the left, this was certainly no mistake.
This group, headed by Leonetti, Ravazzoli and Tresso, had shared in the responsibility for the leadership of the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) up to the "turning point" of 1929. This "veering to the left" was certainly just one of many zig-zags of Comintern policy, and was endorsed by these gentlemen with just as much gusto as they had done the earlier right-wing policies. It was the disastrous turn of events on an international scale, affecting countries everywhere, which had prompted the apparatchiks of Italian centrism to discover the need for the abrupt 180° turn, and wishing to keep the organisational reins in its hands it would switch over to attacking the politics of the right-wing and offload all blame onto Tasca, the latest scapegoat, for a leadership they themselves had been part of.
Only now did this opposition group emerge, not when the entire politics of the party had been based on "anti-fascism", on "peoples’ revolution" on "workers’ and peasants’ committees", on protests in the name of "bread and liberty"; all of them formulae which entrust to the proletariat not the task appropriate to it of leading the revolution, but the function of a left-wing of the anti-fascist forces: the counter-revolutionary objective being to preserve the capitalist regime in Italy.
To give an idea of the seriousness of this group it is enough to consider that at the meeting of the Central Committee in March 1930 Leonetti had launched a bitter attack against Pasquini (Silone) whilst, contemporaneously, he had held secret meetings with him in order to get Togliatti into a minority. And when, following the expulsion of the 3, Silone denied having had contacts with Leonetti and co. these would publish in their bulletin the letters which Silone had sent them, implicating him in the intrigue against Togliatti. When, finally, thanks to this delaterious action, Silone was in his turn expelled, the group of 3, wrote proudly of their action that: «If the Opposition (namely themselves - ed.) hadn’t denounced this compromise, Pasquini (Silone - ed.) might have continued to nestle in the ranks of the International» (Bulletin no.3, 15.6.1931).
However this is only one minor example of how low the N.O.I, the New Italian Opposition, was prepared to stoop.
After the 10th Plenum of the International’s swing to the left, the PCI leadership, by means of Tresso, tried to open a dialogue with the Fraction in the hope of reabsorbing it. Needless to say the Centrists were wasting their time. Having failed in their approach to the "Bordigists", the centrists hoped to deal directly with Bordiga.
Spriano, in the Storia del PCI reports the following declaration by Amendola: «I approached Bordiga in 1930, on behalf of the party centre, to propose that he be got out of the country legally. The party would have ensured the necessary technical and financial means (...) Bordiga, in his customary ’weighty’ language, rejected the offer which I’d transmitted to him». Having failed in this attempt, Togliatti, at the Central Committee meeting of March 1930, moved that Bordiga be expelled from the party. The expulsion was approved unanimously, that is also by Leonetti and Tresso. One of the counts of indictment for the prosecution was the following: «Amadeo Bordiga has supported, defended and made positions of the Trotskyist opposition his own. He is the exponent of a current which leads this opposition». Thus the leaders of the N.O.I, would vote that Bordiga be expelled for Trotskyism and immediately after go off to the Trotskyists Rosmer and Naville to make contact with their organisation. These contacts having been made, the 3 would send a political document to Trotsky in which we read: «we can say to you that the reason given for his expulsion (they are talking about Bordiga - ed.) is completely slanderous. It is nothing but a new manifestation of the real political brigandage which reigns within the Italian section of the C.I».
We feel no need to comment on an attitude which succeeded in disgusting even the fascist police.
An informer, in his report, in referring to the position taken up by the group of 3 on the occasion of Bordiga’s expulsion, would write: they have «an extraordinary gall, if one considers that 10 or 12 weeks ago they voted against Bordiga». (From Trotskj ed il comunismo italiano by S.Corvisieri).
In the already cited letter to Korsch, the Left had said: «It would be inadmissible, in any case, a solidarity and a communion of political declarations with elements (...) that (...) until lately have been responsible for leading the party in accordance with the right and centrist tendencies and whose passage to the opposition coincided with the impossibility of keeping the leadership of the party in line with the international centre, and with criticisms made by the international of their work. The latter would be incompatible with defending the new method and new course of international communist work, which is sure to succeed the parliamentary-bureaucratic type manoeuvre».
And what possibility of working in common with elements of the Leonetti, Ravazzoli, Tresso stamp could there be if not to adopt the system of parliamentary-bureaucratic manoeuvres?
Evidently the International Secretariat (Trotskyist) was not of our opinion; not only would it accept the group of 3 but it wouldn’t even bother to reply to the Fraction’s demand for an explanation. And this could mean only one thing; that it was attempting to create a new opposition to counterpose to the Fraction inside the Italian proletariat, risking a dispersal of those forces that would have otherwise inevitably been orientated towards the left. This manoeuvre was carried out at the same time as the Fraction was being asked to adhere to the left international; adhesion that the Fraction had given refusing however «to participate in the leadership of the Secretariat, until we find ourselves in the presence of a programmatic document and a system of work which guarantees the proletarian movement against the manoeuvring which is contributing to the triumph of opportunism in the C.I.».
However, seeing how matters stood, the Fraction was also impelled to declare that if things went on as they were, not only would it adhere to its refusal to be part of the leadership of the International Secretariat, but it would have to separate from the international opposition altogether so as to be no longer held responsible for its policies and actions.
It became strikingly apparent that the group which went under the name of the Nuova Opposizione Italiana, comprising a small number of booted out ex-leaders of the PCI, were entirely dedicated to a petty politicking which lacked any principles or scruples; besides which the left had established, in no uncertain terms, that any form of solidarity "with elements recently involved in steering the party in a right wing and centrist direction" would be inadmissible.
The Fraction nevertheless did not wish to break immediately with the international opposition. Despite everything it would swallow the bitter pill of having to feign belief in the good faith of these people and would proceed to a wholesale work of clarification and of possible collaboration, up to making the columns of Prometeo available to them.
And in order to avoid seeming as though we might be distorting reality in some way, we note that the following was written regarding the above in No. 3 of the N.O.I. Bulletin (August 15 1931): «the columns of Prometeo were offered to us where various documents which the official press still kept hidden from party comrades might be published; various meetings were organised where, without rebukes and personalising, diverging opinions could be discussed; there was even a proposal of a joint bulletin to deal with problems which the official leadership had prevented from being discussed in the ranks of the party».
Therefore the Fraction did not oppose the N.O.I, joining the international opposition because it wished to defend its right of primogeniture, much more simply, it did so because it held as indispensable that any adhesion should be evaluated on the basis of past performance and a satisfactory theoretical elaboration. Besides, as far as the 21 points of Moscow were concerned, each country could only have one party adhering to the international organisation. It was these criteria which should be the basis on which to make evaluations and not extemporary declarations of leftism, even if made in good faith.
This was the intransigent premise behind the Fraction’s set of irrenouncable positions, foremost amongst which was its flat rejection of the political methodology of the parliamentary-diplomatic variety.
Issue No. 33 of Prometeo (15.7.1930) lay its cards on the table in order to prevent future equivocations: «In parliamentary politics the rule is trasformismo, a jostling for position between men and parties to succeed in the game of advancing through all the somersaults imposed by fluctuating political situations. Without the least scruple one load of political programmes is deserted for another, and under the banner of the same party, of other political formations, the activity of defending the class that dominates through parliament is enjoined upon. The game of equilibrium requires only malleability on the part of the actor, who will be promoted only insofar as he is capable of substituting to the old positions, new ones, the most suited to the defence of the ’sacred principles’ of the mask of capitalist oppression. In the proletarian camp the rule must be quite the opposite. For here, transformismo is the worst that can befall the movement».
Even concerning the attitude to take up toward the NOI, «even in
this case, the worst service one could do to these militants is precisely
to leave them with the conviction that a formal adhesion is all that is
required to achieve the hard won clarification, or even its first stages
(…) As regards our relations (…) with these comrades, the solution
clearly is to be found by other methods than those used by centrists of
all colourations (…) imposing the usual formal declarations with which
they ’recognise the errors’ and dedicate themselves to the new, acclaimed
and allegedly correct way (...) One could try and gauge the exact degree
of culpability of the new opposition by comparing it with past struggles
fought against the left wing, in Italy and elsewhere, but this would be
beside the point. It isn’t through formalistic methods that the question
is settled, but rather by the political clarification that results from
a re-examination of the past as a whole and the explanations one gives
for it. If rather than making idiotic statements to humiliate the new oppositionists
we instead try to bolster them by making a conscious and fair assessment,
there is yet hope that they may, with heads held high, take up their posts
in the battle for the proletariat and the revolution (…) From the very
first moment contacts were established, the Fraction showed it believed
that the New Opposition should set about drawing up a document that addressed
not only contemporary matters, but past ones also (...) We think that the
New Opposition should set itself the immediate task of examining why until
now it has been dragged into the opportunist camp under the leadership
first of the right, and then of political adventurers (...) will the New
Opposition, through an analysis of the past and of its own past, eventually
establish that the causes are precisely those we have to? (…) What has
been at stake for years, and is still at stake today, is the fate of the
proletarian movement in Italy which centrism is preparing – using the
snares of social fascism – to consign to capitalism. These being the
stakes we must be ready and determined to do today what can’t be postponed,
not determined to put off to tomorrow what should have been done today.
