The Party, Fractions and Periodisation

The Party and Fractions

I read with interest the texts on Party and Fraction by F Damen and the CWO intro but ive included my comments in this forum as the article appeared some time ago now. The Damen text clarifies for me a good bit of the development of discussion on organisation and I can see more about where the decision about creating an Italian party in 1943 comes from. Following the discussions on Germany in 1918 and the obvious lack of influence the evolutionary political organisations had in Germany, I can understand far more the basis for the criticisms of what he calls ‘the wait and see’ approach to the creation of the party as opposed to the ‘build the party now or as soon as possible’ approach that he advocates.. However it do think that both labels are simplistic and rather derogatory. What was being argued then and indeed now is not that simple ( I don’t see that applies to the ICC today either), and it doesn’t really explain to me in a way that would form the basis of how the CWO/ICT functions today

The text certainly certainly explains well the role of a fraction and makes very good arguments for flexibility in the judgement on calling the Party into existence. As Damen says conditions must be right but the active engagement of the Party to build its influence in the class is a factor that must be taken into account rather than waiting until the revolutionary situation arrives.

I note however a (perhaps inevitable) weakness in the discussions in the 30s, in that the ‘build the party as soon as poss’ was based on the assumption that another world war would lead to another revolutionary phase ie a relatively close prospect. This would clearly have made the language in favour of build the party soon’ because the timescale would have been seen as very short anyway.

Again inevitably there were weaknesses in the understanding of both sides of this view of the party which as the articles says disrupted the work on Bilan in the late 30s. I would suggest it was more the period that didn’t allow a clear conclusion to the discussion.

The next element that remains unclear to me relates more to the situation today. I agree with the intro’s questioning on the ICC seeing its role as ‘a sort of fraction’. I still don’t understand what they are saying in this regard. I didn’t disagree with them though when they argued for their role as a ‘pole of regroupment’, This makes sense to me in the context of a period where revolution is not yet on the cards. There again though I take the meaning of ‘build the party’ which tends to end CWO articles to mean much the same as the ICCs term, pole of regroupment. CWO members have stated consistently that they are not the party now, so I understand it to mean that you are aiming to build today is a militant organisation.

So the CWO too has the view that the Party would be inappropriate in this current period (70 years after the end of the war discussed in Damens text) and even during the wave of struggles in late 60s and 70s, there was no call to create the Party. I don’t disagree with this, as I say, but I don’t understand the theory behind this unless you regard the whole of this period since WW2 as a continuation of the counter-revolution.


Behind the issues raised in Damens text and the issues I have raised lies what is an interesting problem for me, ie the differences in how CWO and ICC periodise recent history and indeed contemporary society.

I am now less concerned about whether we talk about obsolence or decadence. Its fundamentally the same thing as can be seen from the following quote from Damen. Its just that different orgs adhere to and highlight their own language!!

'The great strength of the bourgeoisie has always consisted in making the masses believe that it is impossible to break the economic and political structures of capitalism by force. They elevate their mode of production to a unique and universally valid system, with the aim of making the revolutionary solution appear impractical, as well as utopian as a political perspective. Marxism has shown us scientifically how capitalism is a transitory productive form born of the impossibility of the feudal economy to develop productive forces and destined to disappear when, once its historical task has been exhausted, it becomes an obstacle to the further development of those productive forces which it had helped to establish'

Bilan and Damen shows clear effort to periodise so as to understand objectives for militant organisation within this period of obsolence of capitalism. ICC theory of decadence and historic course also tried to do this but the ongoing development of capitalism in last question of 20thc and first part of 21stthrow doubt on aspects of this understanding. Revisions have been clearly necessary due to actual events. CWO also periodise as is shown in not creating a party and by maintaining an approach to developing the organisation and rejecting the fraction label in the current period. However in the texts I find both the implication that we are still in a period of counter revolution, but also that we are setting out on a new road!! Seems contradictory.

I am not in any way criticising the current practice of the CWO here but I would like to understand better the theory behind it. You clearly see that there has been a change from the pre war (and war) period. I see a distinct period of reconstruction after the war and a period where economic and political crises are hitting capitalism. This obviously comes from my sympathies for the basis idea of a historic course. I cannot see how the CWO differentiates its approach to economic and political changes in this past 70 years since WW2.



