The politics of the ICC are a dead end for todays Communists, writes Donald Parkinson in response to their recent critiques. For the most recent articles the ICC wrote on CLT, go here and here. For an idea of the ICC’s basic program look here.
In their exchanges with my writings for the Communist League of Tampa (CLT), the International Communist Current (ICC) have of course summoned the classical historical argument that sits as the spinal cord of the ICC’s entire political outlook. In our exchanges over the necessity of building a mass political party and the question of elections the ICC has made it clear we don’t see eye to eye on these issues. The ICC argues that only small minority organizations of revolutionaries that keep the genealogy of revolutionary tradition alive are possible, and that any organization of the working class will inevitably become integrated into capitalism if it achieves any mass support and is able to win reforms for workers during an extended period of social peace. They also argue that any participation in elections is strictly off limits, as well as holding a strident anti-union line. All of these positions of course are contrary to Marx if one has any familiarity with his political writings. Yet the ICC claim him as their lineage, so what gives? Why hold positions so divergent from Marx while claiming to be part of the red thread that guides back to him? The argument is that Marx was writing in ascendant capitalism, where capitalism is still progressive and plays a positive role in developing the forces of production. Since the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and the betrayal of Social-Democracy, we have entered decadent capitalism where now the rules of the game have completely changed. Capitalism no longer plays a progressive role so it therefore must be overthrown, hence revolutionaries must no longer participate in elections or unions or attempt to form mass organizations. The small dedicated revolutionary minority must wait for the class to rise up in mass strikes that lead to strike committees that then become councils, where the minority can guide the class to communism with all power ultimately being within the councils. What I would like to do here is break apart some of the assumptions and see if they hold up under scrutiny.
If any of this is an inaccurate depiction of ICC’s politics then I apologize, and of course even if my description is accurate they would argue for more nuance. However it seems clear to me that the ICC strongly holds onto decadence theory, and the notion that the current periodization of capitalism is what makes their positions correct (and therefore backed by the science of historical materialism). Yet decadence theory is never really outlined by Marx, beyond saying that at some point productive forces will make the current relations of production outmoded. The comment by Marx that apparently proves the centrality of decadence is the following:
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
This comment from Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is used by the ICC to justify a theoretical vision of history, where modes of production can be neatly divided into progressive ascendent phases and decadent phases of social decay. I am not sure where this is argued by Marx or Engels explicitly. Marx and Engels do not claim they are discussing the periodization of capitalism or a general tendency of capitalism itself, or the ultimate cause of proletarian revolution itself. Rather than simply looking at quotes from Marx, we need to look at his theory and practice as existing in a unity that inspired others who developed the theory and politics of Marxism.
It is more reminiscent of theories from Oswald Spengler that civilizations are organic entities with lifecycles of ascendence and decay. Really what decadence theory represents is an organic metaphor for history, that simply describes a phenomenon (like the Fall of the Roman Empire) rather than explain it. Simply put, decadence theory is weak analysis that butchers the dynamism and complexity of history. It requires that its followers must, to a certain degree, romanticize a certain “progressive” phase of capitalism, ignoring that the development that capitalism provides has always been an uneven one, with progressive and regressive features existing simultaneously. Productive forces have developed since 1914 and industrialized nations outside the ‘core’ of Europe have seen developments in productive forces that resulted in increased standards of living. Yes, this was accompanied by financial crisis, destruction of social fabric and authoritarian government but when has capitalism not been this way? It is only communism that can provide an even development of society. These reasons alone should give considerable motivation to question any kind of strict adherence to decadence theory.
Decadence theory however allows the ICC to 1) justify a priori all of their political positions and 2) claim fidelity to Marx and Engels while holding political positions that are in stark contrast to them. For example, Marx and Engels stridently argued for running in bourgeois elections and for the importance of the union movement in organizing the working class. Yet decadence theory gives the ICC a seemingly deep theoretical reason for holding the exact opposite position, looking like this: in the time of Marx and Engels, capitalism was still ascendant and therefore it was justified to support running in bourgeois elections because capitalism was still developing and conquering feudalism. Yet the Marxist argument in the 19th Century for electoralism had nothing to do with needing to consolidate capitalism over feudalism; it was that the workers must engage in mass politics and become a force to be reckoned within mass politics.
