On the Forty-Fifth Anniversary of the Founding of the CWO

The Communist Workers’ Organisation (CWO) was formed in September 1975 in Liverpool. We have not made a habit of writing our own history (indeed the last time we did it was at a time of crisis in the organisation in 1977 in a document entitled “Two Years of the CWO”!) and 45 years is perhaps an odd anniversary to acknowledge. However, the composition of the CWO (and indeed, the Internationalist Communist Tendency) has changed dramatically recently: over half of the membership has joined just in the last three years. Many of those are only in their 20s and are demanding to know our history in order to explain where we come from to new contacts, and to understand what is the bedrock of our political awareness and perspectives today.

This growth in membership is largely thanks to our wider intervention and propaganda, including a growing social media presence and an increased interest in “the Communist Left” globally. Our audience and contacts have evolved much over the last few years. By and large our propaganda is now read by people who have no understanding of the history of the Communist Left (but are all too ready to claim that they are “left communists”), especially in English speaking countries. Many of these have been politicised since the 2008 crisis, some even by the 2015 election and Corbynmania. Add to that, much of what is written about us online has been written by hostile reviewers, so it is perhaps time to issue our own corrective, as well as to reflect on those four and half decades with that objectivity which can only be brought about through time. It might also serve as a useful corrective for us all in the uncertain future which capitalism increasingly offers humanity.

Late 1960s and Early 1970s: The Prehistory of the Communist Left in the UK

It is perhaps hard for today’s younger readers to appreciate how profoundly ignorant the young revolutionaries that would found the Communist Left movement in Britain were. There was no “royal road to science” on the world-wide web in the late 1960s so only printed publications would give you information. In this regard you also have to remember that much of Marx’s work was only then being published in English for the first time. Cheap Chinese commodities in the form of the Communist Manifesto first arrived courtesy of the “Foreign Languages Press – Peking” in 1965 to sit alongside the, largely unread, three volumes of Capital from Lawrence and Wishart (the Communist Party of Great Britain’s publishing arm). Mao’s Little Red Book was much more widely available than either and eagerly brandished at us by posh students revolting against their parents. When you tried to discuss whether the Chinese “Revolution” of 1949 was really socialist they would just chant “Are you for the working class or for the bourgeoisie?”.

No surprise then that we looked elsewhere. However, in a Cold War world we were painfully aware that if the USSR was “really existing socialism” as the Stalinists claimed, then we wanted nothing to do with it. Hungary 1956 was widely televised to workers around the UK who had televisions for the first time (the humbling of British imperialism at the hands of the USA in Suez in the same year being less widely shown). Later, the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 only reinforced the notion that here was another empire operating under the false flag of socialism. On the other hand the brutality of the USA in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos confirmed that any pretensions capitalism had to “freedom and democracy” were just as hypocritical as the claimed socialism of the Eastern Bloc.

This is what led most of those who would go on to discover the Communist Left into the group Solidarity. Solidarity was founded in 1960 by some of those expelled from the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League (later to become the Workers’ Revolutionary Party). Solidarity’s appeal lay in its basic statement As We See It. The key passages which attracted us were:

The ‘communist’ world is not communist and the ‘free’ world is not free ...
... A socialist society can therefore only be built from below. Decisions concerning production and work will be taken by workers’ councils composed of elected and revocable delegates. Decisions in other areas will be taken on the basis of the widest possible discussion and consultation among the people as a whole. This democratisation of society down to its very roots is what we mean by ‘workers power'.

As We See It, 1967

The Communist Left in the UK still agree with this to this day although we would replace “people” by “the working class” despite the knowledge that this will eventually just become “the citizenry”, or whatever, as classes will be abolished. Solidarity itself was actually a very incoherent grouping ranging from anarchists to some card-carrying members of the Labour Party (although they kept this quiet). Although it claimed to reject unions it also had members who were shop stewards (particularly in the builders’ union, UCATT). In fact, its leading industrial militant, Ken Weller, wrote a pamphlet on the GMWU subtitled “scab union”, as if the others were also not anti-working class.

Solidarity took as its theoretical guide the theories of the French ex-Trotskyist, Paul Cardan. Cardan not only rejected Trotskyism but eventually also Marxism as well. His Modern Capitalism and Revolution specifically rejected Marxist economic theories (which he associated only with the crude leftist versions he had once supported) and he also argued that the distinction in modern society was no longer between classes but between “order-givers” and “order-takers”. In this Cardan was like other ex-Trotskyists such as James Burnham, Bruno Rizzi, and Max Schactmann who when faced with the Soviet Union concluded that it was a neither-nor society and that there was a convergence between modern capitalism and Stalinism as social formations. Although Solidarity still talked of “the working class” it had no coherent picture of what working class revolution would look like. It has to be remembered too that this was a period in which the longest secular boom in capitalist history was underway and there were more than a few Marcuses who were arguing that “one dimensional man” (i.e. the world working class) was not going to make the revolution. These theorists were the forerunners of today’s anti-working class identity politics. According to them revolution would be the preserve of “minorities” such as black people and women instead of seeing them as part (and today a majority) of the wider class. The work of revolutionaries is of course that of the entirety of the international working class, which always has been a diverse mass.

