Letters

On Their Document, ‘On the Future International’ and a Contribution to the Discussion of Its Foundations

Comrades,

It is with great interest that we read your document, “On the Future International.” For a new organization like ours, your document raises many important points that we believe must be considered by proletarian communists in order to develop a correct approach to unfolding events in the class struggle. Like you, we believe that, while the timing might seem, on the surface, to be somewhat premature, there is a growing segment of the working class that is beginning to ask fundamental questions about the capitalist system, who are starting to “recognize the stagnation, if not bankruptcy, of the system.” Though contradictory and hesitant in its first steps, this trend appears to be taking hold in expanding sections of the class, albeit in different forms.

It is at this point where many organizations and currents would simply default to their standard declarations of their desire to “intervene in” or “intersect” such segments. They would unfurl their banners and slogans for all to see, claiming they have all the answers, while quietly imploring the workers to kindly ignore the skeletons of history behind them. Thus, we were relieved and rather pleased to see the emphasis in your document on the need to “re-acquire” (we would say, “acquire and re-acquire”) the “experience of past workers struggles.” In our view, there is much from the experiences of the international proletariat in the 19th and 20th centuries that remains unanswered or unresolved. Some of these are great in size and scope, while others are not. Nevertheless, there is a need to place them on the table for discussion and resolution.

Much of what you have thus far raised in the document we can agree with, given the relatively succinct treatment each point was given. It is an excellent start for a broader discussion on the epoch and the tasks of proletarian communists, since it not only establishes a principled framework but also allows enough room for discussion of specific points of possible contention. Thus, we do not find it necessary to repeat what are shared views, minus this or that quibble. Any potential misunderstandings can be addressed in the course of future political and theoretical discussions. But there are also points that, in our view, require a much fuller discussion in order to be able to confront the period ahead. We feel the need to touch on a couple of these points so that the discussion can move forward in a clear and conscious manner. Bear in mind that we are working on the drafts of more comprehensive documents on these questions, so what we are offering here is a healthy summary of our research and analysis of these points thus far.

From our perspective, the historic program of proletarian communism (also called Left Communism) has been vindicated by the events of the last century. From the end of the Soviet Union and its “people’s democracies” to the role of the trade (business) unions and so-called “labor” parties, to the failures of frontism (“united,” “popular” and everything in between) and “antifascism,” as well as classless “national liberation” and “anti-imperialism,” the program of proletarian communism remains the only really revolutionary guide to action. Our Workers’ Group’s existence is, in one small way, a confirmation of that; the histories of our founding members show a long and hard-fought development away from the ideologies of the left wing of capital, which is thoroughly dominated by the petty bourgeoisie, toward a genuine proletarian communist perspective.

For us, the questions of class and social relations are central, since they give definition to all other relations in society. As we engaged with proletarian communist politics and began to study the historic positions of the Russian, German/Dutch and Italian Lefts, we recognized that there was a common thread in the positions of the movement and the work we have been doing on the development of class relations since the time of Marx. That is, the transformation of the petty bourgeoisie from its pre-capitalist to capitalist character during capitalism’s ascendancy — from a class of artisans, peasants and small traders to a class of “bailiffs, overlookers and shopmen”[1] — played a key role, not only in the management of production, but also in the management of the producers. As capitalism entered the epoch of imperialist decline, the petty bourgeoisie was elevated to a position at the head of production to act as its organizers and administrators.

This was a development that had been initially analyzed by both Marx and Engels as early as the Communist Manifesto, but really took form after the formation of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864. As you said in your document, the International was seen by Marx and Engels as “their greatest achievement,” organizationally speaking, at the time of its formation. Politically, however, the greatest achievement was the impending publication of the three-volume book, Capital. It is here that Marx (and also, in comments throughout volumes 2 and 3, Engels) explains in greater detail how the capitalist mode of production works and develops. It is here that some of his thoughts from the Manifesto are reconsidered and given greater substance.
In writing about the development of cooperative, large-scale production, Marx emphasizes the changes necessary under capitalism for the effective functioning of a large body of laborers:

“As cooperation extends its scale, this despotism takes forms peculiar to itself. Just as at first the capitalist is relieved from actual labour so soon as his capital has reached that minimum amount with which capitalist production, as such, begins, so now, he hands over the work of direct and constant supervision of the individual workmen, and groups of workmen, to a special kind of wage labourer. An industrial army of workmen, under the command of a capitalist, requires, like a real army, officers (managers), and sergeants (foremen, overlookers), who, while the work is being done, command in the name of the capitalist. The work of supervision becomes their established and exclusive function. When comparing the mode of production of isolated peasants and artisans with production by slave labour, the political economist counts this labour of superintendence among the faux frais [incidentals — Eds.] of production.”[2]

In the mid-19th century, during the ascendancy of capitalism, the “work of supervision” could indeed be handled by “a special kind of wage labourer,” since most of the professional tasks of what we consider management today were taken on by the capitalist and his partners, with the assistance of a corps of clerks and other hired independent professionals to deal with correspondence, purchasing and billing. But with the transition to the joint-stock company (i.e., corporation), management itself was necessarily transformed — Marx summed this up as the “[t]ransformation of the actually functioning capitalist into a mere manager, administrator of other people’s capital, and of the owner of capital into a mere owner, a mere money-capitalist.”[3]