The ICC also use decadence to justify their complete rejection of all unions, denial that any national liberation struggles and decolonization (the colonial world still existed after 1914) can have progressive content, and refusal of any kind of mass party in favor of minoritarian vanguards with this logic. Since the passage of 1914 and the rise of capitalist decadence, these positions are de facto correct regardless of circumstance even though Marx and Engels basically held the opposite positions. It’s not a stretch to say that with regards to the Marx and Bakunin split, when it comes down to actual political lines the ICC would side with Bakunin. Their only real retorts are that Bakunin was a nationalist anti-semite scumbag (which is mostly true) and that it was of course ascendant capitalism and not “Decadent” capitalism yet.
So behind all the ICC’s politics is a claim that 1) capitalism has been the same essentially since 1914 and is in a state of decline where immediate revolution is on the table and 2) the political positions of the ICC schematically derive from this. To question this is to question decadence, which is apparently a cornerstone of historical materialism. Decadence schematically implies the positions held on electoralism, mass parties and unions because under decadent capitalism it is not possible to build mass scale workers’ organizations, except in times of crisis, without these organizations becoming integrated into capitalism. So any attempts to build unions and build parties is going to be inherently bourgeois. Instead of doing these things, communist militants must organize as only small and pure minorities that hold true to the revolutionary faith, waiting for a the crisis to trigger a mass strike that will lead to the formation of workers councils.
The ICC see CLT as being in danger of falling into “leftism”. The left is an enemy according to ICC’s ideology, just as much as the capitalists themselves. They are for “partial struggles” and building mass scale workers orgs, inherently bourgeois in a period of decadence. The left is counterposed to the “proletarian milieu” which is basically the ICC and groups with positions it approves of. Apparently this milieu has nothing to do with the left, despite the fact that any normal person would agree that advocating for communism puts one on the left. By claiming to be “not leftist” the ICC just comes off as needlessly edgy and sectarian. Which of course they are, refusing any kind of engagement with the left at all because it is entirely bourgeois. Collaboration with leftists is as bad as fascists in the end for the ICC, as both are simply factions of the capitalist class. So what results is a paranoid siege mentality about the left, where the left are always around the corner conspiring to calm the militancy of pure unmediated workers struggle. Rather than engaging with the left to try to win people over and influence them with their analysis the ICC sees this as a counter-revolutionary activity.
The ICC’s theory of leftism, while ridiculous, does contain a kernel of truth that the labor bureaucracy is capitalism’s last line of defense when worker militancy threatens its stability. The labor bureaucracy are not submitted to the democratic will of the rank and file and hence develop petty-bourgeois class interests since they are essentially small proprietors of intellectual property. Because the labor bureaucracy often plays this conservative role in class struggles a knee jerk response is to simply reject unions and the left as a whole. Yet this is ultimately a vulgar and simplistic answer to more complicated questions, such how does the proletariat institutionally control its leadership?
Yet these questions do not negate the fact that communists must build up a mass movement in times of social peace and become a force that can contest with the bourgeoisie for state power. The mere appearance of Soviets doesn’t prevent better organized social-democrats from ultimately winning their support, as the German Revolution of 1918-19 shows us. The claim that decadence makes building organizations under capitalism (except, of course, the most pure vanguard parties) means that success is ultimately reliant on spontaneity. It assumes the proletariat will follow the “vanguard” instead of other political forces once they are mobilized, and it is only when the masses are in motion and in struggle that they can be converted to communism. Against this line, which puts hope in soviet power and spontaneity to solve the question of mass political legitimacy, Communists must build institutions and win support from the working class before periods of crisis. For a workers republic to represent the proletariat it must maintain democratic norms. This means you must have mass support or else you must resort to rigging elections as the Soviets did because of fear of peasants being overrepresented. This political problem is a serious one, and cannot be left to faith in spontaneity. Rather it must be worked in the long term process of building a mass communist party and other proletarian institutions over time in a strategy of patience. Developing revolutionary theory and a solid programme is important, but so is being active building the labor movement which is now in shambles and pushing for “class unions” as opposed to “corporatist unions” that act to stabilize capitalism. Communists must merge with the labor movement, which requires long term work of institution building and not simply showing up when mass strikes happen to push for the formation of soviets.
This is to say nothing of the inadequate gender and racial politics of the ICC. The ICC has been around since 1975 and their main insight on race is that “the bourgeoisie mobilizes the proletarian under anti-racist politics”. For a group that proclaims internationalism, the group suggests little in terms of actually combatting national oppression to unite a deeply divided working class. Class unity is assumed to arise naturally and trump all other questions, with struggles for democratic rights being “partial struggles” that simply increase the illusions the proletariat has about democracy. As far as I am aware, the ICC doesn’t allow womens or PoC caucuses in their org and rejects feminism as a whole as bourgeois. They are against the decriminalization of prostitution and see sex workers not as proletarians but as lumpen “exploiting the sexual alienation of men”. This shows not only that the ICC is stuck in the past, but that they don’t see the abolition of gender oppression as a task to be taken seriously.