There is much that we can agree on (and I think you are wise to put the decadence issue to one side here). It seems that we have substantial agreement on the fact that the fraction arises at a particular period when an organisation which was considered proletarian begins to abandon its role. At that point the first task of revolutionaries is to fight to halt that process with the prospect that if the struggle fails then they will have at least clarified the reactionary nature of the old organisation to the widest possible sectors of the class (starting with the rank and file of the old party). Thus we had the Communist Abstentionist fraction inside the old Italian Socialist Party (which was a lot more devious than other Second International parties) and after the Comintern began to become an arm of Russian foreign policy we saw it with the Third International when it adopted the united front policy. The refusal of the Italian Communist Party to accept this led to the Comintern imposing a new leadership on the Party (despite the fact the Left still retained the support of the majority). In the conditions where Fascism was also imprisoning communists the elements of the Left formed their own fraction in exile (but which some of those in Fascist gaols kept contact with). They took the position that as long as the Comintern had not definitively betrayed the class then the Fraction had a purpose. The problem arose (and this is where we might diverge) when (in 1935) it was recognised that the Comintern was not reformable. The Italian Fraction it appears was divided (and not just about whether to declare a new party formed - think only of Spain). This division made the position of those who wanted to declare for a new party there and then rather weak. After all if the Vercesis and Jacobs would not rally to it what hope of addressing a wider movement. This is partially a problem of fractions. They are held together by opposition to another organisation and not by the praxis necessary to prepare for real work together once the old party is deemed incurably reactionary. The Fraction spent so much of its time addressing problems within the communist movement it had a very weak analysis of the actual issues going on in front of them. Not only Spain but also the nature of the USSR, the danger of war, the nature of the unions and even an analysis of capitalist crisis.

Today we don't live in the shadow of any old organisation. We are the remnants of the defeat of the proletariat in 1921, in 1945 and in the 1970s. We have never gone away (I read yesterday an ignorant anarchist on Facebook claiming that the communist left was now defunct - he must have been reading World Revolution!) but we are not deus ex machina. We are part of the class and our relative size is an expression of the level of consciousness of the class. Given that the class has been in retreat since the 1970s it is no surprise that we are no bigger than we are.

However the 1970s did represent a response to the reappearance of the capitalist crisis - the end of the post-war boom brought an attack on workers across the globe. Inflation, unemployment hammered working class living conditions and destroyed the old concentration of workers in the advanced capitalist world. Globalisation, financialisation and employming more modern constant capital in places where variable capital came cheap helped to allow the system to carry on (with continually declining growth rates). This is where we cannot understand why anyone would maintain that after 1968 there was a historic course which would lead to proletarian victory. It was the ICC who proclaimed the end of the counter revolution. We said nothing because we did not really believe it but we also reject the notion of the "historic course" as unmarxist. It is more like Hegelian teleology where there is only one goal - the truth exists if only humanity could find it. Marx never posed any such teleological goal. From the Communist Manifesto on he always talked about each specific period having its own class struggle which ended either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society or the common ruin of the contending classes. Socialism or barbarism, war or revolution. These are the continual binaries of the class war in history and there is no historic course. This is why we always criticised the ICC as "idealist"

Which brings us to the final point. If we are for the party and assert the proletariat has a permanent need for a political organisation which encapsulates its historic memory, the acquisitions of its own struggles contained in a programme why do we have an organisation which does not simply proclaim one. As we have argues many times with those who urged this upon us this would not only be voluntarist but also a mistake since the shape of the future class struggle is not clear. What is clear though is that capitalism's failure to devalue capital for 40 years, its increasing reliance on speculative financial activity (which allows 26 people to hold as much wealth as half the world's population) is upping the ante. We are moving into a period in which further economic chaos will ensue and devaluation through destruction in war becomes more likely. In the face of this we can throw up our arms in despair given the current situation of the working class and its relatively quiet response so far to the crisis. We can say all is chaos and decomposition and nothing can be done. OR we can recognise that the dialectic of history is moving on and at a certain point more and more will take up the struggle against a system which without exaggeration is on course to make this planet uninhabitable. Since the meltdown of 2008 we have already seen a shift - previously only "nutters" like us talked of capitalism and its crisis - now we are finding out there is one group after another arising studying Marx. Moreover the younger generation is beginning to find us and this is what makes us encourage the formation of nuclei of communists everywhere in order to build from the ground upwards a real international and internationalist organisation. At the moment it is small beer and lacks a wider influence in the working class but we are determined to play our part in helping to form the very political instrument the working class needs for the fight in the class wide organisations which will have to emerge as the harbingers of a new society. If you find a contradiction in that perspective it is because we face an unpredictable and contradictory situation which could yet have more surprising twists and turns....