In a note by Engels in this section, he points out that, since the time when Marx wrote the manuscript for this volume (circa 1867), new formations within the capitalist mode of production had arisen, which were, “the second and third degree of stock companies:”[4] trusts and monopolies. With these new capitalist enterprises, the processes at work in the initial joint-stock companies were expanded, with new developments that could only be glimpsed in the most basic forms. Thus, when Marx spoke of the development of these corporations as “the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, and hence a self-dissolving contradiction,” the key point he made along with that observation was:

“It establishes a monopoly in certain spheres and thereby requires state interference. It reproduces a new financial aristocracy, a new variety of parasites in the shape of promoters, speculators and simply nominal directors; a whole system of swindling and cheating by means of corporation promotion, stock issuance, and stock speculation. It is private production without the control of private property.”[5]

In the new capitalist enterprises, especially those of “the second and third degree,” we can see, through Marx and Engels’ logic, what this meant for the system of social (class) relations. With the separation of the functioning-capitalist-as-manager from the money-capitalist-as-owner, with property replaced by shares of stock that are vulnerable to speculation and manipulation on the market, with single management of an individual enterprise replaced by the single management of either a large proportion or the entirety of a national industry (and, in today’s society, of global industry), and with the material conditions generating not only the need for a “new variety of parasites,” but also a new, expanded and reliable corps of “officers and sergeants” for a national (and, today, international) industrial army, the need was clear: the formation of a stabilized and self-reproducing class of “organizers of exploitation” (Serge), responsible for the entire functioning of capitalist production, nationally and globally, from the lowest floors of the workplace to the highest offices and boardrooms in their world headquarters, as well as to the trading pits of the stock market, where “the conversion to the form of stock still remains ensnared in the trammels of capitalism.”[6]

Engels, writing in Anti-Dühring, expressed the same understanding in more popular language:

“If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.”[7]

The pointing out that those who are performing the “social functions of the capitalist” in a joint-stock company (corporation) are “salaried employees,” as opposed to merely “a special kind of wage labourer,” is important. This is not because they receive salaries per se, but because of how those salaries are derived. Unlike the bourgeois owner, the manager possesses no capital and cannot receive his or her share of the surplus value in the form of profit; rather, the manager receives their share in the form of a definite salary. Similarly, unlike the proletarian, the manager is not merely compensated for their labor, with the surplus left in the hands of the bourgeoisie; rather, the manager receives compensation derived from surplus value, with only a portion of it representing the labor actually performed. Moreover, the salary of the manager, whether derived from labor or from surplus value, is itself predicated on the act of organizing and administering the exploitation of the proletariat — the extraction of surplus value in the process of commodity production and valorization. Even in the case of the lowest rung of the system of management, the waged supervisor (overlooker) or lead worker, a “premium,” derived from surplus value as compensation for their labor as an organizer of exploitation, is provided for their services.

In this and other respects, the manager is, by dint of his or her social relations and position in the mode of production, a constituent part of the petty bourgeoisie, alongside the independent professionals, bureaucratic officials and armed bodies of the state on which it relies. Indeed, with the constitution of the management corps among the petty bourgeois, the coalescing and stabilizing of that class progressed to the point where it could (indeed, had to) develop ideology and organizations of its own — ideology and organizations fundamentally hostile to those of the proletariat. In the epoch of imperialism, where corporations, trusts and monopolies, as well as various degrees of state property and intervention into the economy, dominate the social and economic landscape, the role of the petty bourgeois has only expanded, reaching into every aspect of society’s functioning and, in most cases, transforming the old organizations of the proletariat into its own instruments.

The transformation of the trade unions from capitalism’s ascent to its decline is an excellent example of this, since the growth and development of the unions is integrally tied to that of capitalist production itself, and changes in the latter affect the role and activity of the former.

With the rise of the corporation and the development of the professional management corps, the trade unions were compelled to expand and reorganize. The unions of capitalism’s ascent, mostly localized to a city or region, were appropriate to the period of the individual capitalist enterprise, and mostly sought peace between exploiter and exploited. But the new joint-stock company (and its “second and third degree” counterparts), as well as the first wave of legalization of trade unions in the advanced capitalist countries (Britain, France, Germany, the U.S.), meant that the old methods were inadequate. Unions, especially those that claimed a “class struggle” outlook (but never challenged capitalism’s existence), no longer faced the individual capitalist or team of capitalists, but the entire bourgeoisie, its state apparatus and its professional management corps; interactions moved away from the picket line and street protest to the legal chambers and government conference rooms. In addition, workers had to deal with the adjuncts of management: lawyers, management consultants, bureaucratic officials, specialists in “labor relations,” “friend of labor” politicians, and so on. The result was to fight fire with fire, so to speak — the promotion and hiring of its own corps of managers, lawyers, consultants, bureaucrats, etc., to interact with those of capital. This was the precursory step to the political transformation that was to come.