Our Fraction, with a heightened sense of responsibility, therefore shows
the comrades of the New Opposition the way that it has declared itself
ready to follow. And as soon as it is possible for comrades of the Fraction
to examine their political document, an unprejudiced response will be given,
in good faith, with frankness, and with a view to bolstering proletarian
energies. But with this aim the fraction will not commit the fateful mistake
of squandering these energies or of concealing the sight of reality from
the workers who will feel that a step forward has been made only if we
can guarantee that we aren’t offering illusory snapshots. Rather we must
offer sound measures as militants who know by what path and with what means
the exploited will find in the proletariat the guidance and leadership
of their struggle to liberate themselves from the slavery of capitalism».
As we mentioned in the course of the preceding article, the Italian Fraction didn’t take part in the International Oppositions Conference of April 1930 because the invitation went astray and didn’t get to our comrades on time.
If the Fraction, physically, wasn’t present at the conference this didn’t mean to say that it had no intention of taking part in the proposed linking up of all existing oppositions onto an international level. On the other hand, joining the International Opposition didn’t imply an unconditional acceptance of the activity and methods subscribed to by the international Secretariat; in fact the Fraction refused to be part of this body.
The Italian comrades, despite their non-attendance, nevertheless achieved more than those enthusiastic participants at the Paris meeting who gave their uncritical support to the Russian Opposition; the contribution of the Italian comrades would be made by their drawing up a document on the tasks and methods that, in their opinion, the international meeting should make its own.
The fraction adopted an extremely prudent attitude.
The general situation was characterised by instability in the fields of economy and politics, which in its turn affected the very heart of the proletarian organisations themselves, including the left fractions.
Unstable and bound to come to a head was the capitalist economy, manoeuvred by the bourgeoisie towards an impossible solution to the crisis.
Unstable was capitalism’s political manoeuvring by which it sought to bring the formidable episode of the Russian Revolution to a close with a plebiscite of Hosanna to the great God democracy, against "all dictatorships".
Unstable was the awful torment of the communist proletariat regrouped inside the opportunist parties.
Confronted by objective matters such as these, there remains the fact that the difficulties faced by the left oppositions were rendered that much worse by their lack of conviction about the final outcome of the economic, political and organisational processes taking place.
Events until then had seen the communist proletariat dominated by opportunism, while left-wing groups were unable to intervene and reestablish a revolutionary leadership.
Rather than aiming to achieve illusory immediate successes, the Italian Fraction maintained that revolutionary aims would be far better served by constituting left-wing fractions in the individual countries and preparing cadres of the proletarian vanguard; these fractions, however, wouldn’t arise through voluntaristic acts, but, in contact with the actual class struggle in individual countries and supported on solid programmatic foundations, would be elaborated on the basis of the proletarian movement’s stock of traditions and conclusions drawn from recent events.
The 1930 document published here, sent by the Fraction to the International Secretariat, emphatically rejects, as the Italian Left is wont to do, all diplomatic masquerading, and cautions against the dangers of trying to build any structure unless supported on a solid foundation.
The Fraction was well aware that its standpoint would provide the
pretext for attacks against it according to the old, familiar methods;
however, it was no less aware that clarity could only be brought about
through discussion and political criticism.
THE FRACTION’S LETTER TO THE INTERNATIONAL SECRETARIAT
1. The promoters of the conference have specified that its aim was to prepare for unification of the opposition groups on an international scale. With this aim and acting in this capacity a Secretariat has been formed.
The importance of these events doesn’t reside in the importance or strength of the groups represented at the convocation; rather it is the fact that the formation of a Secretariat to unify the opposition groups marks an important stage in the communist crisis, so an initial plan of work, from the programmatic, general and organisational point of view, a plan which doesn’t assure against further confusion and dispersal, may lead to the unfortunate consequence of aggravating the communist crisis (although the intention of the promoters is obviously to the contrary).
In fact there is only one safeguard against precipitation of the communist crisis, that provided by projecting onto the horizon of proletarian struggles the force of reaction sustained by the Left against the ever more widespread swindles, manoeuvres, imbroglios and murders of opportunism which have taken hold of the Communist International.
To mark the difficult course of development of the communist left –
on a national and international scale – by calling a conference based
on false premises, means to prepare the grounds on which the vision of
the communist movement being saved by a polarisation around the left fractions
would be obscured. Their eventual unification, being subject to profound
crises as a result of these initial errors, will lead – after an initial
moment of relief and even of enthusiasm on the part of the proletarian
vanguard – to a major dispersal which, far from moving things forward,
will cause us to delay fulfilling our mission of service to the revolutionary
2. The activity of vanguard proletarian groups is conditioned by the examination of relations of force between classes, by the level to which opportunism has fulfilled its function of corrupting the proletarian vanguard, of causing dispersion and degeneration of the proletarian movement in general.
The defence of the communist character of the Communist International has certainly been – for the proletariat – a question that presents enormous difficulties, much greater than that presented, say, by the defence of the proletarian character of the parties in the 2nd International. The revolutionary victory in Russia represented, and represents still, the point of rupture with the historical regime of capitalist domination, and not only in Russia, but in the entire world. Such an important function was bound to give rise to corresponding difficulties and perils of equal importance.
The march of events in the class struggle, on the global level, has marked the course and progression of non-communist solutions within Russia and the International.
Following the triumphant task of constituting the communist parties, in the feverish atmosphere of the immediate post-war period, we witnessed a subsequent halt during a period of slight attenuation of the capitalist crisis. During this period the process of concentration of non-communist elements and ideologies, and the struggle between proletarian and communist currents got underway. And then the German defeat took place. The batteries were charged for the struggle against "Trotskyism", and the Italian Left was put in the position of having to renounce the leadership of the revolutionary struggle in Italy, despite the vast majority of the party calling on it not to do so. The subsequent sharpening of the capitalist crisis in Europe and the colonies found the process of concentration of the conflicting forces, inside Russia and the communist parties, reaching a point of consolidation, above all as far as the forces of opportunism were concerned.
Events in England, China and in Russia were marked by an impetuous advance of the masses in England and China, and of an intensifying of the opportunist campaign; against the left of the Russian party, in the Italian party and against all groups and elements in other parties that dared raise their voice in support of the head of the Russian left, comrade Trotsky.
The fact that in England and in China no left fraction existed – or at least no current capable of transforming itself, under the impulse of events, into a fraction, and taking the lead of the mass movements – resulted in success, at the same time both for capitalism and opportunism, and defeat for the masses and of the activity of the Left within the International.
During this period, there is a corresponding activity of the left within the parties aimed at obstructing the successes of opportunism and working towards a regroupment of proletarian and communist forces, within the framework of tendencies acting within the internal discipline of the party.
The 15th Congress of the Russian party, the subsequent Enlarged Executive of the International, and the events that preceded these consultations would oblige the left tendencies to transform themselves into fractions having as their objective the regroupment of the healthiest part of the proletarian vanguard, in order that the latter might resist the floodtide of opportunism, and – making interventions on autonomous political and organisational positions in all aspects of the activity of the communist parties – also might be integrated into a revived revolutionary movement to form the basis on which to rapidly form the indispensable revolutionary leadership.
The successes of capitalism up to 1927, most important of all being the triumph of opportunism inside the International, made it extremely difficult for this work of enucleation to be carried out by the left fractions. On the other hand the material circumstances, having put into an extremely difficult situation as regards international contacts, the Russian Left, such objective difficulties would be sensibly aggravated by the fact that some groups, with objectives which differed from those of a fraction, and which were based on extremely confused politics (Ruth Fischer, Contre le Courant, Redressemente Communiste), had taken on the task of international liaison centre. The Italian Left kept totally apart from all these events, despite Piatakov’s writings against it in 1927.