The comrade from the CWO rejects the whole concept of the ‘historic course’ as ‘unmarxist’.

But what do we mean by the ‘historic course’, other than analysing the balance of class forces in any given period in order to assess the opportunities for revolution and identify the necessary tactics for the proletariat?

It was Marx’s own conclusion that the 1848 revolutions had been defeated that led him, despite the accusations of betrayal from some of his supporters, to dissolve the Communist League and use the ensuing period of capitalist expansion to concentrate on understanding the deeper workings of capital, precisely in order to recognise when revolutionary possibilities would once again present themselves. And it was this same concern for the analysis of the balance of class forces that led him to actively participate in the formation of the new ‘party’, the IWMA, and enthusiastically greet the new upsurge of class struggle.

Of course our analysis of the balance of class forces can be wrong; as Link points out, surviving revolutionaries, including the comrades of the PCInt in Italy, expected to see a revolutionary upsurge at the end of WW2. With hindsight we can see they failed to fully understand the depth of the counter-revolution imposed on the proletariat. But this only underlines the importance for Marxists of correctly analysing the situation in any given period.

The CWO comrade denies that the upsurge of class struggle after May ’68 represented the end of the counter-revolution (this was of course the view of the PCInt at the time). And yet he also claims that the 1970s represented “a response to the reappearance of the capitalist crisis - the end of the post-war boom”. So did the counter-revolution end or not? And if it didn’t, what exactly is the meaning of ‘counter-revolution’ being used here?

Did the period after May ’68 – compared, say, to the period 1933-1945, represent a significant shift in the balance of class forces or not? To put it simply, was there more potential for the proletariat to develop its struggles in a revolutionary direction in 1968, or in 1933, or 1945?

Despite rejecting the whole notion of the ‘historic course’ the comrade then sets out … an analysis of the current balance of class forces, based on the assumption that “We are moving into a period in which further economic chaos will ensue and devaluation through destruction in war becomes more likely”. Despite its “relatively quiet response so far to the crisis”, he affirms, the proletariat remains undefeated; in fact its response is apparently inevitable: “the dialectic of history is moving on and at a certain point more and more will take up the struggle”, and he points to a development of interest in the ideas of revolutionary minorities as signs of a ‘shift’ in proletarian consciousness.

So despite the comrade’s rather non-committal conclusion that “we face an unpredictable and contradictory situation which could yet have more surprising twists and turns....”, he is, whether he likes it or not, taking a position, based on what he sees as the available evidence, of the balance of class forces and the possibilities for proletarian revolution, ie. the ‘historic course’…

The fundamental question today is: 50 years after May ’68 and the struggles of the 70s, and faced with the survival of a system which now threatens the extinction of humanity, what is the perspective for communism? The role and tasks of revolutionaries should flow from our answer to this question.