Having established a management corps paralleling that of capitalism and the state, it was now virtually inevitable for the trade unions to make the political transformation from nominally independent to integrated auxiliary. Even before the great betrayal of the unions at the outbreak of the First World War, the die had already been cast, as seen in relations between the railways (or government, however the arrangement existed) and the labor organizations. In the United States, for example, the passage of the Arbitration Act of 1888 and its successor, the Erdman Act of 1898, established arbitration boards composed of representatives chosen by the railroad management, the railroad unions and the government (if the former two could not agree on the third member of the board between themselves), as well as imposed a state-enforced no-strike order on unions engaged in arbitration (which was any time that there was a dispute between management and the unions). The Erdman Act, in particular, was the precedent by which all arbitration and no-strike agreements between capital and labor have been enacted throughout the 20th century, including those adopted by the AFL during WWI and those adopted by the AFL and CIO during WWII. It even inspired similar legislation in other countries, such as the Stinnes-Legien Agreement imposed on German workers days after they overthrew the Hohenzollern monarchy in November 1918.[8]

It is important to note here the other crucial factor that brought the trade unions into the capitalist structure: the social-democratic movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries. But to properly understand their role, it is important to return to the development of the International Working Men’s Association, especially in the period after the rise and fall of the Paris Commune.

The experience of the Paris Commune was a watershed event for Marx and Engels, not only affecting their views on the development of the class struggle, but also of the communist program and organization. A page had been turned, insofar as how the proletariat should interact with other classes in the course of their revolution[9]. When the International was established, it was at a time when it could serve as a nerve center for the various currents within the working class. But the events of 1871 outstripped the character of the organization, resulting in the conflicts that ultimately led to its dissolution and, in the process, generated new, principled lessons for the proletariat moving forward. The world-historic importance of this development was soon to be affirmed in the conflicts that engulfed the International in 1872 and 1873, and later reaffirmed in the conflicts over the formation of the German social-democratic workers’ party based on the Gotha Program in 1875 — as well as the break in relations between Marx and Engels, on one side, and the recently-banned Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, on the other, in late 1879.

The 1870s appears to have served as a time of reflection by Marx. On the one hand, it was during this time that Marx really had an opportunity to fully digest what he had written in the manuscripts for Capital, as well as do so in the context of the Paris Commune and the battles with the various opposition trends within the International Working Men’s Association and the broader proletarian movement. On the other hand, it is in this last period of his life that we see Marx looking more toward the future — taking those lessons and experiences from the recent past and beginning to develop foundational principles for the next generations of communists. It was clear that, with the end of the International, a new direction for the proletarian movement was needed. As early as 1874, as the old International was drawing to a close, Marx and Engels had already learned a key lesson from this period. Writing to Friedrich Sorge in New York after he resigned from the General Council of the International, Engels explained his and Marx’s view on the future organization of the working class: “I think the next International — after Marx’s writings have been at work for some years — will be directly Communist and will openly proclaim our principles.”[10]

However, other forces were at work. By the late 1870s, trends like the Lassalleans had merged with sections of supporters of Marx, forming larger workers’ parties with programs that were far from the guiding principles of either the International or the Communist League of old. Marx and Engels’ battles over these amalgams can be found throughout this period. While they appeared to welcome the broader circles of workers that the Marx wings of these parties were being exposed to, the two maintained their criticism of the programs and orientations of these movements. Moreover, both Marx and Engels at the time rejected the idea of these new parties attempting to act as an international body, in large part because of the programmatic and cross-class compromises that had come to define these parties in their work. The astute criticisms against the Lassalleans (and the opportunism of the Eisenachers) in the Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1875 were only the beginning. Within four years, Marx and Engels had reached a point where they had issued an ultimatum to their German supporters: break with petty-bourgeois socialism (at that time, best represented by the “Zurich Trio” of Bernstein, Höchberg and Schramm) or we will break with you. By December 1879, Engels, in the draft of a letter to August Bebel, wrote:

“We regret very much being unable, at this time of repression, to give you our unqualified support. So long as the party in Germany remained true to its proletarian character, we were prepared to set aside all other considerations. But now that the petty-bourgeois elements you have admitted have come out in their true colours, [and claim the right within the party to advocate as socialism their petty-bourgeois hesitations and limitations,] it’s a different matter. [A party to which they belong is no place for us, nor can we even treat with such people so long as they do not constitute themselves an independent petty-bourgeois-socialist faction of the party, or so long as they insist that they belong to the same party as ourselves, we cannot even treat with them.] The moment they are permitted to insinuate their petty-bourgeois ideas piecemeal into the organ of the German party, that organ, by the same token, is closed to us, no more nor less. [We cannot, and never shall be, able to work hand in hand with petty-bourgeois socialism.]”[11]

Similar problems were present throughout the various post-International parties of Europe and North America. In France, America, Belgium, Switzerland and other countries, petty-bourgeois socialism — Lassalleanism, Proudhonism, possibilism, populism, etc. — washed over the workers’ movement, claiming the name of socialism and redefining it to best suit its class interests (a problem we continue to feel the effects of today). And yet, this motley band of self-described socialists, with half-baked programs and “new” schemes to maneuver and swindle their way into political power, saw themselves as carrying forward the banner and legacy of the International Working Men’s Association. “After the Ghent Congress[12],” wrote Russian historian G.M. Stelkov, “the socialists continued to cherish the idea of calling a new international socialist congress.”