After the Right’s victory, inside the International, had been replaced by a victory of centrism, which was obliged to base its entire activity around a ruthless and bloody attack against the Left; after the zig-zag course of utopian anti-communism had been installed, at this point the fractions would see that it was necessary to establish a set of autonomous political positions in order to be able to intervene in all aspects of centrist politics; no longer bound to it, it could then intervene directly in the process of the class struggle rather than getting bogged down in the activity of the official communist parties.
If not, the Fractions would have been submerged in the deluge of centrist Utopian catastrophes, and the masses would have confused the politics of centrism with that of communism, deviating as a consequence towards anarchism and social-democracy.
In the present phase, which is marked by a hardening of the capitalist
counter-offensive, an extreme sharpening of the crises in the communist
parties, and the criminal evolution of centrist politics, the essential
problems for the communist fractions are these: "To delineate their
own activity. To circumscribe their own political positions. To make direct
appeals to the proletariat. To present the policy of fractions as the only
possible way to channel the communist solution to the crisis".
3. There is incontestable evidence that such a function can be absolved only as the result of a coordination of the fractions on an international scale. Much has been said on the point and we refer to our indication that objective conditions favour the constitution of a International Secretariat of the Oppositions.
It remains to be established, what are the tasks, on what programmatic basis, and with what organisational systems should such an office work in order to achieve unification of the oppositions given the present state of the groups in the various countries.
In this field, as in others, experience has a great deal to teach us.
The most suggestive factor in this field arises through an examination of the activity of the left within the old socialist parties and within the 2nd International.
In this regard, what needs to be emphatically underlined is the fact that the betrayal of 1914 had established in a brutal and direct way the objective conditions for the construction of the 3rd International.
The fact that Lenin had waited some years before issuing the call to build the communist parties, is to be explained solely in terms of relations between the classes during the war. But for what concerns the relations between the proletarian reactions in the various countries to the betrayal of 1914, this experience must be considered whilst holding well to the fore that the final deathknell of the 2nd International had already sounded.
The fact that the bolsheviks were at Zimmerwald and at Kienthal alongside opportunists of the worst variety, and the fact that this hadn’t had serious repercussions on the bolsheviks themselves (and Lenin had taken organisational and political precautions of the first order) is explained, by the consideration we made earlier, that the 2nd international had collapsed, and that the proletarian movement – as far as organisation was concerned – had been razed to the ground. The issue wasn’t that of an immediate reconstruction of the new international, but of supporting internationalist action against the imperialist war.
The present situation is instead characterised by the fact that the 3rd International hasn’t collapsed, that the communist movement hasn’t been razed to the ground. Naturally all these [situations] must be seriously considered as prospective situations of the future, and the fractions should be prepared for them. Today it is a matter of avoiding these catastrophes, and especially of not getting ourselves – the left fractions – sucked into these catastrophes. And that could happen now, both through an erroneous conception of the political bankruptcy of centrism, and through misconceptions about the national and international problems of the left fractions.
In fact, rather than it being ruled out, everything makes us predict
that the mass movements will recover, despite their being overwhelmed by
centrist opportunism (and in large measure because of action taken by the
fractions), and that therefore before the catastrophe has happened,
the left fractions could recover the leadership of the proletarian movements.
One false step by the international leadership and the possibility of the
fractions getting to the head of the movement again would be seriously
4. The tasks of a proletarian vanguard, within the confines of each nation and on the international scale, is, in our conception, to apply international proletarian policies to the political situation of the country within which each is active. Consciousness of these international policies is acquired by the vanguard of each country as the result of actual experience of the class struggle, through an assimilation of this experience, through establishing a set of general political rules, applied with the Marxist system of investigation of social and economic phenomenon. It is quite understandable that those vanguard groups which live and act in social environments where class conflict is more acute, make the greatest contribution to other groups in terms of theory and programme. What is inconceivable is that there is any substitute for the investigation of political conditions by groups acting in a social environment where the class struggle is more intense, any substitute for the indispensable effort of assimilation of living class experience, or of class experiences undergone by the proletariat of a given country.
At the present moment we conceive the International Secretariat as performing useful work in the sense in which it is the result of a confluence on a path that is well marked out from the programmatic point of view of the experiences of each vanguard in the difficult work of establishing a communist political line against capitalism and the spread of centrist opportunism.
We do not conceive of it as performing useful work at all when it considers itself as a mechanical extension of the political positions of the Russian opposition, sponsored by disparate elements that previously had navigated in different directions, and which are regrouping with the evident intention of saving the communist movement, and which, despite these good intentions, won’t be preserved from the subsequent, inevitable crises, or from the subsequent loss of direction.
In order to reduce to a minimum the perils of future crises from now
on, or – at least – to circumscribe future crises from now on, within
the limits set by inevitable disagreements on tactics, it is necessary,
henceforth, to specify and establish programmatic boundaries not accepted
because one or more people defend them, but because a re-examination of
past, and above all, of recent events, prove that the non-adoption of
the theses of the Russian opposition has brought about the present crisis.
This, translated, is a request for a platform, the sole means capable of
creating the framework for a communist organisation. This platform may
be lacking and the movements may exist all the same; but then these movements
are bound to suffer from internal stresses and strains, thereby disappointing
proletarians who had rallied to the call to struggle for a solution to
the crisis, and leading them towards further disappointments, for which
the Fraction would clearly be heavily responsible. The experiences in Belgium
and Germany prove this. The existence of the Contre le Courant group,
which in a formal sense was employed in the work of elaborating the communist
movement in France, doesn’t prove otherwise. In actual fact this group
had no other relation with the proletarian movement than that of a club
employed essentially in issuing important documents of the Russian Opposition
in the French language. The La Verité group should be orientated
– in our opinion – towards the elaboration of these documents, if one
wishes to avoid prejudicing precious proletarian energies and compromising
the work of the left in France.
5. The present situation can be characterised thus: the conditions exist for an international link-up of the oppositions; but formations don’t exist in every country capable of ensuring that action taken by an international centre of the oppositions would be effective.
In the present situation, therefore, we cannot but approve the preliminary
work directed towards the formation of the international centre, a preliminary
work which involves forming fractions in the most important centres, above
all in Europe, but also in the colonies and in America. This preliminary
work must be carried out on an international scale, in the sense that each
group must be able to receive support from the International Secretariat,
and see it as a source of comparisons and examination of experience. But
in order to fulfil this aim it has to:
1) To decide on a first programmatic document (our fraction had expressed the wish to know about the programme presented by comrade Trotsky to the 6th World Congress, which might be a basis for a theoretical marshalling of the Opposition).
2) Constitution of a Centre which will provide a guarantee that all organisational problems will be resolved according to the principles of a real collaboration of the responsible formations of groups which make up the Secretariat, and absolutely never through manoeuvres amongst particular elements, above all if these are extraneous to the responsible formations.
Having resolved the main lines of the programmatic and organisational question, it will be necessary to establish that adhesion on an individual basis will be the only way of adhering to the fractions.
To attribute to the International Secretariat, that essential function of being alert to the formation of groups in all countries and assisting these groups to elaborate a system of political norms inferred from the re-examination of living class experience, in the light of fundamental norms adopted in the guiding theoretical document of the International Secretariat.
These are the proposals which the Left Fraction proposes to defend in
the present international situation. Given the disagreements which the
Left Fraction have with the currently prevailing approach, and whilst awaiting
the response from the organs elected at the preliminary conference, the
fraction will maintain its organisational position. That is: it adheres
to the Secretariat because it recognises the need for it, and therefore
of participation by sending of documents to the Bulletin which will be
created. Of not participating in the directing work of the Secretariat
because of the reasons which we have explained and expounded on above.
On Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd October party militants gathered together in Turin for the periodic working meeting. Comrades from all sections attended although a few were unable to do so due to unforeseen difficulties.
It’s well known that the scope of these meetings is not to pass original and innovative resolutions, or to arrive at compromises between tendencies keen to "have a debate", rather their sole purpose is as instruments of synthesis and ripartition of a quietly methodical undertaking, which is non-democratic and impersonal because to do with party tasks. As the expression of a well-defined social class, the party is a current of thought and action which collectively sharpens its tools in view of an appointment with the revolution, which although not imminent is materially certain and eagerly awaited. Having banished the bourgeois craze for debates, opinions, interventions, objections and votes, it is a case of coherently interpretating the facts of the past, the key points of the emancipatory doctrine, and of correctly evaluating current social events in order to draw out their true significance. It is only through the extension of this activity, already wholly revolutionary and communist, that we can envisage the strengthening of the party within a time-frame which depends not on clever tactical manoeuvres but on the maturation of the class struggle.