Solidarity became more incoherent after the post-war boom ended. After 1968 its ranks were swelled by an influx of new young people (many of whom went on to become the backbone of the Communist Left groups that were formed in the seventies) who were trying to relate to the new wave of class struggle brought about by the return of the capitalist economic crisis, and who sought something that criticised the established left and challenged its dishonest practices of the past. Solidarity was also a decentralised organisation so that one group could publish almost autonomously of another. “The tyranny of structurelessness” referred to by one of its earlier critics was indeed a fact. Members often had the vague sense that all the decisions were taken elsewhere and then just transmitted to everyone by Chris Pallas (aka Maurice Brinton).

A few were gradually becoming critical of Solidarity’s view that saw some unions or leaders were scabs but that the unions themselves were basically working class (i.e. the usual Trotskyist position). In the epoch of imperialism the union structure itself had become part of the capitalist state but it would be some time before Solidarity’s internal critics came to understand this. What was clear was that Solidarity, which always condemned “the traditional Left”, still shared many of its cardinal positions. Some Solidarity members for example supported the NLF in Vietnam. J.M., who by this time was working clearly with Révolution Internationale in Paris, formed a faction inside Solidarity which criticised its inadequate break with Trotskyism and also questioned its anti-Marxist philosophy. He found new adherents in other Solidarity groups in Swansea and Oxford before they all left the organisation. At first they took the name Council Communism but after realising that this was an inadequate characterisation of their politics they took the name World Revolution. They would become the British section of the International Communist Current (ICC).

Others were in the process of drifting away in less confrontational fashion in 1973. D.G. Place who had been a leading member of Aberdeen Solidarity and wrote its pamphlet on the KPD was operating as a one-man band to which he gave the name Revolutionary Perspectives. He was now translating such works as Otto Rühle’s From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution which he published in cooperation with a group called Socialist Reproduction. It is this translation that you can still download from various sites on the web.

By 1973 Revolutionary Perspectives was more than a single individual. It was in contact, not only with the World Revolution group, but also with a group of ex-Trotskyist workers in Liverpool called Workers’ Voice. Most of them had also been one-time members of the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League and though most of them had experience as shops stewards they had now developed a critique of the unions as anti-working class. One comrade had been “the only British Bordigist” back in the sixties but the general tone of the group was councilist. But then, as can be seen from World Revolution’s first attempt at a name, this was a dominant influence at the time. We had just had 55 years since the Russian Revolution and the notion that the Bolshevik Party had been the cause (and not just the instrument) of the counter-revolution affected every single one of us. It also made everyone suspicious of the political motives of the others but that is what the counter-revolution does to any defeated working class movement. The consequences of that defeat are still with us.

1973-1975: The Emergence of the Communist Left in the UK

By 1974 there were three groups (all of them confusedly trying to make sense of where the working class was now) in Britain, World Revolution, Revolutionary Perspectives and Workers’ Voice. A series of conferences were held in London and in Paris. These not only included Révolution Internationale (founded 1967) but were dominated by that organisation which even sent over its leading theoretician, Marc Chirik. These conferences were supposed to pave the wave for a united Communist Left organisation in Britain. Revolutionary Perspectives participated in them in that light. However, problems quickly arose, largely between World Revolution and Workers’ Voice. Sociologically speaking Workers’ Voice were manual workers who had educated themselves in left communism. They had published material on workers' councils including Origins of the Movement of Workers’ Councils in Germany as well as Communism versus Reforms from Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought and had started to produce a regular paper. World Revolution, on the other hand, came largely from the student milieu, which did not inhibit them from lecturing meetings on what was the true Marxist path. This did not go down well with the comrades of Workers’ Voice.

World Revolution did not help matters by insisting that they were the “pole of regroupment” and by adopting a kind of messianic zeal in discussion. Their perspective was that the revolution was just around the corner (“the counter-revolution is over”) and that therefore anyone who had doubts about the way forward was an obstructionist or sectarian. What made World Revolution worse during this period was their “Damascan conversion” to the idea that the Bolshevik Party led, and were the best elements in, a proletarian revolution in October 1917. There was nothing wrong with the fact that the group accepted Révolution Internationale’s arguments on the Russian Revolution over a single lunchtime (it came after months of discussion). What shocked the other two groups was World Revolution’s conclusion that, if Révolution Internationale were right on the Russian Revolution, then they were right on everything else. This was even more surprising given that Révolution Internationale had not yet made clear what “everything else” was. In one meeting in London in 1974 Marc Chirik announced, to universal surprise, that the armed workers’ councils were not the basis of “the workers’ state”. No sentence in all our discussions created more suspicion than that one. It stunned even the World Revolution comrades. One comrade (J.M.) started quizzing Chirik there and then as to what then was the state in the period of transition. The next time we saw World Revolution they were defending the notion that the state was not the workers’ councils but some body outside of society which could then be liquidated when it was redundant. Materially we could not see how that was possible. The suspicion lingered that there were more shocks in store.

By this time Revolutionary Perspectives was becoming more than the three people who had corresponded on the contents of Capital. The understanding of the arguments of Marx on how capitalism functioned and how it was inevitable that it would give rise to regular crises became the bedrock of our understanding of the crisis and the working class response to it. Ironically, on a suggestion of a future World Revolution comrade, we had also studied Paul Mattick’s Marx and Keynes and come to see how his understanding of the operation of the law of value had allowed him to predict that the post-war boom (“the longest secular boom in capitalist history”) was not only not a product of Keynesian economics, but that it would come to an end at some point as the laws of capital accumulation would re-assert themselves.