In 1880, the same Belgian “socialist” Proudhonists who helped organize the Ghent fiasco sought to bring together other social-democratic forces for a new “International Socialist Congress” in Zurich (later moved to Chur), Switzerland, in 1881. The German and French social democrats, as well as their Swiss counterparts, signed on soon after. Even the tiny Socialist Labor Party of America, at the time dominated by Lassalleans and labor union officials, expressed their support for the meeting. According to the “official” history, laid out by Stelkov and others, the Congress was beset by objective problems almost from the start, in addition to the fact that, apart from the German and Swiss social democrats, most of the national parties were only just getting their footing. Thus, the ambitious agenda they set for themselves was put aside for the time being and a new Congress proposed for when certain party-building conditions were fulfilled.[13]

The “official” history also tells us that Engels eventually provided his imprimatur to the new International. However, this was not until 1889, and his support only extended to the “Marxist” wing, excluding the trends that gathered around the French possibilists and English Social-Democratic Federation[14]. Moreover, it is implied that both Marx and Engels supported the “Marxist” wing of social democracy and the steps taken to establish the second International Working Men’s Association. But the “official” implication was false to the core. In fact, Marx had serious reservations about not only the 1881 Zurich (Chur) Congress, but about the whole effort to bring together the social-democratic organizations into a new, second International. In reply to a letter from the Dutch socialist (and later anarchist) Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, he very clearly expressed his opposition to the gathering, especially after hearing the proposed agenda point: “If socialists should attain power by one means or another, what new legislation (whether political or economic) should they introduce, and what existing legislation should they repeal, in order to inaugurate socialism?”

“The forthcoming Zurich Congress’s ‘question’ which you mention would seem to me a mistake. What is to be done, and done immediately at any given, particular moment in the future, depends, of course, wholly and entirely on the actual historical circumstances in which action is to be taken. But the said question, being posed out of the blue, in fact poses a fallacious problem to which the only answer can be a critique of the question as such. We cannot solve an equation that does not comprise within its terms the elements of its solution. Come to that, there is nothing specifically ‘socialist’ about the predicaments of a government that has suddenly come into being as a result of a popular victory. On the contrary. Victorious bourgeois politicians immediately feel constrained by their ‘victory,’ whereas a socialist is at least able to intervene without constraint. Of one thing you may be sure — a socialist government will not come to the helm in a country unless things have reached a stage at which it can, before all else, take such measures as will so intimidate the mass of the bourgeoisie as to achieve the first desideratum — time for effective action.

“You may, perhaps, refer me to the Paris Commune but, aside from the fact that this was merely an uprising of one city in exceptional circumstances, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it have been. With a modicum of common sense, it could, however, have obtained the utmost that was then obtainable — a compromise with Versailles beneficial to the people as a whole. The appropriation of the Banque de France alone would have rapidly put an end to the vainglory of Versailles, etc., etc.

“The general demands of the French bourgeoisie before 1789 were, mutatis mutandis, just as well-defined as are today, with a fair degree of uniformity, the primary, immediate demands of the proletariat in all countries where there is capitalist production. But could any 18th century Frenchman, a priori, have the least idea of the manner in which the demands of the French bourgeoisie would be implemented? A doctrinaire and of necessity fantastic anticipation of a future revolution’s programme of action only serves to distract from the present struggle. The dream of the imminent end of the world inspired the struggle of the early Christians against the Roman Empire and gave them confidence in victory. Scientific insight into the inevitable disintegration, now steadily taking place before our eyes, of the prevailing social order; the masses themselves, their fury mounting under the lash of the old governmental bogies; the gigantic and positive advances simultaneously taking place in the development of the means of production — all this is sufficient guarantee that the moment a truly proletarian revolution breaks out, the conditions for its immediate initial (if certainly not idyllic) modus operandi will also be there.

“My own conviction is that the critical conjuncture for a new international working men’s association has not yet arrived; hence I consider all labour congresses and/or socialist congresses, in so far as they do not relate to the immediate, actual conditions obtaining in this or that specific nation, to be not only useless but harmful. They will invariably fizzle out in a host of rehashed generalised banalities.”[15]

This long passage by Marx is important, in our view, for three reasons. First, to the immediate question at hand, this comment belies the “official” history that there was a relatively seamless political or organizational continuity between the two Internationals. While Marx was demonstrably hostile toward the idea of a new International, Engels offered conditional support, provided the social-democratic organizations adopt formal principles and positions that continued the work of the IWMA[16]. This may indeed be why Engels himself did not attend any of the International Socialist Congresses until 1893, when he was chosen to be its honorary president.