After the planning meeting held on the Saturday morning, at which comrades responsible for editing the party press in various languages and those engaged in drawing up various reports could discuss their tasks, the main meeting commenced on Saturday afternoon, as usual with a co-ordinated set of reports.
First of all there was an update and explanation of the quantitative aspects of the present crisis, linked to the party’s classic work on the historic course of capitalism, with detailed charts and graphs affixed to the walls of the hall, for everyone to peruse.
Examination of the most expressive index, that of industrial production, even if limited to the three major imperial powers, was sufficient to confirm that the present crisis, not acute but prolonged, and within the context of a more extended time period, isn’t currently giving signs of ending. The tendency expressed in industrial production has ended up aligning with the other indicators traditionally described in graphic form: the cycles of crises, unemployment, foreign trade, exchange, interest rates, all conformed to the basic findings.
Capital discharges the costs of the crisis onto the world proletariat, hit by rising unemployment and the fall in real wages. The continuing crisis forces the workers to recognize the reality of their class condition and demystifies it.
There followed a brief communication from the two comrades studying Somalia’s history and its current conflicts. Reference was made to previous party studies, made between 1956 to 1991, and brief comments were made about the obvious difficulties imperialism is having heading off the various local crises, which are also due to imperialism’s numerous internal conflicts in which the Italian bourgeoisie distinguishes itself by its shameful duplicity: by day it is with the UN, by night with the factions. In conclusion the Somali national plan, which prefigures the fragmentation of seven ethnic groups into five states, was criticized too, its historical paucity evident.
The report on the crisis – now in its fourth year – in Russia recapped the stages of this "Russian 1929", economic crisis of overproduction which explodes catastrophically at a certain given level of late-capitalist maturation. The crisis, even more detrimental to institutions and society than a lost war, has seen the effective defensive mobilisation of the workers entrenched within the big enterprises. And yet there is still no sign of a general, political revival of the working class, stuck as it is between the innovators and the Stalinists, both quarrelling over who has the right to unfurl the threadbare banner of a democracy which is formally parliamentary and electoral in nature – a mere tool for fooling the oppressed class.
There followed a description of the main substance of the latest "reforms", among which the much vaunted "privatisation". We take as our premise the non-opposition of the concepts of private and public/state, inasmuch as state ownership, for the proletariat, is nothing other than the total form of private property, an absolute form within the regime of private property, and not yet its social negation, which will only come about under communism. In fact, the historical tendency to centralise production and depersonalise capital is irreversible. In Russia, what is being "split up" is what had already been split up, i.e., small businesses and housing property, not the big firms, even if these are now being mystified by becoming the legal subject of worker shareholder schemes. Different considerations apply to agriculture, with an "overdue agrarian reform" which claims to be subdividing the land by splitting up the kolkhoz and sovkhoz monopolies.
On the international level, clearly both western and eastern capitalism is incapable of unifying the European continent into a single society because of new and reinstated commercial barriers, which are ever more impenetrable for both proletarians and commodities.
The government vs. parliament conflict – amidst which Moscow’s proletarians unexpectedly exploded into revolt – is not a battle between classes or between different programmes, it is specifically merely a struggle to bolster the central state. As in the West, the protagonists of this struggle are merely Mafia-style capitalist gangs and not parties any more; the which, after years of bourgeois decadence, have been reduced to being mere demagogy and sales-talk machines.
The Russian crisis, like others around the world, is historically irresolvable and is heading towards even greater upheavals. This doesn’t exclude further fluctuations, or even an ephemeral revival. This isn’t a first wail of capitalism, finally free to be born, or to be born again after seventy years of enforced sleep; but the beginning of its senile phase where all it can hope for is a liberating deathblow from the proletariat.
In the last of the reports on Saturday, concluding our graphic series of economic-political-social models, an account was given of the Marxist approach to the notion of the state, which of course is opposed to the bourgeois and opportunist view. For Marx, the political question is central, but it derives from the necessity of economic emancipation of the working class; it is defined by economics, not aesthetics.
Marxism unmasks and repudiates the democratic forms of the bourgeois state, that aim to protect the civil rights and liberties of the individual and to guarantee the division of powers, and it prefigures a revolutionary state structured in a very different way, functional in relation not to an ideal but to its tasks. After all, the development of capitalism involved (and still involves) an evolution of the forms that its power takes.
The tasks of the proletarian dictatorship compel it to assume an anti-democratic and despotic nature which doesn’t restrict its action. It is not a "lawfully constituted" state. And yet its revolutionary provisionality is inherently part of it; its own extinction is in parallel with the weakening and dying out of the reactionary forces against which it fights on a worldwide scale. According to this perspective the revolutionary state is subordinate to the party of communism, which becomes neither a party-state, as under Stalinism, nor a state party such as exists under western democracy, both such forms being compatible with the Hegelian-bourgeois schema of the state as the "embodiment of consciousness".
We resumed again on the Sunday morning with a further chapter in the history of the Left. Continuing from the last general reunion, which covered the practical activity and internal organisation of the party in Italy in 1921/22, the report on this occasion covered the so-called ‘pacification pact’, which represented the final betrayal of the working class and the revolution by all the tendencies of opportunism. However, this pact also represented the definitive unmasking of the counter-revolutionary role not only of social democracy, but also, and above all, of so-called revolutionary maximalism, leaving the Communist Party as the one sure revolutionary reference point for a proletariat which, although defeated, was still inclined to put up a fight, still determined to respond, blow for blow, to the combined attacks of the bosses, fascists and the liberal democratic state.
The term opportunism, even if it is one still commonly used by our school, has too vague and benevolent a sense, and it is always preferable to use the word betrayal.
The signing of this notorious pact crowned the work of traitors old and new: Bonomi, expelled from the PSI by Mussolini in 1912, took part as the representative of the capitalist state; Mussolini, expelled in 1914 by the revolutionary wing of the party, took part as the head of the illegal organisation of counter-revolution; social democracy and maximalism, expelled from the Communist International in 1921, were there as guarantors of the disarmament of the working class. The one absentee, unshakeably opposed to any kind of bargaining with the class enemy, was the Communist Party of Italy.
The various contracting parties who adhered to the pacification pact were propelled by different motives, or so it appeared. The state was set on restoring normal civil competition based on class collaboration and harmony, and this it hoped to achieve by eliminating extremist illegality, whether by red or by black shirts. Fascism boasted that, by means of its direct action, it had conjured away the revolutionary danger and induced Italian socialism to abandon any dreams of insurrection forever. Socialism, for its part, trumpeted the signing of the Pacification Pact as a great Victory for gradualism and non-violence, a strategy allegedly capable of stopping the fascist hordes with moral force alone.
From a class point of view, however, all these interpretations coincided, since all were based on the hypothesis of the proletariat’s unconditional surrender. Only if such occurred, in fact, could the state resume its role of arbiter super partes, could opportunism definitively renounce extremist phraseology, and fascism dissolve its henceforth useless squads. This aspect of the problem was eminently clear to the bourgeoisie which immediately invited the Pact’s signatories to join in a united front against the Communist Party. In fact both legal and illegal repression was immediately unleashed against any classist activity, repression in which the socialist party participated with great gusto and enthusiasm. The General Confederation of Labour decreed the expulsion of communist representatives. The socialist party stood shoulder to shoulder with the fascists, acting as informers and legitimising the attacks of the squadristi "in response to awful communist violence".
Yet the socialist disarmament (certainly not applicable to the fascists) determined the rearmament of the Communist Party, stimulating a phase, without actually initiating it, of intense activity and mobilisation in all fields, an out and out offensive against conciliatory pacifism and of political and military organisation of the proletarian forces against the counterrevolutionary attack. In the same way that on the bourgeois side the bosses’ attack on working class living standards went hand-in-hand with the non-legal fascist offensive, on the communist side the party’s activity in the field of military organisation was accompanied by a vigorous campaign for a united front of trades unions. This involved an appeal to the entire working class, without distinctions of political faith, so that it form a compact front in opposition to the employers in a relentless struggle for bread and work; because the interest of every individual worker needed to become the interest of the working class as a whole. ***
The result of the communist policy was the great struggles and generous battles into which the Italian proletariat entered with all of its faith, spirit of self-sacrifice and enthusiasm.
At least until August 1922 fascism remained tied to the provincial and agrarian periphery; to make a breach in the proletarian strongholds it had to rely on the assistance of the state power, but also, and above all, on the betrayal of social-democratic reformism and fake maximalist revolutionism.