World Revolution shared with Révolution Internationale a cavalier disregard for the economic bases for our politics and never took our economic arguments seriously. Marc Chirik even dismissed us as “the political economists of the Communist Left”. However, before this, World Revolution suggested that Revolutionary Perspectives write its own platform in order to frame where we stood and to advance the discussions between us. We thought this was fair since it is easy to criticise someone else’s platform but far more difficult to produce your own. We wrote a platform of about 6 pages but when we sent it to World Revolution we received a denunciation of 14 pages which not only criticised politically what we had written but questioned our motives for writing it! By now the issues between us were reduced to three: the end of the Russian Revolution (we said it was 1921 but World Revolution had an open position), the cause of the capitalist crisis (we held that it was due to the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall whilst World Revolution said it was due to “saturated markets”, erroneously claiming that this was the view of Rosa Luxemburg, a theoretician whom they still had not read) and the period of transition (Revolutionary Perspectives rejected any notion of an artificial body called the “state” being created between society and the workers’ councils). Later the more experienced Révolution Internationale told us they would have taken our Platform as a basis for acceptance into the ICC but World Revolution were full of their new-found “coherence” and wanted to demonstrate its theoretical superiority hence their outright rejection.

This rejection left Revolutionary Perspectives in a quandary which was made worse when Workers’ Voice abruptly announced that World Revolution were “counter-revolutionary” over its position on the state. Revolutionary Perspectives now had a choice to make between the two organisations both of whose publications we were selling in our workplaces. Workers’ Voice actually regarded us with suspicion as we had tried to argue World Revolution’s case to them. However, given the rejection of our platform by World Revolution, we began to work more and more closely with Workers’ Voice (issuing joint leaflets, going to factories together, etc.). It was a time of great enthusiasm and many workers’ struggles against the attempt to make them pay for the crisis and all three organisations began to get new members.

Both Workers’ Voice and Revolutionary Perspectives tripled in size in a few months and the impetus to form one organisation became difficult to resist. In September 1975 a conference took place in Liverpool to unite. There was a minority view in Revolutionary Perspectives that the regroupment should be postponed to allow for new people to be integrated into both organisations. It was not well-received by Workers’ Voice so unification went ahead and the CWO was founded. This began a remarkable process of cooperation in which we published two papers with separate editorial boards made up of joint delegates from both of the old organisations.

For a year things went well. World Revolution of course saw the CWO as “an incomplete regroupment” but as we were already convinced (wrongly) that they were on the way to leftism it did not have a great impact. What did have great impact was the first critique of our Platform made by an Italian organisation, the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt, which publishes Battaglia Comunista), written by Mauro Stefanini. We had heard of the PCInt, but Révolution Internationale had told us that they were “sclerotic” and “Bordigist”. Lacking Italian it took some time to work out what it said but we found the tone of it something much more comradely and serious than the way debate had developed in Britain. The main criticism of our Platform was its confusion on the role and function of the revolutionary Party (not surprisingly since at that time we held a position close to that of the KAPD).

However, whilst we were taking this criticism on board, things changed. In the first place the wave of working class militancy which had brought about the rise of the Communist Left in the early seventies came to an end. We knew the climate had changed when our leaflets at factories and other workplaces which were initially well received started to be rejected. The crunch came when we leafleted the shipyards in Newcastle at the end of 1976 with a leaflet “Is the worst over?” in which we detailed the attacks that the Labour Government would have to carry out to satisfy the IMF. Workers threw it away in hundreds. They were not ready for the message (and we were not ready for what followed when the Callaghan Government implemented the IMF cuts in 1977). The joke about the leaflet in the CWO was that it should have been called “Is this the worst ever?” but it was no laughing matter. Apparently the Liverpool comrades had had the same reaction in their factories. They had already reached the conclusion that “money militancy” was not leading to a unified movement based on the interests of the entire class but only to one sectional struggle after another. It was a view that finished off any notion that “the struggle is everything” or that spontaneity derived from the immediate struggle was in itself the begetter of class consciousness. It was a reflection that the whole organisation was trying to digest but it was not the only reason for the crisis which hit us soon afterwards.

1976-1977: Crisis in the CWO

The new uncertainty about where the class movement was going brought to the fore some tensions between the founding partners. The old Workers’ Voice have never been all that co-ordinated and there were also tensions between them. In fact their call for unification with Revolutionary Perspectives seems to have been a last call to save Workers’ Voice. Given this, the former Revolutionary Perspectives members tended to theoretically dominate discussion even though the experience and observations of the former Workers’ Voice comrades were highly respected. One comrade (B.A.) resented the fact that he had to turn international correspondence (which he regarded as a private matter for him) over to the organisation and the final straw was that Liverpool expelled a comrade for a whole month without informing the rest of the organisation or allowing him a right of appeal. The fact was that the comrade had formally broken our statutes by accepting election as a shop steward in a car factory. However, whatever the outcome, this was an important issue to debate. What do communists do when workers demand we take up positions we cannot accept? We have an answer today but not back then. Now B.A. (today once again “the only British Bordigist” as he publishes Communist Left which is the British output of Il Partito Communista, a split from Il Programma Comunista in 1974) began a series of manoeuvres intended to reassert Liverpool’s autonomy. He introduced two people into the organisation who were later found to be Labour Party supporters but as they were “intellectuals” he thought he could use them to argue against the old Revolutionary Perspectives people, especially D.G. Place. The result was a particularly hostile meeting in Liverpool in which the two new members basically announced the CWO was wrong to base its perspectives on capitalism’s failure to develop the productive forces (i.e. the crisis) and our position should be based on moralism (“the theft of surplus labour from the working class” as they put it). None of the original Liverpool section said anything to refute this and made no reply to the document of the CWO Aberdeen comrades entitled “Crisis in the CWO”. It was agreed to hold a meeting to resolve the issue but the Aberdeen section refused to go to Liverpool and the Liverpool section refused to go anywhere else. It was thus finally agreed to hold the meeting in Newcastle but on the morning of the meeting in September 1976 Liverpool sent a telegram to say that they would not be coming.