While some may see this point as being neither here nor there, it does highlight the issue of form and content, which is also something you allude to in your letter: “It brought together various traditions in the workers movement and was not exclusively Marxist.” Quite right! While the social-democratic International had formally adopted the resolutions of the 1872 Hague Congress of the International Working Men’s Association, and thus also formally adopted its political principles, those who adhered to these positions, Marxists and non-Marxists alike, did not adhere to the content — to the means and method by which these principles came into existence.

As a result, the “Marxism” of the International was reduced from a living movement to a catechism of slogans and watered-down “theories” that owed more to the latest fads among petty-bourgeois intellectuals and trade-union officials than it did to the struggles and experiences of the working class itself. In the end, Marx’s warning that such an International would “invariably fizzle out in a host of rehashed generalised banalities” was prophetic, since all the statements of the 1912 Basle Congress about declaring “war on war” and that “the greatest danger to the peace of Europe is the artificially cultivated hostility between Great Britain and the German Empire” were just that: generalized banalities — formalism masking the fundamental character of the International as a collection of petty-bourgeois politicians, careerists, bureaucrats and intellectuals going through the motions — that did not even slow down their march toward World War and Burgfrieden[17].

Second, Marx offers an insightful and refreshingly critical view on the Paris Commune — one clearly shaped by a decade of reflection and experience. Far from Engels’ more well-known insistence a decade later — “[D]o you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”[18] — that the Commune was socialist or, at least, led by the “socialist” Blanquists and Proudhonists, Marx not only took the opposite view but also insisted that it could not have had a socialist character. This was not because of any particular criticism of their politics, but rather because a “socialist government” will not take hold anywhere “unless things have reached a stage at which it can, before all else, take such measures as will so intimidate the mass of the bourgeoisie” that the first requirements of such a new state — e.g., the time and freedom to take effective action. Otherwise, even the most revolutionary socialists and communists would be forced to constrain themselves to fighting for what was achievable under the watchful eyes of the exploiters and oppressors.

Put another way, “socialism” in one city, one region, and one country, is impossible, since the working class cannot effectively intimidate and sufficiently hold at bey the ruling classes and their agents. Until then — that is, until the working class on a national and even international scale is effectively self-organized, conscious and armed; until a revolutionary proletarian presence is able to counter the actions and activity of the class enemies at virtually all times and in all places; until the world proletariat is capable of adequately sabotaging the efforts of “its own” ruling classes to undermine and overthrow a revolutionary workers’ republic — such regimes will be forced to compromise fundamentally with the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie for the sake of its own survival, limiting itself to changes that are acceptable within the capitalist system.

Third, and most relevant to the overall subject of this letter, is Marx’s view on the tasks of an international gathering that is not yet the new, future International. While he phrased it in the context of the forces seeking to establish the social-democratic International, Marx’s methodology in explaining its tasks remains valid, in our view — albeit with some crucial caveats.

We are, of course, 138 years past when Marx made his observations, and the material situation is fundamentally different from his time. Internationalism is taken much more seriously, and thus we are in a time when multiple international currents, tendencies and parties exist. We cannot ignore this fact; our standpoint must begin from the understanding that any future International is going to involve several organizations of this type, whether they developed ad hoc or were long established. As such, we cannot escape the need for a clearly elaborated set of principles and platform that unites the various strands who seek to unite for this project. However, we must also simultaneously avoid sinking into the habit of enumerating and re-enumerating a “doctrinaire and of necessity fantastic anticipation of a future revolution’s programme of action,” like we see happen so much among the organizations of the Left of Capital. Yes, let us have a program, but let it be something that we, as supporters of the future International, can use to build our class, our organizations and the world movement we need, not a handbook to recreate a revolution that failed.

Alongside this program, though, there is an urgent need to be able to take hold of events as they are today, to analyze them and draw practical conclusions from them about the activity of proletarian communists in our time. We must always be able to “relate to the immediate, actual conditions” in front of us, even when they are seemingly unfavorable, in order to look for inroads for intervention and intersection of the working class. Of course, all such work must be done on our own terms, with our own literature, slogans and signs, or else it is pointless. In discussions about this work, collaboration with comrades on an international level is a necessity, since similar situations often develop in other parts of the world. The more we gain “insight into the inevitable disintegration … of the prevailing social order; [into] the masses themselves, their fury mounting under the lash of the old governmental bogies; [into] the gigantic and positive advances simultaneously taking place in the development of the means of production,” the more prepared we will be for the struggles ahead, and the more prepared the world proletarian communist movement will be to launch the future International on a sold, principled basis.