The problem with discussing with the ICC and their sympathisers is that they have such a closed minded view of the world that they cannot ever see an alternative point of view. Markyhaze ignores our point that the idea of one goal in history has never been a Marxist position but has more to do with Hegel. Right from the start Marx posed the alternative of the revolutionary reconstitution of society or the common ruin of the contending classes (later put in terms of our own epoch by Engels as "socialism or barbarism". When Marx dissolved the Communist League he did not do so on the basis of "the course of history" (an invention by the founder of the ICC Marc Chirik who managed to get it wrong every time) but because at that moment he did not see the possibility of a real class movement breaking out. He did not turn to Engels and say "Jeez Fred capitalism is still in its period of ascendance so there is no point trying to build an organisation now". Within a few years he was looking (but not always finding) the opportunity to get an organisation going and he only had to wait 14 years before the First International was founded. The ICC was founded on the basis that proletarian revolution was just around the corner, that the working class is always latently revolutionary and the only task of revolutionaries was to "demystify" it of certain ideas and the revolution would be victorious. This "course of history" led to an almost fanatical religious belief that made the ICC a caricature of the communist left. Unfortunately this tarnished not only them but also the entire communist left and made many would be revolutionaries turn away from revolutionary politics altogether (and their are many more ex-ICC members now than there are ICC members.

We are not interested in the silly game as to when the counter-revolution ended. We will only know that it has ended when the working class themselves create a real international political force as it comes to the consciousness of what it has to do to end its condition and (without sounding too dramatic) save humanity from the destructive appetites of a degenerate capitalist order. What we do know is that capitalism is in an impasse and that it is continuing to make the working class pay for its failings. On the basis of that we are working to stimulate any class stirrings against the system as a whole, to bring back to the class the lessons of its own struggles and to create nuclei around the world of what might become a new international proletarian movement against capitalism. BUT we do not know the outcome. We only know that we can do nothing else whether we win or lose. What we do know is that this struggle is vital for humanity. And we note that at the end of his piece Markyhaze poses questions about where the working class is going but avoids giving any answers. That's the decomposition of theory for you!

Thanks both the responses. I wrote this before seeing C’s last contribution so hope you don’t mind if I post it now anyway and try to say something useful shortly. I keep being surprised that even when CWO and ICC viewpoints differ, I find them both more convincing than anything else I read. I do not argue for the 2 organisations to regroup, that is not appropriate, but I do think this is an example where closer relationship, ie more discussion, would be constructive. Both organisations are Marxist and I do not accept that differences of opinion reflect a lack of Marxism,

I agree with M when he says that the historic course is simply an analysis of the balance of class forces in any given period in order to identify the positions of the bourgeoisie and the working class and importantly to identify tactics for the organisations of the working class. It is or rather was quite simple and elegant explanation for how capitalism had developed up to the 70/80s. It made sense at that point in time and I don’t think it meant just one outcome as C suggest but rather reflected an analysis that suggests the most likely outcome in any given period.

Trouble is this period of extended crisis and downturn in struggle since then rather complicates the issue. Is it a defeat or a downturn? It seems to me that the current period is more like the period prior to WW1 so I tend to agree with Cs analysis that both war and revolution appear possible.

Further I understand that the ICC (sorry M, don’t know if you agree with this or not) now says that the historic course is on separate path to the class struggle ie there is a stalemate in the trends to war or revolution but the bourgeois is on top in the class struggle . As a way of respond to the changing conditions I don’t find this an appropriate explanation.

The core of my question about the CWO’s view of periodisation is to clarify how you distinguish between the various differing periods during the last century. This is also the point made by M. I would crudely identify these periods as follows - the thirties, the war period, the reconstruction period, period of struggles in late 60s and 70s, the period since then and I note you identify the period since 2008 as distinct too. Whilst I fully accept your interpretation of todays period and its tasks, I do not understand the implication that the period since the 30s is one single period of counter-revolution (again a point made by M). The explanation of the role of a fraction clearly relates to the period of the 30s (and the war itself) but not to the period after the war. I would have thought that you would agree there are differences in the balance of class forces and in the role of militant in each of the following periods ive listed. Could the answer be simply that although the CWO draws this balance of class forces and the likely consequences, it also will not rule out completely the possibility of either war or revolution in any period?

One further question of making this analysis is what is the basis for the creation of the Party. - It’s a question ive never really asked of anyone . Damen’s text suggested one side of the argument wanted to create a party as soon as the betrayal of the USSR was definitive. The ICT/CWO has not done this so must have some other understanding of the conditions for its creation. I find Cs explanation clear as to todays situation but given the criticisms being made of the ICC viewpoint ie that it puts off the creation of the party in a wait and see approach, what was the basis of the CWOs decision not to call for the formation of a Party in the period of the late 60s and early 70s?