For D.G. Place this was a body blow as he had worked very hard to try to maintain the unity of the CWO. In the document “Two Years of the CWO” (published in Revolutionary Perspectives 8, First Series) he later admitted we had been wrong to try to integrate with Workers’ Voice and should have stayed aloof from them until they had either become politically clearer, or had dissolved, rather than try to “save” them by regrouping with them. The lesson was that there was no substitute for political clarity. Ironically, the Liverpool comrades did leave us with a theoretical legacy when they had argued that economic struggles did not provide an automatic path to a wider class consciousness but only encouraged sectional struggles. It would be reflected in our discussions on the role of revolutionaries and the question of the class party in the years that followed. As the Liverpool people had no plans for future collective activity (due to the tensions within the old group) the remaining CWO kept the name Workers’ Voice for its paper although this did not take on printed form until 1980. For the next few years it was distributed in its thousands as a 4 page factory gate bulletin in Glasgow, Tyneside, Leeds, and London.

But the CWO’s problems did not end with the Liverpool debacle. Aberdeen, by their refusal even to talk to Liverpool, had been instrumental in accelerating the split and it was they who now split the CWO once again. Having decided that the split with Liverpool was due to our organisational mistakes (which they had never identified previously) they had already contacted the ICC (as World Revolution now was) without the knowledge of the rest of the organisation, and now called for the CWO to instantly join the ICC. We held a meeting in Glasgow in July 1977 where we basically offered to discuss their proposal seriously but they had no arguments to make other than that they now thought the ICC was “the communist movement”. By a majority of a single comrade the CWO decided to carry on, though the Aberdeen and Edinburgh comrades now left for the ICC, claiming they would fight for CWO positions in the ICC.

This lasted for half a dozen years before they split from the ICC at the time of the Chenier affair. The ICC had asked them for a declaration of loyalty against the Chenier group which they had refused to give. When the ICC started breaking into people’s houses (ostensibly to recover ICC property), including that of J.M. who left alongside the activist splitters, Aberdeen threatened them with calling the police (something for which we criticised them and they subsequently realised was a mistake). However the Aberdeen/Edinburgh group did not return to the CWO, perhaps because everything we had predicted about their trajectory in the ICC had come true. They now formed the Communist Bulletin Group and produced 15 issues of a magazine over the next few years which was largely full of their criticisms of both the ICC and the CWO for being “monolithic”. In 1992 we held discussions with them with a view to joint work but within a few months they announced their dissolution.

1977-1989: The CWO and the Italian Left

However, this is to anticipate. The political development of the CWO now took a different course. The month after the Aberdeen split in 1977 we sent a delegation to Italy where we met the comrades of the PCInt. We not only discovered that they were not Bordigist but had indeed stood for the key positions of the Communist Left in the split with Il Programma Comunista in 1951-2. We also discovered that the ICC slanders that they worked “inside the partisans” were not true except in the fact that they had worked wherever the working class was present. This had cost the lives of several militants who were murdered by the Stalinists. Most importantly we recognised that there was a position between Bordigism (“one cannot speak of a class unless there is a class party” i.e. the party is the class) and councilism (all parties are bourgeois) which was not the confused position that the ICC was putting forward (the ICC maintained at this time that the class secreted the party but did not give the party more than an “active factor” in the development of class consciousness). PCInt insisted that the party had to try to be as close to the wider class movement at all times no matter how dire the situation. This was part of its preparation as a future guide of the class when conditions changed.

The CWO gradually (over four years) absorbed the PCInt idea that the party was the vanguard of the class for itself and in the revolution as before it sought to be the guide and leadership of the class (but still recognising that the class as a whole had to complete the process as socialism is an affair of the masses not of the elites of bourgeois society). Their 1952 Platform put it clearly:

It would be a gross and dangerous error for the future to believe that the moment the working class creates their party, then they somehow relinquish – totally or even partially – those attributes which make them the gravedigger of capitalism, as if others could act as an alternative and have the same consciousness of the need to struggle against the class enemy and to overthrow it in revolution. At no time and for no reason does the proletariat abandon its combative role. It does not delegate to others its historical mission, and it does not give power away to anyone, not even to its political party.

Political Platform of the Internationalist Communist Party, 1952

However, before the CWO were able to understand this, the PCInt had decided to inaugurate a series of conferences of groups of the Communist Left (which were flourishing at the time). PCInt apparently hoped the Bordigists would also attend but were not surprised when they did not.