We believe this perspective dovetails well with that contained in your letter. Although there is understandably not a lot of detail on this in your letter, it does come through in specific statements and observations made by the authors. For example:

“Homogeneity here does not mean a total identity of agreement on every issue but does mean agreement on a common platform and ultimately a common program. This can only be thrashed out by the widest discussion within the International. The International Party (or whatever it comes to be called) has to have a centralized unity in action to defeat the class enemy but a meaningful unity is not arrived at without constant dialogue between its members.”[19]

and

“At the same time, the tenuous links between revolutionaries and the mass of the class have to be deepened and strengthened. Each local political organization has to adopt means to maintain its contact with wider layers of workers who may not yet consider themselves revolutionary, but do know that they want to fight the misery that capitalism brings.”[20]

and

“The International (or at least a large nucleus of it) has to be in existence in advance of the outbreak of the revolutionary crisis. It is ‘narrow’ in the sense that its Platform and program are based only on the revolutionary lessons of the class struggle so far.”[21]

While these are not explicitly expressing the same views as ours above, they do hold to a common spirit and sense about how a future International is to develop and grow. They offer common points of reference — common landmarks — for building an International that can withstand even the harshest blows of the class struggle, which is what will be needed in this period, as the exploiting and oppressing classes march toward systemic collapse and world war.

Uniting together various trends of the proletarian communist movement, allowing for dynamic development through serious and well-rooted political discussion, creating a broad exchange of ideas and experiences on the immediate, actual events taking place today (e.g., the wildcat strikes of Matamoros, Mexico, and Oshawa, Ontario; workers’ struggles in Iran, Iraq, China, etc.; the teacher strikes in the U.S.; and so on), and doing so within the framework of an international organization that has principles and a platform based on experience and current material conditions, and not on the wishful thinking or theater of an idealized, idyllic “revolution” — this is how the future International emerges today and takes its place in the world-historical process.

*          *          *

It has been 100 years since the last International Working Men’s Association, the Communist International, declared its existence to the workers of the world with great enthusiasm, zeal and the momentum of the revolutionary wave. But its break with social democracy and the putrefying corpse of the “Second” International was partial, incomplete and stunted. Even with works like The State and Revolution as political guideposts, the legacy of social-democratic “state socialism” — or, more appropriately, state-capitalism-as-socialism — remained present in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party and the International. As the wave ebbed and enthusiasm gave way to reflection, the vacuum created by it was filled with more of the conservative and reactionary politics of their old organizations: coalitionism (now called “frontism”), parliamentarism (including Millerandism, later on), trade unionism, national liberationism (merely a stepping stone to outright nationalism), and so on. In the end, there was a wholesale abandonment of any pretense to a working-class perspective and an ignominious disintegration that rivaled the “generalized banalities” of its predecessor.

What are the lessons we can learn from the experiences of the Communist International? Two present themselves immediately: first, that the theoretical, programmatic and methodological break from the ideologies of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois socialism — not only those of the “official” Left Wing of Capital but also those of the vulgar Left that attempt to present themselves as genuine communists — must be fundamental, not merely formal, and conscious; second, that it is incumbent on the forces seeking to build the future International to make the study of the current material situation, beginning with the state of social relations and the mode of production, both something that occurs before and during the process of political and organizational reconstruction.

The proletarian communist movement has never been afraid of being critical of, and even openly rejecting, the old and long-accepted positions that have been shown to be historically obsolete. Quite the contrary, we have recognized that it is our responsibility as communists to subject our program to the same constant criticism, the same derision of half-measures, weakness and paltriness, and the same ruthlessness in dealing with outdated and obsolete approaches that we apply to our work (including that of the proletarian revolution), our successes and our failures. It is this kind of principled criticism that must be at the heart of a future International. The Communist International never made a serious analysis of the imperialist epoch and that left it unprepared for what was to come once the revolutionary wave receded. The untimely death of Luxemburg, the growing opportunism of Lenin and the capitulation of Bukharin insured that such a study never occurred under its auspices. Even today, analyses of this epoch are fragmented, focused primarily on the immediate twists and turns of the business cycle. One could excuse the early Communist International for not engaging in such a study, given the shared belief that the imperialist epoch would be short-lived and ended by victorious proletarian revolutions. However, we cannot share that same perspective; we cannot afford to let a sense of inevitability become the host for theoretical and programmatic complacency. History is a heartless judge.

This last point we have learned through bitter experience, failure and reconstruction. For 25 years, the comrades who formed the Workers’ Group have been fighting to break with the Left Wing of Capital, to not only discard the formal positions but also the methodology that leads to such alien class ideology gripping sections of the working class, to reorganize and rebuild on new fundamentals and with a new sense of ourselves as proletarian communists. Today, we look to the history and struggles of the Russian Communist Left, particularly that of the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) and Communist Workers’ Party, and those of the Italian Communist Left, from the early Communist Party to the Internationalist Communist Party, as guides, even if there are areas where we disagree. And it is in that spirit that we issue this letter and respond in the affirmative to the urgent need to begin the process of building our forces, developing the necessary theory and program needed to confront the challenges of the 21st century, bringing together diverse experience and perspectives in a principled manner, and moving forward to the time when the future International can rightly stand and be recognized as the new International Working Men’s Association in the eyes of the world working class.
So, let’s begin, together.

With proletarian communist greetings,
Workers’ Group


Notes:

[1] A phrase inserted by Engels in the 1888 English edition of the Communist Manifesto, replacing the original “overlookers and shopmen [Domestiken, normally translated as “servant,” also being a pejorative term in German for small shopkeepers, or shopmen]” that appeared in most non-English editions. In modern terms, it would be written as “police, managers and small business owners.” We would add bureaucratic officials, politicians, judicial and prison officers, independent professionals (doctors, lawyers, consultants, technicians and other “experts”), and the military-officer corps to this list.