It seems to me that the CWO and the ICC make the same argument about the Party being a response to the creation of the living link to the class. This feels vague but perhaps Ive forgotten what a period of class struggle is like. Lenin and Luxembourg never had this problem either so perhaps we are just being precious about the word Party after the experience of USSR?

Im not sure what C means about not discussing the end of the counter revolution? Lets ignore the term ‘Historic Course’, because I still presume you agree to the idea of analysing the balance of class forces (I asked in my previous contribution how you see that balance in the various periods since WW2) – mainly because I see you doing that in what you say and im in agreement.

So is the issue then in the use of the term ‘counter revolution’ and what it implies as an analysis? Damen clearly identified the twenties and thirties as a period of defeat for the class. WW2 ended that period and made significant changes to how capitalism would consequently function. Do you count the whole of the following period (or, ive just realised, even the whole period since the 1920s?)as a period of counter revolution because the Bourgeois remains dominant? I wouldn’t argue with that definition - but I do see changes in the balance of class forces within that overall period and I find it constructive to understand them. Nevertheless I agreee the wc hasn’t brought its struggle up to the level of making a real challenge to the authority of the Bourgeoisie (even in the 60s/70s)

I am also wondering if this issue may go back to the obsolescence/decadence discussion in that I think the CWO emphasises a cyclical nature of capitalism and its crises in this period whereas the concept of decadence has led to an idea of continuous decline and has in fact had to be walked back somewhat as the idea of saturated market doesn’t seem to fit the situation anymore.

I think the issue comes down to the attempt to impose neat, absolute labels on a dialectical reality marked by contradictory forces. The historic course. Unfolding reality, does exist but only is it set and unalterable in the past. Even then it is subject to different interpretation; though the facts cannot be changed, only misrepresented. As for the future, it has to be created, we have the task of changing the world. The solution for communists is to apply their efforts to winning over the working class to their perspectives and to create the means to do so. All this in the face of a capitalist class with diametrically opposing interests. The class struggle never absolutely favours one contending side or the other. Even at its lowest ebb, the forces of the working class remain to some extent. Take the UK miners strike of 84-85. Yes, a defeat. But a defeat which taught lessons, a defeat which ultimately in some measure, will contribute to the eventual victory should the historic course prove to result in proletarian success.

I think there is a danger of seeing these differences through a telescope or a microscope. In the grand scheme of things, are they game changing? I would still think that all who have as their aim the sole power of the workers councils belong in a unitary organisation despite the divisions between them. This may be anathema to some, but if we are to go beyond the current miniscule organisations to something which has a decisive impact on the world, I think it to be the case. Take any two aspiring revolutionaries and there will be differences. That too is part of the dialectical perspective.

“I will here attempt to sketch the substance of the problem in a very concise form. The Aristotelian logic of the simple syllogism starts from the proposition that 'A' is equal to 'A'. This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalisations. But in reality 'A' is not equal to 'A'. This is easy to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens - they are quite different from each other. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar - a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true - all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves.'” Trotsky

The perspective for communism?

The answers given by both the ICC and the CWO today don’t seem very different to me. For the CWO comrade, if I can paraphrase, with the defeat of the struggles of the 1970s, the current situation is unpredictable and contradictory; capitalism now threatens the extinction of the planet but there is still the possibility of a response from the currently quiescent working class.

For the ICC, “The situation looks very grave indeed ... The historic course has never been fixed in perpetuity and the possibility of massive class confrontations is not a pre-arranged staging post in the journey into the future. Nevertheless, we continue to think that the proletariat has not spoken the last word…” (Report on Class Struggle, International Review 156).

So both groups re-affirm that there is still (just!) a perspective for communism. I agree with this (although it prompts the question - how will we know when the proletariat is definitively defeated?).

In the light of the extremely difficult situation faced by the proletariat today, however, the real question is whether existing revolutionary organisations can provide convincing answers to the difficult questions posed by capital’s unexpected survival, in order to develop the programmatic basis for the future class party that we all believe will be necessary. This applies as much to the ICC as the CWO.