At the first conference in Milan there should have been three groups – the ICC, the PCint and the CWO, but the CWO delegate’s flight was cancelled (ironically when the airline firm went bankrupt!) so we sent our documents instead. We also participated in the Second and Third Conferences but between these two conferences our delegate was mandated to announce that unless any new steps were taken at the conference then we would not be attending the next.

By this time the numbers of groups attending had expanded but the discussions in the Third Conference was an exact replica of that at the Second. The ICC’s position on the party was extremely difficult to gauge as one speaker would say something promising only to be contradicted by another who attacked the idea of a political vanguard. It has to be said too that some of the contributions by CWO comrades in those conferences were neither clear nor consistent as our views were at the time in transition. It would only be in 1981-2 that we would arrive at our current position.

We did not realise that in fact the ICC was also riven by a split between councilists and those closer to the position of the PCInt (although they could not say this openly). Their solution was to use metaphors to avoid a more critical definition of their policy. On the floor of the meeting the CWO and the Belgian GCI (an early “anarcho-Bordigist” split from the ICC) separately announced that they would not attend the next conference. The CWO did not consult with the PCInt before doing this but the PCInt, as the initiators of the conferences, tried to salvage something from them by proposing a new criterion for the next conference which would satisfy (or so they thought) some elements like the CWO and GCI and it would force the ICC to take a clearer stand. It did not work out like that as the ICC argued that the resolution was only intended to exclude them. They tried to get the PCInt to change the words of the criterion so that it would allow for the confusion on the party question to continue. PCInt stuck by the original formulation and the CWO delegation decided to support them. The GCI did not and the Third Conference thus broke up in confusion with the ICC denouncing it all as a manoeuvre of the PCInt.

Four years later the ICC had their first activist split (see above in reference to the Communist Bulletin Group). This was quickly followed by the split of the so-called External Fraction (which now exists as Internationalist Perspectives). The former split was pointless in our view and we did persuade at least one member of the ICC to go back to the ICC. Like all activists these people became gradually less and less active and disappeared within a couple of years. J.M., who was the animator of World Revolution at the start, resigned at this time and sent us a long denunciation of the ICC (with a particular diatribe against Marc Chirik). When we did not publish it he tarred the CWO with the same brush as the ICC. The External Fraction continued to exist as a sort of “original ICC” but they were really the councilists who had caused so much confusion at the International Conferences. They eventually morphed into the anti-party semi-communiser group Internationalist Perspectives. We thought the ICC would become closer to us after this split and did hold joint meetings with them but by now the main issue which separated us was perspectives (the ICC now claiming that the 1980s would be the “years of truth” and that a rising tide of class struggle would force the issue of socialism or barbarism).

Whilst the ICC was splitting the CWO was actually regrouping with another group, the Internationalist Communist Organisation, which had appeared in Britain at the beginning of the 1980s. They identified with the PCInt, particularly with their policy of factory groups and as the CWO was advancing on the same lines we eventually came together (under the benign advice of the PCInt, in particular of our late comrade Mauro Stefanini) and the Internationalist Communist Organisation joined the CWO which adopted a new platform closer to the PCInt. This process was significant not just because of the maturity shown by the Internationalist Communist Organisation comrades (the majority of whom have remained staunch CWO members ever since) but also because it indicated to PCInt how they needed to act in similar circumstances. It helped define one of the characteristics of the International Bureau which would be formed a couple of years later.

After 1981 the PCInt had tried to maintain the International Conferences and a Fourth was held in London in 1984 but, despite a lot of interest, only the CWO, the PCInt and the Student Supporters of the Union of Communist Militants (SSUCM) sent delegations although the Austrian GIK also intended to come but did not for practical reasons. The SSUCM accepted all the criteria for the Conference but they were a group which had no responsibility being only “student supporters” of the UCM so they felt they could sign up to anything. The discussions with them were meaningless (as the documents make clear) so the only gain was the closer proximity of the CWO and the PCInt. Eventually, when the SSUCM joined with a Maoist guerrilla organisation in Kurdistan called Komala to form the Communist Party of Iran, we were able to finally read their true programme which was much clearer than anything they had ever sent us before. We instantly denounced it in the very first issue of the Bureau’s international magazine Communist Review (later Internationalist Communist).

A year after the Fourth Conference we went on to found together the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (the name International Bureau being part of the heritage of the Italian Left before the Second World War). This was not achieved without a long debate on the legacy of the Italian Left inside the CWO which we published in Revolutionary Perspectives 20 (First Series). Although we retained our name derived from the German Left with which we associated ourselves at our foundation we now recognised that the method and struggle of the Italian Left (which we now saw was not the same as Bordigism) formed a firmer basis for revolutionary communist politics.

A fifth conference was actually held in Vienna in 1989 on the situation in Eastern Europe. This was attended by the German Bordigist group IRK, the Austrian GIK, and the Mexican Alptraum group, as well as the CWO and PCInt, and a set of documents were issued. The IRK later split and the Alptraum Communist Collective disappeared but we maintained cordial relations with the GIK, and its successor the GPR, until the tragic death of its animator, Robert Sutterlutti in 2009.