There followed a brief note on the crisis in the middle-east. The Palestinian question is unresolvable and the recent peace pact confirms it. As much can be said of many of the quarrels which arise between nations or in order to reinforce national unity in Africa, same as in the Middle East. In fact no one questions the boundaries drawn up by colonialism: these constitute a real entangling net, causing division and impeding any political and economic progress. Gaza and Jericho are just extreme examples of it. The agreement only goes so far as to constitute a mixed Jewish-Palestinian police force, for the purpose of containing the revolt of the extremely desperate and poverty-stricken proletarians of Gaza and the territories.
Then, the comrade who is gathering material for the next publication in the party series "Texts of the Left", which will be dedicated to writings on the theme of the theory of knowledge, read out a summary of what will be included, justifying the criteria for the choice of texts, their order and the way they will be presented. As a matter of course this volume will include party texts written over a period which extends from 1949 through to more recent years.
The reunion drew to a close on Sunday afternoon, with the usual report
on union activity. Set in the context of a continuity of positions and
battle experience which extends over decades, these contributions to the
store of party experience are clearly of importance. The watchword of rebuilding
trade union organisations destined eventually to join together in a single
red union of all categories corresponds not only to objective needs but
is reciprocated in some tendencies expressed by the workers too. Without
neglecting to take the party’s message wherever workers are gathered,
it is into those settings (where the goal is contingent or even inspired
by ideologies which are alien to us and referred to as "self-organisation”)
that we bring leadership and the material contribution of commitment. In
these situations we find ourselves facing the difficulties of a movement
which seems to be starting almost from nothing again, and which will have
to recover its class principles (even the most simple ones) by engaging
in struggle and deriving the necessary experience. In such a "school of
struggle", the blows dealt by the employers to past illusions are of great
help. From amongst the many contenders who appear on this terrain, the
genuine class party will be chosen. The choice will be made as the defensive
actions continue to mount up, becoming ever wider and more co-ordinated,
until the day of the supreme insurrectional offensive. That will be the
moment when the class is at its most receptive, acting on the basis of
the directives of its own party, and on the basis of those directives alone.
The International Communist Party’s position on the trade unions is based on the material fact that capitalism obliges proletarians to form associations for economic defence, and that as long as the proletariat exists as a class this will remain the case.
Such organisations form part of the pyramidal structure – class, unions, party – which was described at the 2nd Congress of the International in 1919; a structure which only becomes ’class, unions, soviets, party’ on the eve of taking power. In both cases the unions, in Lenin’s words, constitute, ’the transmission belt of the party’; the link between the party and the proletarian class.
This is a key tenet of our doctrine, and is why we have always seen our main task as connecting our motor of doctrine to the economic organisations, rather than to other ’left-wing’ currents. In fact the Communist Party of Italy – which our current led at that time – would be the first section in the International to propose, and then energetically put into action, the Trade-Union United Front by proposing to the three then existing workers organisations (the C.G.L.(controlled by democratic socialists), the U.S.I (syndicalist union) and the Railwaymen’s union) that they merge; and by steering the struggles towards the fusion of all sectional disputes into a common platform of demands and the sole method of action of the general Strike.
Organisations which are formed around the immediate economic concerns of workers have proved themselves to be an indispensable part of the revolutionary struggle. In the Russian revolution, both unions and factory-shop committees played a significant part and were both organised, separately, and on a national scale, and in addition to the Soviets; in fact the rise of the Soviets has as its premise the existence, and the efficiency, of the unions.
Workers’ economic organisations during revolutionary periods are very different from the trade-unions we are used today, because they are CLASS UNIONS; that is, unions which tend to unite the various sectional and local struggles into one, generalised struggle.
Unions of this type must be open to all workers; because they are workers, because of their economic position in society, and to them alone. They are therefore politically neutral, and open to workers of all political persuasions, but such as to allow communists to form sections within them, thereby enabling workers to compare the effectiveness of the actions of the Left with other currents.
And although our slogan "TOWARDS THE RED UNION" might be misleading, since we tend to use the term interchangeably with CLASS UNION, we have no intention of wasting our time trying to form unions composed ONLY of communists and their sympathisers; this is because such a tactic has the effect of separating communists and the masses and which would be justifiably condemned by Lenin in his pamphlet Leftwing Communism - an Infantile Disorder.
But communists not only become separated from the trade-union rank-and-file membership through misguided attempts to form ’pure’ unions composed of communists and their sympathisers, as theorised by the Dutch tribunists and German Kapdists. They are equally separated from workers by being prevented from forming separate fractions and standing for posts within the unions.
The potential for power to slip away from the official union leaders to classist fractions is something the former will ever seek to protect themselves against. In Italy, the revolutionary wave of the twenties, and the parallel development of union confederations anchored on class positions, was stamped out by fascism, which substituted the unions with official state controlled unions. In Britain, the aim of linking the unions to the State was also underway, but was accomplished relatively peacefully due to the lack of a large communist movement. But what distinguishes both these unions is a connexion between their ruling bodies and the State, and in both cases a key factor in preserving such a situation is the forbidding of communists from holding union posts; since without a communist perspective in the unions there remains only the bourgeois, nationalist one, which can see no further than the ’realities’ of the market economy.
Thus in the early history of the General and Municipal Boilermakers, now one of the big two general unions, the executive of the GMWU, as it then was, would become extremely worried at the CPGB’s initiative (which got underway in 1924) to form a class union by means of the National Minority Movement. The communist tactic, whose declared intention was to take over the old unions, included setting up a general workers’ section within the GMWU. The union bosses of the GMWU would respond quickly, and in 1927 they would declare in Conference that the policies of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement were "inconsistent with loyal attachment to the Union" and "an avowal of loyalty to the union" was to be required from London officers who had recently attended a Minority Movement conference. Members who disobeyed this injunction would soon find themselves, and indeed entire branches, expelled from the union. Soon all district council members would be required to sign a document denying membership of the Communist Party and The Minority movement.
Along with these moves and the denunciation of Communism, the GMWU leaders would take steps to consolidate their power. At one of their biennial conferences in 1926 they would denounce the Minority movement for entering their candidates in elections for union posts, whilst at the same time an amendment was carried giving officers permanent tenure once they had been elected.
This witch hunt against communists, and the installation of a dictatorship of union bureaucrats in the GLWU followed hot on the heels of one of the most dramatic realisations of mass economic action Great Britain had ever seen – The General Strike of 1926 – and it reflected by and large what was happening in the other big general union (which later became the Transport and General Workers union). Thus the mass of British low-paid workers concentrated in the General unions were targeted for ’whipping into shape’.
The reactionary measures of the union mandarins, aimed at filling any loopholes in a union structure vulnerable to communist penetration, show that even if many workers find the idea of a class union difficult to grasp, the union bureaucrats certainly know what a class union is, and how to stamp it out!
The 1935 Trade Union Conference marked something of a watershed for militant workers precisely because of the formal acceptance by the TUC that the exclusion of communists from the unions, in general, was to be desired. At this conference, two circulars, known collectively as ’The Black Circular’, were issued by the General Council advising unions to exclude Communists from any office; and made the exclusion of delegates who were communist, or who had any association with communists, obligatory on trades councils wishing to retain formal affiliation to the T.U.C.
The Circular would be carried by a relatively small margin, of 1,869,000 against 1,427,000, and against the expressed opposition of the engineering, clerks, railwaymen’s and miners’ unions. Since the TUC had no power to compel its constituent unions to enforce this policy, however, it was ignored or rejected by many. The miners, engineers, builders, railwaymen and many other unions continued to elect communist officials; even the Transport and General Workers Union, though voting for the policy, did not amend its own rules accordingly. In the General and Municipal workers, and Steelworkers’ unions the ban was applied; and many trades councils were pressurised into operating it by the TUC’s threat to set up rival trades councils if the ban was not applied.
Such a policy, though clearly directed against Stalinism in particular, was aimed against communism in general.
How far such exclusions are in operation now varies from union to union, but, if anything, they have been extended and refined. They serve, in any case, to highlight one of the key characteristics of what we define as the CLASS UNION, that is: one within which communists can form their own fractions, are free to agitate amongst the union membership, and where the possibility exists for communists to be elected to office.