This gets to a core issue that plagues not just the ICC but many ultra-left and left-communist circles: economism. The ICC doesn’t grasp that communists must not only support economic struggles of the proletariat, but struggles for greater democratic rights within capitalism, which allow the working class to have more strength organizationally. Democracy is the lifeblood of the proletariat, the means through which it is able to organize as a mass force within society. In capitalist societies or authoritarian regimes where the working class is denied political freedom, socialist movements are forced to organize underground and only become broader parties by emphasizing the fight for democratic freedoms (see the Bolsheviks under Czarism as depicted by Lars Lih in What Is To Be Done Reconsidered). The proletariat, through its struggles, must show itself as not being a class fighting for purely sectional interests, a higher slice of the pie, that a class that fights for broader social change. To “win the battle for democracy” is not a minor task in the class struggle.
Of course, the ICC would see this as superfluous, since the proletariat cannot build mass organizations in times of non-crisis, so democracy under capitalism is of no use to them. It is nothing more than a mirage, a way to mystify the true dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This outlook ignores how it has been the proletariat (and petty-bourgeoisie under the process of proletarianization) that have typically pushed the hardest for democratic rights historically. It certainly wasn’t the merchant class but rather the plebian sans cullotes who pushed for the most radical forms of democracy in the French Revolution. The form of the state cannot simply be derived from the “law of value” but is something that is historically shaped by class struggle. Bordiga is just wrong that democracy is simply a political mirror image of capitalist logic, where the principle of “one man one vote” translates to the principle of “equivalence of exchange”. Things are much more complex; the bourgeois state was basically the absolutist state outfitted for the needs of enforcing capitalist relations, a rentier institution with its logic sometimes counter to that of capital accumulation, and a “”special body of armed men” shaped by the balance of power in the class struggle as well as the needs of generalized social reproduction.
Ultimately there is no reason to suppose capitalist rule naturally presupposes parliamentarism or any form of democracy. Parliament gives classes other than the propertied access to political influence in legislative bodies, which can theoretically allow the mass population to pass laws that would be a hindrance to capitalist accumulation. Why else would working class participation in suffrage have been so limited until the ascent of the workers movement? This is why in countries where there are parliamentary bodies, internal corruption of party regimes becomes more and more important for ensure that the needs of capital are met by the state. This is why the most ideologically zealous adherents to the pure abstraction of capital (Hans-Herman Hoppe for example) in the end apologize or advocate for monarchy or fascist dictatorship.
This isn’t to say Communists should fight for a democratic form of capitalism instead of a true transformation of the social order, nor that we should seek alliances with populist hacks who use democracy as a empty slogan in place of class struggle. It’s obvious that democracy, in the sense understood by liberalism, is a powerful ideological tool of the capitalist class. Capitalist states have realized that they must project themselves as democratic, and use this as a way to promote a unity of citizens in a nationalist project. People in the USA vote because their candidate will do a better job at what is ultimately managing the hegemon state of a global capitalist empire. Yet this is the current state of things – if a truly principled communist party engaged in electoral politics, the “rules of the game” may be disrupted and the idea of democracy as legitimating the nation-state could be questioned. For example, the campaign for Eugene Debs to many of his voters was seen as affirming internationalist principles. Workers in many cases in history have seen the ballot box as a weapon in the class struggle.
The positions of the ICC, if they were argued for without the vulgar historicism of decadence, would carry much more strength. Anarchists tend to provide a more convincing case of why communists should abstain from bourgeois elections. Decadence is a blinder in the end, that prevents communists from dropping a priori dogmas that prevent them from reconceptualizing a marxist theory and a communist practice that can function under current conditions. We of course must hold to certain basic principles, but to act if the answers to all the questions about unions, nationalism, elections, the left, and even sexual freedom were decided by the fate of 1914 prevents clear critical discussion that looks at current situations. What we need is open debate, experimentation with tactics and a Marxism that is more adept at explaining why things are the way they are than any other worldview. We also need to build political organizations that are built on programmatic unity, where members are bound to political rather than theoretical commitments like decadence theory. Otherwise an organization is doomed to political sectdom, internal authoritarianism, lack of debate, and separation from the world beyond purist left-communism. This will take years, but to give all hope to spontaneity means one might as well give up as a whole.