Late 1970s and 1980s: Surviving Capitalist Restructuring

As hinted above the years 1976-7 were not just a turning point for the CWO but for the entire global working class. In Britain the change came early when Labour’s Callaghan announced that “we cannot spend our way out of a crisis” and the first cuts in welfare and the NHS took place. Unemployment tripled to one and half million in two years and the working class were forced under the “social contract” signed between the TUC and the Labour Government to accept a wage freeze at a time of double digit inflation. It failed and the unions were faced with a massive array of strikes (and were forced to lead them) thus leading to the “winter of discontent” of January 1979. This is often cited as the reason for the Tory victory in the General Election of June 1979 but the fact that unemployment and inflation were hitting the working class at the same time meant that many did not vote in the same numbers (and Labour’s share of the vote fell to its lowest post-war figure).

The Tories did no better in the crisis. Unemployment doubled again in Thatcher’s first couple of years in office and inflation reached 22%. The unemployment increase was partly due to the first steps on the road to a restructuring of British industry, which took place with privatisation of British Steel. What we did not appreciate at first was that this was to be a global game changer forced on the system by the crisis. Workers who had managed to prevent their wages falling in the 1970s (through demanding that they keep up with prices) now were faced with an entirely different issue. What use is striking when the ruling class have already decided to cut their losses and wipe out jobs? Mass unemployment completely turned the tables of the class war. The working class was now in retreat as we wrote several times during the next decade. What we had always expected was that all nation states would defend the “commanding heights” of their own economies. The crisis had now completely altered this perspective but it would be a few years yet before the CWO would see this (the PCInt actually saw it before us).

Before that epiphany another factor entered the equation. Thatcher would have lost the 1983 election had it not been for another game changer – the Falklands War. There was nothing like a “short victorious war” against a corrupt and inefficient military dictator as General Galtieri to boost nationalism. Until the Falklands War nationalism and support for militarism was fairly low key. There were none of the elaborate commemorations of previous imperialist wars and not wearing a poppy around 11 November did not arouse comment. Flags were largely confined to state occasions and football matches but the easy victory over under-equipped Argentinian conscripts changed all that. The jingoism of the present-day (culminating in Brexit) had its roots then. In the Falklands War we called for the overthrow of both regimes in literally tens of thousands of leaflets we took to workplaces and demonstrations. Some workers even sent us relatively big donations to print more but the outcome was a massive Tory electoral victory and the preparation of the next attack which was to be focussed on the coal industry.

Thatcher’s government had been forced to back down from its first attempt to shut pits in 1981 but strengthened by a massive parliamentary majority and a new plan to isolate the miners (which included the import of coal from abroad). In February 1984 the announcement of the first pit closures led to a wildcat strike by local miners at two South Yorkshire collieries under the slogan “Coal not Dole”. Despite the poetry of the words this was a disastrous choice since it turned the miners’ struggle from being a struggle of the vanguard of the British working class on behalf of all workers into a sectional struggle about miners’ jobs. All the many leaflets and articles we wrote at the time were attempts to reverse that perception. Miners confident that they had won alone in the past (1972, 1974, 1981) so would win again were often hostile to our message. They did not realise that this was a different struggle against a prepared class enemy (although many came to understand that by the end). For us this was the crossroads of the class struggle and the international interest it evoked indicated that its impact would go way beyond the UK.

The defeat of the miners paved the way for similar defeats at Wapping and across the entire working class as wages stagnated. The fear of losing a job became more important than what you got paid. The one working class victory of a sort was to see off the Poll Tax.

The CWO weathered the storms of the 1980s and even grew slightly, largely through our participation in the various major events of the decade. Our perspective throughout was that the working class was resisting but fighting a rearguard action. What we noted was that for all the pain inflicted on workers the crisis of accumulation did not go away. There was no repeat of the boom from 1945-1970. Instead capitalism globally has shifted from one strategy to another in an effort to keep the economy going.

1980s to Today: Globalisation and Financialisation – the Road to Speculation

The other great event of the period was the collapse of the USSR and its empire. In 1982 we had a fierce debate about the imminence of war with some comrades insisting it was near. However, the majority stuck to the view that as both super-powers had emerged as “contented” powers from the Second World War then the dangers of a direct conflict were not imminent. Proxy wars had of course characterised the Cold War and these continued.

One factor though that caught our attention was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – a first direct USSR military move outside the boundaries of empire set in 1945 (with the single exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962). We thought this revealed a new weakness in the USSR. As a result of US support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan the country became its Vietnam. The KGB modelled how a nuclear war might go in 1982 (so our minority comrades were not so wrong) but they concluded that the USSR had nothing to gain from such a war and that the arms race which the US had embarked on was crippling the less efficient USSR economy. They became the agents for change in the USSR and put their own boss, Andropov, in charge after Brezhnev’s death, but he died and it took two more precious years before their next choice, Gorbachev, could become Party Secretary. His policies of glasnost and perestroika caused consternation amongst the nomenklatura whose privileges were threatened. Their attempted coup against Gorbachev (whose instructions had led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) brought down the USSR. We had tentatively predicted this in 1986 but it was nevertheless a shock that events unfolded so quickly. And the biggest shock of all was to see the implosion of a major imperialist power without a war.

Had we arrived at “the end of History” The answer was no but many groups and organisations went into crisis (some disappeared). The Communist Left was not spared despite the fact that we had always argued that the USSR was both state capitalist and as a consequence imperialist. The CWO itself was also touched in that its leading comrade D.G. Place now argued that we had been wrong in asserting that state capitalism was the future of capitalism. Not only had the USSR collapsed but the Western capitalists were privatising many of the industries previously recognised as of strategic economic and military significance – especially in the UK. The majority of the CWO though argued that state capitalism was not just state ownership of the means of production but the fact that capitalism today could not function without the control of the bulk of economic life of the system through the political system. This was debated continuously for almost two years before, finding little support, D.G. Place abruptly announced his resignation and left political work altogether saying that the working class had failed.