The attempt by the TUC to eject communists from the trade-union movement altogether would be reflected in a still greater integration of the union bureaucracy into the ruling echelons. Thus, in 1935, Walter Citrine and Arthur Pugh, secretary and chairman of the TUC, would be ushered into the inner sanctums of the ruling class with knighthoods bestowed upon them; and though a motion would be submitted at the 1935 TUC Congress objecting to the trade-union leaders accepting honours ’at the hands of a government which is not established in the interests of the workers’, it would be rejected, even if by a slim majority. Years later in 1964, Citrine would reminisce about his ’rebellious’ youth as follows: «What had been the result of 1926? We had been regarded as revolutionaries. There was no doubt in my mind that considerable damage had been done to the Labour movement because of this. People did in fact suspect we were aiming at destroying the constitution, despite our disclaimers (...) We now had the position that the man who had been the chairman of the TUC at that time (Pugh) was a knight. The acting secretary had received similar recognition at the hands of the State [he says as a modest aside]. In effect, through us, our movement had been proclaimed, both by King and country, as one whose members were citizens deserving of one of the highest honours that the State could convey. How could this fail to affect the minds of the thousands who knew little about trade unionism, and to enhance its status and prestige». Such a sickening display of sycophancy and grovelling, plumbing new depths of subservience, must have disgusted even Citrine’s bourgeois paymasters!
Citrine had received his honour for his dedicated work in masterminding a capitalist fifth column amongst the workers’ ranks. Following the 1926 General Strike – an event that obviously sent shivers down his spine as late as 1964 – he would proclaim (as secretary of the TUC in 1927) that "the approach to a new industrial order is not be way of a social explosion," and by 1928 his collaborationist ideas would become incarnated in what would later become known as ’Mondism’. In that year, ’discussions’ took place between the General Council of the TUC and a group of twenty big employees headed by Sir Alfred Mond, founder-chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries. The General Council and the employers’ groups held that the tendency to rationalisation and trustification in industry ’should be welcomed and encouraged’. Trade unions as monopolists of labour supply could enter into partnership with the monopolists of capital, the aim being ’a concerted effort to raise industry to its highest efficiency’.
The leader of the TGWU, Ernest Bevin, was equally convinced of the value of ’rationalisation’ and in his own ’industrial bargaining’ preferred to deal with ’one or two big companies which could afford to take long views’. Like Citrine, he would merely record the tendency of capitalism to concentrate itself in its imperialist phase, and passively usher through all the cuts and redundancies that are part and parcel of the ’rationalisation process’.
Bevin would go on to distinguish himself as witch-hunter General of unofficial unions, and amongst the trophies in the Bevin display cabinet, we find the shrunken head of the unofficial Rank and File Movement in the London buses, which had dared to organise unofficial strikes on his patch during the thirties; what Bevin would dub ’an internal breakaway’. Bevin, too, would find his services rewarded when he was offered the post of Minister of Labour during the 2nd World War. In a revealing quotation, Bevin would sum up his perception of his, and other trade-unionists role: "We look upon ourselves as the labour side of management". In other words, management’s police force.
* * *
Thus far we have outlined certain tenets which our current subscribe to with regard to unions, and have indicated some brief episodes in the increasing integration of English unions into the state apparatus. But to what extent can we apply the historical experience of the Italian Left in Great Britain?
In Italy, the party’s strategy within the unions has been largely shaped by the prior existence there of an actual class union – the Confederazione Generale di Lavoro, the CGL – and its strategy has been derived from the actual experience of working in that union in the early part of the 20th century. How far this union defended class struggle we can see merely from reading Article One of its constitution: «The General Confederation of Labour constitutes itself in Italy in order to organise and discipline the struggle of the labouring class against the capitalist regime of production and work (...)».
After the 2nd World War, the party would work in the CGIL (the additional ’I’ standing for ’Italian’) where combative workers were still managing to propel the union into action, considering it to be the direct descendant of the old CGL. The Party’s agitation therefore focussed around the call for a return to the class union tradition of the CGL, at the same time not hiding from workers the fact that it considered the CGIL to be the direct descendent of the fascist corporatist unions. The party didn’t however work in the UIL and CISL, which had been formed with the specific intention of breaking up the CGIL (the UIL formed by the Christian Democrats, and CISL by the Republican and Right-wing socialists).
When we come to considering the best method of applying a class perspective to the workers economic struggles in Great Britain, clearly we cannot automatically translate the strategy in Italy to England because of different historical factors. But do these factors really affect the main lines of strategy, or do they leave them largely untouched?
Up until the party left the CGIL in 1975, we held out two broad possibilities for the future: either it would be possible to take over the old unions "magari a legnate", (approximate translation:: even with cudgels), or else it might prove necessary to construct new organisations "ex-novo". Let us look briefly first at why the second strategy was finally adopted in Italy, rather than the former, and then see where we can draw parallels.
In the early seventies, after the big struggles of ’68-’69, party comrades in the CGIL started to find that it was no longer possible to work within the CGIL. A process which had been underway for a long time – the union’s increasing integration into the state machinery – came to a particular head during the anti-delega campaign (which was against the new system of deducting union dues directly from pay-packets). Either party comrades accepted this method or not, and by not accepting it, they placed themselves outside the union. Also, the party’s Comitati di Difesa del Sindacato di Classe, which it had formed inside the union, now found itself in the position where there were no longer any classist elements inside the union, and the committees became reduced in size until they were composed only of party members.
The old union was becoming ever more integrated into the State and we would have ever more reason to predict that the class union could rise again only outside it. Therefore, the party now inclines towards preferring its members not to join the CGIL. This position however is not of principal, but reflects the sheer impossibility of working within the CGIL, which is now entirely impenetrable to any workers’ fractions organised on a class basis. Moreover, there is now no longer any internal life to speak of which would permit a work of penetration amongst the rank and file. In such conditions (apart from the fact that militants would be personally funding these unions) agitating amongst workers who aren’t members of the unions becomes just as valid as agitating amongst those who are. However, precisely because our position on this matter is decided ultimately by practical considerations, rather than of policy, we can admit that, especially in small firms, not being a member of the union might cause us to be perceived as adopting an anti-union position per se, which could compromise the work of militants in the workplace. In such cases, it might well be best for our members to join.
We can also see that working amongst the base and factory organisations where delegates are directly elected by workers is likely to be far more fruitful than engaging in arcane disputes about amendments to sub-sections, of clauses, of paragraphs, of sentences in union rulebooks; documents so obscure and legalistic that only the most determined and literate union member can understand them anyway.
In Italy there are the Base Committees, the Comitati Unitari di Base, which arose in the late sixties outside of the unions, but which were rapidly transformed into branches of the old union – a miraculous transformation which arose simply through the bosses awarding the old unions ’official status’ and refusing to recognise workers representatives in negotiations unless they were members of the official union. Thus the Cdf – the factory committees – became outposts of the official unions in all factories and workplaces. Nevertheless, in small and medium workplaces where they can achieve a certain degree of autonomy, there are possibilities for agitation within them.
Despite this stance, of not joining the CGIL, we don’t however advocate sabotaging their actions, or asking workers to leave until other organisations have appeared to take their place, and the same goes with regard to the TUC and official unions in Great Britain: we can criticise the policy and actions of the official unions, and hold out the prospect of the class union, but sabotage and boycotting would give out the most confusing messages.
In Italy, France and Belgium, and on a very modest scale in England, new organisations of economic struggle have begun to appear outside the official unions. Thus, perhaps the most important reason of all for our not working in the old, corrupted workers organisations is that the workers themselves are leaving and setting up new unions! By remaining in the old ones we would appear to be defending reaction against class struggle. Although we will always be loathe to cause splits amongst workers organisations, we now have to face up to a situation where the old unions in Italy are considered by workers merely as prisons, and the thing is to go over the fence as quickly as possible.
In Italy, in particular, these new workers’ organisations have assumed the more or less permanent form of the COBAS’s (Comitati di Base) amongst teachers and railway workers, and these organisations are increasingly beginning to link up with each other, even to the extent that alternative Chambers of Labour are being formed with a view to creating territorial networks. Here the slogan OUTSIDE AND AGAINST THE OLD UNIONS becomes not just negative rejection of the old union but positive affirmation of the new.
These new organisations DO NOT express a PERFECT class line, otherwise they would be unions composed just of communists (in theory anyway); in fact, we always held that the old CGL was a class union, even when led by opportunists, because the POTENTIAL still existed within it for classist elements to agitate, form fractions and to take over the leadership. The same goes for the new unions; they are bound to go this way and that as different currents gain the ascendancy, and that is all for the good; workers will be able to see the various tactics and platforms of different political tendencies tried out in the school of practice, and make up their own minds on the strength of what they see. It is stupid and pointless to assume, as some do, that these faltering steps mean that the COBAS’s are already incorporated into capitalisms’ grand designs! The way to the class union will be difficult and hard won, and no matter how hard we ’reflect’ from our armchairs on the perfect way to achieve unity, the process will certainly not be neat and tidy!