So, a question for the CWO to add to those already raised by Link:

According to your schema, capital can only avert its final breakdown by periodically ‘devalorising’ sufficient capital through wars.

After 40 years of open crisis, such a massive, indeed unprecedented, level of destruction is now surely long overdue. #

So why, if we have been in a counter-revolution since 1921 (?), has the bourgeoisie so far been unable to mobilise the proletariat to fight this war, in the way it was able to do in the thirties?

# Which is not to ignore the massive destruction wreaked by proliferating local wars but this is surely not enough given the depth of capital's crisis...

Stevein, i agree with all you say. I was particularly interested in the quote from Trotsky on A=A and looked it up. Its a good explanation but it emerges that it was written in 1939 in support of the argument that the USSR was a degenerating workers state!!

Perhaps a lesson in that for all of us!

Time flies and I did not realise it was more than a week since Link's last post. I think there is some wishful thinking in some of the responses but agree with Stevein that those who indulge in schematism are always likely to come unstuck. The difference between the ICT and ICC today is that the ICT maintains the same position that it always has because we always argued even in the long retreat from 1977-9 on that however bad the situation it was still the task of revolutionaries inside the class to fight for a class perspective. It was also what Damen argued in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. And we have posed the formation of the party throughout that period even if it depends (and here Link is spot on) on the actual class struggle itself. We can now see that 1943-5 and 1968-74 were two "turning points" in class history where history forgot to turn! Or rather that it excited rational expectations among revolutionaries (like the more massive 1848) that social change was in the offing only for us to be disappointed. But on we go - we can do no other. And by "do" we don't mean just aim our intervention at other revolutionaries (the principal task of the fraction) but at the wider class itself to develop the praxis that any embryo of the future party needs. We have to "think to the party" at all times. Since the financial collapse of 2007-8 we have discovered that many young people have developed an interest in the politics of the communist left (remember before then we were all regarded as faintly barmy evey time we mentioned "capitalism" - today it is mainstream vocabulary) and in the last two years in particular we have had further encouragement not only from new people coming to us but also a revival (without getting too excited) in wildcat strikes in some areas and in the last few months the extraordinary strikes in Iran and elsewhere. The dialect of history never stands still and formal logic is not enough to interpret it.

M mentions the fact that our analysis is that the post-war boom ended in 1971-3 at a point where the organic composition of global capital had become so high that the rate of profit acted as a barrier to further expansion. We expected a massive devaluation of capital and even world war as a consequence. He rightly asks why this has not happened and it is a question we have discussed many times (occasionally publishing our views on it). In short we have to recognise that this cycle of accumulation is different than previous ones in that the state has been in charge of managing it ina way that was not the case in 1914 or 1939. This has led to certain controlled devaluations (like the writing off of existing investment in what are now the rust belts of the world) whilst capital then transferred to low wage cost areas (but with more productive investment in new technology). The problem though has never gone away (even if they raised the rate of profit for a while) and thus as in all previous cycles they resorted more and more to speculation. This did not come about overnight - the Big Bang in the 1980s was followed by the abandonment of the Glass-Steagall act (and others like it) in the 1990s until we arrived at the huge ballooning of debts which now dominates the world economu and which the various states only just managed to prevent from bringing the whole system down. Today the bubble is getting bigger, indebtedness is growing on all fronts (except the current balance sheets of state budgets which are being cut and the working class suffering as a consequence) so the question of what happens next is posed. Capitalism has already shown an enormous capacity for hanging on but at this point we cannot see them a) pulling off another economic stunt to get out of this one or b) an increasingly impoverished class putting up with this for ever. At some point the worm will turn as it as repeatedly throughout capitalist history.

The problem for the ICC is that they defined the course of history initially as towards just "revolution" back in 1975 (this was modified, in the face of Battaglia Comunista's crticisms, in the International Conferences to "decisive class confrontations") and today they have now decided that this was wrong which has induced them to a defeatist mentality and the revival of the notion of a "fraction". They have several times told us that this is not the time to be working for the party and have shown little interest in anything else beyond a repeat of old texts and propagandist work aimed at the "milieu".