Oddly enough this stimulated the CWO to go out and recruit new members and we started to build a new membership especially based in Sheffield which became the centre of the organisation for the next 15 years. It has also allowed us to deepen our understanding of the nature of capitalism. Our basic premise remains the same as the day we started; that the capitalist crisis is a cyclical product of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (or the rise in the organic composition of capital to put it another way). This was what brought the post-war boom to an end and led to workers’ resistance which brought about the establishment of the Communist Left in the UK (and elsewhere). With the assistance of our comrades in the PCInt we have come to understand too how the system has morphed as the capitalists have been forced into various strategies to maintain its functioning.

The CWO has never stopped assessing the specific situation of the class whilst getting to grips with the new phenomena and altering our immediate practice as a consequence. With little workers’ resistance to restructuring and with the need to understand the increasingly globalised economy the main task, we decided to suspend publication of our paper Workers’ Voice. After over 80 issues we replaced it with the quarterly Revolutionary Perspectives which resumed as Series 3 at the end of 1995. By May 1999 we found we also had need for a more agitational/propagandist publication as well so we began the free broadsheet Aurora which we distribute on picket lines, at demonstrations and in meetings. This has become more regular since the bursting of the speculative bubble in 2008. We produced 62 issues of the quarterly Revolutionary Perspectives. It became our “organiser” with a wide range of articles to which every comrade contributed regularly throughout the 1990s and into the new century. However, as the leftcom.org website became more and more significant it now meant that a periodical theoretical journal did not have to appear so frequently so we started Series 4 as a twice-yearly theoretical journal in 2013. This also allowed us to produce more books and pamphlets including translations of Onorato Damen’s books on Bordiga and Gramsci. A full list of these can be found on our website.

Our activity throughout the period after 1992 has not been confined to publications whether physical or digital. In our then base, Sheffield, not only did we institute well-attended and regular education groups on basic Marxist concepts from the economic to the social and political but we also came to be the main organisers of No War But the Class War (NWBCW). This grew out of a perception shared by many comrades that we should oppose the Iraq War in 2003 but also oppose the class collaborationist and reactionary movement of the capitalist left in the Stop the War movement (which supports any state that is anti-Western without analysing the exploitation and oppression they inflict on the working class too). Although the NWBCW group has risen and fallen over the years we have never abandoned the slogan which we have inscribed on our banners because capitalism is gradually taking us down the road to generalised war, and already on certain regions of the planet it is inflicting wars without end.

All this at the same time as Revolutionary Perspectives was spearheading our analyses of contemporary capitalism. Deregulation, privatisation and the shift of investment to the low wage areas of the world (foremost amongst them China) plus the microprocessor revolution all brought about a new direction for capitalism. Old unprofitable industries were either rationalised and slimmed down or simply abandoned and the domination of banking over the system in the old capitalist countries meant they could reap greater profits by investing in the new deregulated “Special Economic Zones” in Asia and Latin America. In the UK and other traditionally dominant capitalist countries like the US this brought a gradual decline in working class share of GDP. Whereas a single (usually male) “blue collar” job brought in a wage for an entire family now both parents would have to work (mainly in the service sector) to get anything like the previous standard of living. Globally the world working class as a share of the population has increased throughout this process but the composition of the class has also changed too (as we have analysed many times: see, for example, Capitalism's New Economy or The Gig Economy: Capitalism’s New Normal.

Capitalism may have restructured on a global basis but the microprocessor revolution, unlike previous technological revolutions (steam power, electricity, internal combustion engine), did not spawn a whole load of ancillary activities which could have made the system more profitable. The crisis of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall which had brought an end to the post-war boom had not been resolved. Capitalism needed (and still needs) some massive destruction of capital as in a world wide war before it could start to accumulate profitably again. In the late 1980s the next trick was to deregulate all finance (in 1987 the so-called “big bang” in the UK). This meant freeing up banks to do what they liked with their clients’ money and undoing the legislation of the 1930s intended to limit speculation. It created what appeared to many as an economic boom but was in fact the last phase of a crisis – the crisis of speculation.

Throughout the early years of this century the CWO and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (after 2009 the Internationalist Communist Tendency) argued that this was founded on sand and that there would be a collapse. For us the only surprise was that it took until 2007-8 before the speculative bubble burst. The capitalist system has not only not recovered from its consequences but was headed for another debt-provoked crisis at the end of 2019. In some ways the pandemic has provided a useful alibi or distraction even as it emphasises the inadequacy of a system which had not prepared for it despite years of warnings from scientists. What it will mean is more misery for the world’s working class to add to the misery of the years of austerity following the 2008 meltdown. In the same period billions have been handed out to the same financial bodies that brought about that misery without them doing anything but speculate further with the capital “created” by the state. The system staggers on but workers are paying the price. This is not sustainable (and nor is it conceivable that capitalism which brought us global warming is going to reverse gear and solve the issue itself). Capitalism has to be destroyed. And this is what the CWO and the Internationalist Communist Tendency is dedicated to achieving.