[2] Chapter XIII: Co-operation, Capital, Vol. 1, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 35 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 337. Boldface ours.

[3] Chapter XXVII: The Role of Credit in Capitalist Production, Capital, Vol. III, in MECW, Vol. 37 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 434.

[4] ibid., p. 435.

[5] ibid., p. 436. Boldface ours.

[6] ibid., p. 437.

[7] Chapter 2: Theoretical, Part III: Socialism, Anti-Dühring, in MECW, Vol. 25 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 265. Boldface ours.

[8] There is certainly more that can be said about the transformation of unions in the period from capitalism’s ascent to its decline, including analysis of the role of the labor contract and its negotiations process as it relates to the integration of the union and management bureaucracies, as well as how unions play as much of a political role in society as they do an economic role in the production and valorization processes. These points, and others, are best addressed in a separate document.

[9] “The struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase with the struggle in Paris. Whatever the immediate results may be, a new point of departure of world-historic importance has been gained.” Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 17 April 1871, MECW, Vol. 44 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 137.

[10] Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, 12-17 September 1874, MECW, Vol. 45 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 42.

[11] Engels to August Bebel, 16 December 1879, MECW, Vol. 45 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 430. Passages in brackets were not included in the final letter but are included as footnotes in the MECW. Boldface ours.

[12] The “Universal Socialist Congress” was held 9-16 September 1877 in Ghent, Belgium, at the behest of the “Belgian Socialists,” a collection of social democrats, anarchists and Marx supporters. It was the first time since the 1872 Hague Congress that all the trends that were once in the International were gathered in a common assembly. The intent of the “Universal Congress” was to attempt to reconcile the split; in this effort, it failed spectacularly.

[13] Stelkov, G.M., Part II, Chapter 13: International Socialist Congress at Chur (Coire), History of the First International [Martin Lawrence Ltd., 1928] — www.marxists.org/archive/steklov/history-first-international/ch33.htm.

[14] “At all events the intrigues resorted to by the Possibilists and the Social Democratic Federation in order that they might worm their way into the leading position in France and England respectively have proved a total failure and their pretensions to the international leadership still more so. If the two congresses, one alongside the other, merely fulfill the purpose of deploying their forces — Possibilists and London intriguers here, European socialists (who, thanks to the former, figure as Marxists), there — so that the world may see where the genuine movement is concentrated and where the bogus, that will be enough.” Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge, 17 July 1889, MECW, Vol. 48 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 354.

[15] Marx to Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881, MECW, Vol. 46 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 66-67.

[16] Up to and even during the 1891 International Socialist Congress in Brussels, Engels opposed the creation of a new International, out of concern that the Possibilists would become a leading component. As late as 17 August, Engels wrote to Laura Lafargue: “That question once disposed of, there will remain but little real work for the Congress; unless the various velleities [idle wishes] of a restoration of the ‘International’ venture to come out. I hope they will not, for that would cause new splits and throw us back, here in England at least, for years to come.” (MECW, Vol. 49 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 229)

It was not until after the closing of the Congress, when all the information about what took place reached him, that Engels embraced the new collaborative effort among the “Marxist” parties of Europe and North America as the new International, writing to Friedrich Adolph Sorge on 14 September: “The Congress has proved a brilliant success for us after all — the Broussists stayed right away while Hyndman’s chaps withdrew their opposition. And, best of all, the anarchists have been shown the door, just as they were at the Hague Congress [of 1872]. The new, incomparably larger and avowedly Marxist International is beginning again at the precise spot where its predecessor left off.” (MECW, Vol. 49 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 238)

[17] Class peace. In France, the common term is the “Union Sacrée.” There is no comparable term in English.

[18] “Introduction to Karl Marx’s The Civil War in France,” 18 March 1891, MECW, Vol. 27 [Lawrence & Wishart, 2010], p. 191.

[19] Internationalist Communist Tendency, “On the Future International,” Revolutionary Perspectives, No. 11 — www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2018-06-22/on-the-future-international

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

Dear Comrades,

It was with great pleasure that we received your long and interesting letter about our document “On the Future International” and this turned to satisfaction when we read that you substantially agreed with its main contentions. As you say, one document in isolation can only deal “succinctly” with many of the issues it raises, but, as we said in our introduction on the website, we saw it as part of a series which included previous writings on the party-class issue (see www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2016-08-28/the-revolutionary-party-and-the-working-class and www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2016-10-13/the-party-question).

Today we would also add the document on www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2019-01-22/a-decade-since-the-financial-crash, which gives our perspectives for the coming period. These set the framework for our tasks in the present period and perhaps we should incorporate these into our future discussions.