In England, however, there have not yet been large-scale attempts at setting up new unions except for the highly significant tube-workers organisation, which was forced into organising its own actions in response to the official union’s complacency. Combative workers in general are therefore still organised inside the old unions, or else outside them but only in a individual capacity or as informal groupings.
What is likely to alter the picture is that virtually every kind of industrial action, apart from the most harmless and insipid, is now banned. The official unions will therefore have to break the law, or be seen as standing shoulder to shoulder with the bosses every time any kind of struggle takes place. The latter route the unions are almost bound to take, and at that point, the workers ’ex-novo’ unions might finally get a kick-start. Another possibility is that some unions will take the plunge and put themselves the wrong side of the law, or at least win approval from their membership by finding clever ways around the law (loopholes which will then be blocked off!).
The essential difference between the Italian and British union structures is that whilst the Italian worker joins a union Confederation, of a ’right’ or ’left’ political complexion, and is then put in a section which corresponds to his category of work, the British worker joins a craft, industry, or general union, or else the union he has to join in order to work in a particular place (the closed shops). These unions are almost all affiliated to the TUC, but not all, and the TUC can not make decisions which bind its members in any case. Therefore there is a labyrinthine complexity to British unions which would mean that we cannot pretend we know whether all unions are impenetrable to a classist influence or not.
As elsewhere, British workers are expressing their discontent with the old unions largely by remaining indifferent to them, perceiving them as irrelevant, or at best, merely as subsidised pension or insurance societies. In England, as in Italy, rank-and-file organisations have arisen in the past, notably in the seventies, and these groups did express fairly coherent criticisms of the union bureaucracy, even if they often tended to be party cells of left-wing organisations with few external members. Occasionally unofficial and wild-cat strikes gelled around these rank-and-file organisations and they even attained a national level of organisation. They have now pretty much fizzled out though; or become, as in Italy, the official unions form of organisation in the factory; or mediators of the conflicting interests of the many and various unions that may be found under one and the same roof. But we can anticipate a reborn rank-and-file movement arising in England again, and possibly forming the basis for an organisation of workers which could form a pole of opposition to the Union barons.
The tightening grip of the unions in Britain has had the unfortunate effect of causing profound disillusionment with the union form as such, and whatever we say, that disillusionment is not likely to be dispelled until living evidence of the Class Union appears on these dispirited shores.
* * *
There are in fact three broad positions which are supported in the proletarian economic movement: no trade-unions at all; the parastatal union; and the class union. To the first group belong those who maintain that the union form is irrelevant, as well as those who advocate not a trade-union, but a union composed just of communists, or factory councils as substitutes for the economic union. To the second group belong the present union leaderships who mystify their own ’autonomy’ from ’parties, Governments, and bosses’ only to better chain the workers to the ’national economy’, in other words, the State and the bourgeoisie. To the third group belong those who fight for the rise of a proletarian economic movement with a classist leadership.
The politics of the first two groups concur in their denial of the class union, both now, when the domination of the patriotic unions is uncontested, and when the Class Union becomes a pressing necessity. The first group refuses to face up to the integration of the unions into the State and seeks for new, incorruptible forms of organisation instead. In a word, it entrusts the overthrowing of the class enemy to forms rather than to forces. As Marxists, we will never tire of repeating, that our viewpoint is based on economic determinations rather than ideas, therefore, even though we cannot anticipate exactly what form the class union might take, it will still be brought into being as a necessity; because workers have been forced to defend themselves against capitalisms attacks; even if their old organisations have been taken over by bourgeois agents.
Whatever organisational structures the new union might have, it will be shaped by proletarian necessity, and it will (eventually) need to be an organisation of wage earners which extends beyond the limited local horizon of the factory, of sectionalism, and of the locality. We can only go along with the negaters of the unions so far: we can agree that the old unions are corrupt, but we cannot agree that this means that all workers economic organisations inevitably become corrupted or that economic organisations are no longer necessary.
Some negaters of the unions have in fact gone so far as to posit nothing at all in their place, except a vague trust that the working class will eventually solve the problem ’on its own’. This is a fatalist view that is as good as saying that GOD will solve the whole problem, and is motivated by a profound suspicion of all organisations per se. The position of this current may be summed up in the slogan ’all organisations are corruptible, therefore no organisation’. It thinks that it has seen this maxim confirmed by the present state of the unions and parties under capitalism, and therefore relapses into a nihilist hopelessness or frantic activism (although we can only hope that the present nihilism is as much a precursor to revolution as the Narodnik variety). Rather than drawing the lesson that all these corrupt organisations are useless to the workers because they are bourgeois organisations, they decide that organisations themselves are to blame.
By denying the need for proletarian organisation, they are merely providing added ideological ammunition for the bourgeoisie against the working class: whose strength lies precisely in... organisation.
In essence, communists must make their presence felt in the economic battles of the proletariat; whether inside or outside the unions; whether official or unofficial, and constantly fight the official unions’ attempts to restrict these struggles within the bounds of bourgeois convenience. Instead we must hold out the prospect of workers’ organisations which take a firm stand firm on the basis that workers’ and employers’ interests are fundamentally opposed.
Our party will assess the issue of whether we can work in the old unions or not on the basis of the practical possibilities for agitation and propaganda which exist within them; which is basically where-ever combative workers are to be found. Workers are certainly voting with their feet in many unions and leaving in droves. But even if we did decide to try and work inside particular unions and found it to be wasted effort, any amount of failed practical experiment is better than negating the necessity for the eventual genesis of the Class Union in the revolutionary struggle. It is a necessity rejected by all other parties – many of whom, incidentally, have also rejected the working class as necessary revolutionary subject as well, or who even try and tell us that... the working class has ceased to exist!
The union Mandarins also think the working class has ceased to exist
– not only because such an attitude is a comforting illusion to them
as they go about their dirty work, but because their branch meetings are
now largely composed... of invisible workers!
THE CRISIS CONFRONTING THE WORKING CLASS
(Text of a leaflet distributed to a demonstration of unemployed workers)
After many years of talk about the advantages of technological revolution, and the ’leisure revolution’ which would follow, today we are all suffering from the advances of capitalism. The present attacks against the working class, started by the last Labour Government, has been to bring the working class into line with the requirements of the capitalist system. And what has been the result: more than three million unemployed, short-time work, temporary contracts, increased poverty and so on. The entire strategy of the so-called Labour Movement is in tatters.
The Labour Party and the Trade Unions believe that the working class can co-exist with capitalism – that such ’reforms’ as have been ’won’ in the past that led to the creation of the welfare state, and perhaps some Keynesian type management of the economy, can make up for the failure of the market system. It is now obvious for all to see that such reforms are merely temporary, that the price of maintaining the market system and wage labour is increasing unemployment and the waste of lives it entails, coupled with relentless pressure on those still in work for ever more "flexible" methods of working and all the other disciplines of the market. Because the Labour Party and the Trade Unions wish at all costs to preserve the market system and wage labour (indeed negotiating the ’price’ of wage labour is the union’s sole function for capitalist society) they cannot, and will not, confront the problems we face.
Workers today, who cannot fail to see the problems which we all face, find no strategy at all coming from the existing organisations in which many still have faith. That is why so many are disorientated. It is in this situation that other forms of reformism are being advocated – the reform of the market system itself. Now there is all sorts of talk about ’social markets’, how the functioning of capitalism can be modified to minimise the effects for the working class. The previous ideas of nationalisation, public services and full employment have now been abandoned. Now the so-called Labour Movement has accepted that unemployment is here to stay and that the working class will just have to put up with it. Whether better unemployment pay (or full maintenance, whatever that means) indicates that the unemployed will still be ’surplus to requirements’, the reserve army of labour to repress the wage levels of those still at work.
Today, all the advocates of the market system claim that socialism/communism is unrealistic and Utopian. In fact it is these same advocates of the market system who are the Utopians – nothing worthwhile for the working class can come out of the market system! For instance, the condemnation of VAT on fuel is formally correct – but should we defend the selling of gas and electricity to the working class, spending precious wages in repaying the costs of the exploiting of power workers, and repaying investments made in the power stations, etc., tax free?!
Today it is only the socialist/communist perspective which has answers for our problems – for those who can only exist by selling our wage labour, we can have the prospect of abolishing capitalism altogether. Nobody can set us free except ourselves. But to do this means breaking out of all the old sectional interests which keep the working class divided.
Communists today, as in the past, "express in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes" (Marx, Communist Manifesto)
It is the impossibility of any meaningful, or even temporary, reforms which means new forms of struggle needs to be understood (this sentence needs review). Only by workers coming together into class-wide organisations can any real fight be waged against capitalism. Once again, for the class struggle, for the emancipation of our class.
WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS! WE HAVE A WORLD TO WIN!
Under newly-passed legislation, unions calling strikes can be obliged to give employers the names of all union members involved.
This anti-strike law was recently invoked by Birmingham & the Fylde College, in the face of a national strike called for March 1st by the college lecturers’ union, NATFHE. The employers’ national body proposed new contracts, which demanded seven hours added on to the basic working week, no limit to weekly teaching hours, and a halving of the holiday entitlement. Unlike two smaller college unions, NATFHE rejected the contracts. However, this was not a sign of adamantine resistance: NATFHE was asking the bosses to haggle, not challenging them to struggle. The union was prepared to serve its members up to the employers on the following conditions: lecturers would work an extra two to four hours a week on marking and preparation, be more flexible over teaching hours, and put in 5-8 additional working days per year.
The college bosses treated these offers with disdain. NATFHE responded by calling a one-day strike – only to call it off when the Blackpool college successfully brought an injunction against them. If the strike went ahead without the members’ names being provided, the union’ s funds could be sequestered.
Now, faced with a choice between keeping their self-respect and keeping their funds, our present unions always take the second option. A century ago, Engels welcomed the birth of unions with quite a different attitude: "[The Gas Workers & General Labourers Union]... is wholly and solely a fighting body, Our Union is not to degenerate into a mere burial and benefit society..." (Hutchins & Thorne, The Gas Workers Strike, Time, January 1890). Today, one of the trade unions’ favourite areas of activity is... financial services.
Yet workers today do occasionally treat this "fund-manager" union mentality with the contempt it deserves. On March 1st lecturers at several colleges walked out, without the approval of their union. Even though there was no real alternative but to fight, NATFHE told the rebels they were on their own. The union preferred to launch a campaign to lobby the TUC and civil liberties organisations against the legislation. But this is only the latest in a series of such laws passed by both Labour and Tory governments. These industrial laws have not been resisted successfully for one reason: only workers’ organisations which are unafraid of carrying economic struggles to the point of class war can overturn legislation, by demonstrating its effectiveness in practice. At this time, such combative organisations do not exist in Britain.
Our party doesn’t advise the present union leaders on their course of action: these people are beyond redemption. Whenever the workers fight in determined fashion against the attacks of the bourgeoisie they will also confront these union functionaries. Workers may end up leaving the existing unions, or they may turn the existing structures inside out. Either way, real workers’ economic organisations will emerge, and the communist party will be there to bring its message: strikes over wages and conditions are stepping stones to a higher goal.
ABOLITION OF THE WAGES SYSTEM ALTOGETHER.
The last fifteen years has seen the selling off of state property to place it in the private sector. Beside being an important ideological position of “rolling back the frontiers of the state”, it has had the other important aspect of masking the declining profitability of industry – if money can’t be made by making products any more, then make it by selling water instead!
After most of the nationalised industries have been disposed of by the Tory Government, the last ones under state control are being considered for privatisation. The Government is now down to the most politically sensitive ones, which are all that are left. What’s left of the coal industry is now up for grabs, mines are due to be sold off, when the Government can get away with it. Previously closed mines are due to be opened up, along with new open-cast mines, to provide profitable operations for private investment. The concern for nationally produced coal, instead of imports, would find an identical echo in the supposedly left-wing calls by Scargill for a similar defence of the national coal industry.
Preparations for the privatisation of the railways are resulting in bizarre forms of reorganisation-franchising of train services, selling off of stations and the devolving of railway tracks and signalling system into a separate Rail Track Authority.
Suggestions had been made on a number of occasions about selling off of the Post Office, to get it out of "the evil hands of the state". Investment in this organisation has been curbed because it forms part of the borrowing of the public sector, so productivity tends to be the result of increasing the burden of work by the existing work-force. It forms part of the lead up to privatisation, by showing that the postal industry can be made profitable and would make a suitable home for private investment.
Mechanical sorting has long been a feature of the Post Office, but it is still a highly labour intensive organisation. And so across the country, by the requirements of regional and local management targets, a series of attacks against the Postal Workers has been taking place. The most significant one took place in Liverpool in April. For some time the pressure had been on the sorting workers, particularly on the night shift. It had been traditional that as long as the work was done within the time required management weren’t too bothered. But in the present climate of boosting productivity, which means the reduction of the labour required, such ’gains’ can only be made by the loss of workers employed. The ’flash-point’ occurred when a worker supposedly had an ’unofficial tea break’, apparently going to get a cup of tea from a machine to drink it while at work. There must have already been conflict going on, which led to this worker being suspended. There were claims and counter-claims, management saying that the worker had swung a punch, the worker saying that the manager had made fun of a speech impediment. And so, the workers and bosses were locked into conflict for six days.
The Union of Communication Workers was brought in to negotiate and pacify the workers. But the postal workers in the Central Sorting Office would not put up with their fellow worker being suspended. Very quickly the delivery staff were out, involving 2,500 workers in all. They stood firmly for nearly a week against the various attempts of the bosses to break them. Straight away the Royal Mail went to the High Court for an injunction against the union because of the unofficial strike. The mass meeting of strikers refused to be intimidated. Then the local newspapers tried to get in on the act by inciting businesses who may have lost because of the strike, to sue the union for damages. The strikers were not impressed by this threat either, voting by an overwhelming majority to stay out. The union’s General Secretary sent two letters demanding a return to work because of the dangers of fines and damages, this didn’t impress the strikers either. They weren’t going back until the suspension of their fellow worker was lifted. The interesting attitude was that they wouldn’t be intimidated by the threats to the union’s funds. As most workers never see much of the union’s funds, why should they consider them ‘theirs’ anyway.
In the meantime, the Royal Mail bosses were trying everything they could to get the mail moved around in order to get it sorted by other offices. Sorting workers in Birkenhead and other smaller sorting offices declared that mail from Liverpool was ‘blacked’ that is they refused to cooperate in the breaking of the strike. Conscious of the provocative actions by RM management, other workers started to scrutinise what the bosses were doing, in moving mail around the system. Action had to be taken to pacify workers in Manchester to prevent a walk-out there.
The UCW were really getting worried at this point, not only was there a serious legal danger (funds could be seized by the Courts) but also it could easily become a regional strike. Another strike meeting was called where the danger to the union was explained. In a heated two hour strike meeting, a return to work was achieved only after assurances were given that the suspension of the worker was lifted. Although he was still going through the RM disciplinary procedure, the workers made it clear that if he was sacked, they would be out on strike again.
The determination behind this strike must surely have been the fact that the workers saw the attacks being made as applying to all of them. It was merely chance that meant that this or that worker was in the firing line. Tomorrow it could be them. The only way to prevent the collective type of strike is by the bosses inserting a divisive element into attacks against the work-force.
It was in this way that sections of workers where pitted against each other – as in Hilton Keynes at the end of June. In this case the emphasis was that extra work (especially overtime) was to go out to casual workers. The regular workers often depend upon overtime to make up their wages. It costs the employer more in the form over overtime, at least a third extra, or in the case of part-time staff, the normal rate of pay until they reach the full working week level, then overtime rates apply. But with casual workers, often the rates of pay are inferior, don’t take account of seniority rates, pension funds, etc. The marginal cost of work for casual staff is lower than that of the regular workers.
It is in this sort of situation that antagonism can arise between the regular workers and casual staff (taken on as and when needed) even though in many cases former postal workers are amongst the casuals. The failure of workers to unite, allowing themselves to be divided, means that the bosses can get away with their attacks. The suspicion and bitterness that can infect workers as a result of all these divisive stratagems gives the local bosses all the scope they need to further divide and demoralise the workers. It is exactly this sort of measure that the bosses need to prepare the ground for privatisation, a demoralised and fragmented work-force.
As the form in which privatisation will take has not been established, that is sale of part of it, all of the postal system or it being broken up into regional businesses, the bosses are obviously concerned about the fate of the enterprise. They are not the only ones. The UCW are also concerned about the fate of the postal system, preferring it to remain in state ownership, if not at least kept as one organisation. In this matter, as with so many others, the interests of the union bosses are identical to those of the bosses – the health and welfare of the enterprise concerned.
As the interests of all workers, whether in the post office or not, are the same as all other workers, class interests can only be expressed by bringing them together in unified economic organisations. Without class organisation individuals and sections of workers will be prey to attempts to divide them, turning worker against worker, sector against sector, industry against industry, all in the interests of our enemies – the capitalist class.