It’s a big aim for a still small organisation but the reason for our relative weakness is because we are a part of the working class movement and our size reflects its lack of a current revolutionary agenda. One of the tools the working class will need to emancipate itself globally is a revolutionary international but the conditions under which that party will come into being have only matured in an objective sense (the crisis of the system) but this has not been matched by the subjective factor (a wider class resistance). None of today’s revolutionary groups, even if we aggregated all our numbers, has a sufficient life within the working class to make a significant impact. However, if the working class is to fulfil the role of gravedigger of the system, the class movement will create new forces which the ICT will attempt to guide and be guided by – as part of that process of development of the revolutionary class will also be in learning from the new experience of the wider class. In other words, an international party will come between the dialogue of the practical struggle of the working class and its historic acquisitions as expressed in the existing revolutionary minorities. We know from past experience that what often happens is that the revolutionary minority formed in one revolutionary wave have disappeared by the next one and so the proletariat is compelled to learn the same lessons from scratch all over again. This is one reason why the CWO and the ICT have defended what we consider to be the fundamentals of revolutionary Marxism for the last 45 years (and of course the PCInt has been around for 77 years). An organisation of revolutionaries has to exist in advance of the next wave if we are to avoid the disasters of the past. And that is why we participated in the formation of the International Bureau of the Revolutionary Party first, and then with new comrades in Germany, France, the USA and Canada, its successor in the Internationalist Communist Tendency.

We still face daunting challenges from all those who write off the working class and who try to find all kinds of ways to deny its agency in the revolution but combatting these defeatists is just one more task we set ourselves. The stakes here are too high for humanity to abandon the one hope we have to alter the desperate course capitalism is taking us on. It’s either forward to a classless, stateless, moneyless society which provides for the needs of all or the destruction of all that humanity has achieved before. If humanity is to have a future it has to be one without capitalism. And we don’t have another 45 years to get there.


September 2020

Appendix: A Timeline Summary of the History of the CWO

1943: Foundation in clandestinity of the Internationalist Communist Party by Onorato Damen, Luciano Stefanini (Mauro), Bruno Maffi, Giovanni Bottaioli (Butta), Aldo Lecci (Tullio) and others.

1945: First Congress of the PCInt (Turin).

1952: Bordiga (who was not a formal member of the PCInt) inspires the split headed by Maffi and Vercesi (Ottorino Perrone) which gives birth to the International Communist Party (the original late Bordigan party from which all subsequent ICPs split).

1973: The group Revolutionary Perspectives founded and produces the first issue of the magazine of the same name. Begins discussions with World Revolution and Workers’ Voice.

1975: The Communist Workers’ Organisation founded in Liverpool in September from the fusion of Revolutionary Perspectives and Workers’ Voice. Workers' Voice is produced as an agititional/propaganda bulletin 6 times in that year and Revolutionary Perspectives 4 times as the theoretical journal of the CWO.

1976: The former Workers’ Voice comrades leave the CWO without any kind of explanation and go their separate ways.

1977: The Aberdeen section of the CWO leave and join the ICC (which they leave in 1984 to form the Communist Bulletin Group which folds in 1992). We continue with Revolutionary Perspectives as theoretical publication alongside Workers’ Voice as a duplicated 4 page factory bulletin which was distributed regularly at shipyards, engineering works and docks over the next few years.

1977: The First Conference of the International Communist Left organised by the PCInt takes place in Milan (CWO participates via documents).

1978: Second Conference of the International Communist Left (Paris).

1980: Third Conference of the International Communist Left (Paris) leads to the abandonment of the conferences by the ICC and other smaller groups. Discussions in the UK between the newly-formed Internationalist Communist Organisation and the Communist Workers’ Organisation leads to the former strengthening the CWO. Workers’ Voice becomes our main organ as a broadsheet newspaper and Revolutionary Perspectives continues as a quarterly.

1981-2: Debate in the CWO culminates in the recognition of the PCInt as the most cohesive defender of the revolutionary core of Marxism.

1983: Formation of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party between the CWO and the PCInt. Revolutionary Perspectives replaced by Communist Review (later Internationalist Communist) which becomes the international journal of the entire IBRP.

1995: Workers’ Voice replaced by Revolutionary Perspectives (Third Series) which combines agitation and theoretical articles as a consequence of the low level of class combativity in this period. It also leads to the production of more pamphlets. Internationalist Communist remains the organ of the whole tendency. A new free agitiational broadsheet was adopted under the name Aurora.

2002: The IBRP is joined by the Internationalist Workers’ Group in North America consisting of comrades in Canada and the USA.

2005: Death of Mauro Stefanini on 2 May, the chief animator of the IBRP.

2006: The IBRP is joined by the comrades of the Gruppe Internationaler Socialistinnen (GIS) of Germany (now the Gruppe Internationaler Kommunistinnen). Last issue of Internationalist Communist published.

2009: The International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party becomes the Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT)

2015: A crisis in the Groupe Internationale Ouvrier, the Canadian section of the IWG, leads to its disaffiliation. English translation of Onorato Damen’s book on Bordiga is published.

2017: Klasbatalo (Canada) is formed (without any of the former militants of the GIO) and affiliates to the ICT. At the same time the US branch of the IWG expands to include militants the length and breadth of the USA.

2019: The ICT adopts a new Platform which although not politically different from the old one is easier to read and thus becomes a much better instrument for explaining our politics. English translation of Onorato Damen’s book on Gramsci published.

Thursday, September 24, 2020