However, we very much like the framework and method of the document you sent to us. Not only does it accord with our reading of Marx but it also adopts the kind of political culture we believe is needed as the basis of the future International. We particularly endorse the perspective that you quote from Marx’s letter to Nieuwenhuis:

“What is to be done, and done immediately at any given, particular moment in the future, depends, of course, wholly and entirely on the actual historical circumstances in which action is to be taken.”

This was always Marx’s method — to look at the specific historic circumstances of the time as the basis for any action. He did not pretend that he knew “the course of history” or maintain the idea that there was only one outcome to the struggles of the future. He knew from the beginning that the class war would end “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Communist Manifesto) This we take to be the meaning of your comment “we cannot afford to let a sense of inevitability become the host for theoretical and programmatic complacency.”

And we also find ourselves very much in agreement with your statement later in your letter where you write:

Alongside this program, though, there is an urgent need to be able to take hold of events as they are today, to analyze them and draw practical conclusions from them about the activity of proletarian communists in our time.

For the time being we only talk of a platform (based on how we understand working class experience). We tend to think of the program as the product of the formation of the International (and it will be the communist program incorporating all the positive and negative lessons (the “what must not be dones” from working class historical experience) from our past. We certainly do not see the next revolutionary wave as appearing in anything like the same shape or guise as the last. The re-running of the same failed experiment hoping to get different results is, as Einstein pointed out, the definition of madness.

One obvious experience we have taken on board is the relationship of the class and the party or as we could perhaps better state it “the international.” The recent anniversary of the German Revolution has caused us to reflect more on the absolute disaster that the failure of the Second International to abide by its own resolutions in August 1914 and go over to the class enemy. The fact that the working class brought that imperialist war to an end in the various revolutions and revolts that emerged in response to the privations of war but without an international to coordinate and guide their struggles was ultimately one of the reasons for the failure of the last revolutionary wave. The Third International was formed too late (despite the best intentions of internationalists like Lenin at the time) and yet it had to be formed too hurriedly and under the prestigious influence of the Russian communists who had conducted the only successful revolution. What we are fighting for today is an internationalist body which coordinates the revolutionary forces which are emerging even today as nuclei of the future international. These nuclei have to increase in number (but we are not talking of the Kautskyist mass party idea where the party is equated with the class) and in influence in the wider class movement. This will only happen when the class itself starts to move against capital in a more determined and conscious way than it has hitherto but when it does move there needs to be in place at least the skeleton of an international which is capable of leading the fight against all the attempts to recuperate the struggle in defense of the system.

The ICT is not that international nor will it be its only nucleus but we hope that our method of working and our analysis will make a major contribution to its future creation. As preparation for that we have thus spent a great deal of our effort over the years not only to analyzing the operation of the capitalist economic system but also analyzing the composition of the class and its working conditions (right down to the gig economy and the current precarity of the whole workforce). We also have no messianic illusions about where we stand today. Broadly speaking (and in extreme synthesis) our perspective is that the working class has been in retreat for decades but that the capitalist crisis is more and more out of control. How this will end up is anyone’s guess but we can only do what we can to prepare the ground for a future class awakening by giving it something to rally round which is not compatible with the preservation of the system. As we wrote elsewhere,

The crisis of capital today opens up new and favorable spaces for a revolutionary orientation of the best of the working class vanguard. This will be possible by reconstructing, as soon as possible, a solid but inevitably minority organization, based on a consistent theoretical and political system capable of giving a complete picture of the situation and its prospects. An organization that can really serve as a point of reference for the politically advanced elements of the class. (Il P.C. Internazionalista e il «bordighismo» del secondo dopoguerra [from the pamphlet of the Internationalist Communist Party, now in course of translation])

We also agree with you that, currently, there is a strange inversion where many young people are going beyond mere “anti-capitalism” and are coming to an understanding that what is required is an entirely new mode of production and yet a new wave of workers’ struggles is not yet evident. We saw this begin with the bursting of the financial bubble ten years ago. A new generation brought up under austerity and with diminishing hopes for a half-decent future are now reading, studying and debating to acquire a new world-view not seen in previous generations. They are coming to us only in small numbers, but the fact is that they are coming to us, and it feels like a political revival, especially in the English-speaking world, is taking place.

Our task is to participate in the discussions provoked by these new groups and individuals and to place before them the programmatic basis which we think the working class has acquired already. Obviously, this will require a lot of debate and there will be plenty of false ideas promulgated by many who claim they are “left communists” but who are in fact actually simply “academic Marxists” or aficionados of communization whose affiliation with the working class is, to say the least, doubtful.

At the end of your piece you refer to the long struggle the members of the Workers’ Group have had to shake yourselves free of the methodology and positions of the left wing of capital. It would be good to hear more about this struggle particularly as your experience could be instructive to the newer comrades coming to “proletarian communism” (as translators of the Russian communist left’s documents, we know the reference!). You also mention that there are some disagreements with the Communist Left of Italy so it would be useful to explore these in our next exchange. We have begun, and we have begun well. Let’s hope the further exploration of our tasks today ensure that we come closer “together” and that you also develop a dialogue with our U.S. comrades of the Internationalist Workers’ Group.

Internationalist greetings,
The International Bureau of the ICT

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