Reflections On Our Function and Functioning

In launching this discussion, we begin with the question of our function as a revolutionary organization in the present period. If the period has changed, if the recomposition of the working class makes the process through which the working class sees itself as a class much more complicated, and therefore poses the question of our intervention on new bases, we still have to ask whether the changes in our role within the class are as profound as we have thought, or -- conversely -- whether it is not the very conception of the revolutionary organization which has guided us over the years that was incorrect from the very beginning!

The ideas which follow are only the beginning of a process of re-thinking this question, and, therefore, are tentative in nature. As such, they will have to be clarified, refined, and modified, in the course of the development of the discussion, and in light of the reactions of other comrades. In any case, we can begin with the acknowledgement, made by Internationalist Perspectives, and which has also been a starting point for the creation of the Discussion Network: the model of the functioning of a revolutionary organization that has guided us since the very beginning of our political activity around '68-'70 is a model that has failed. Just as in the case of any other theory that proves mistaken in practice, we have to ask what were the false bases upon which our convictions concerning the revolutionary organization rested throughout that period. The sometimes monstrous errors of the ICC or the Bordigists are not without real bases, and are not merely "deviations" from an otherwise correct theory. For me, these errors are the logical outcome of what can only be described as false political foundations.

Here is the basic idea that I will articulate in this contribution: the Marxist political milieu that was reconstituted in the wake of the wave of struggles unleashed by '68, was dominated by a Leninist conception of class consciousness, of the working class itself, and of the function of the revolutionary organization. For many of the political groups, this conception was not consciously held, but was simply carried over from models inherited from the past. As a result, the whole conception of consciousness, organization, and function, developed on the bases of those Leninist premises.

The whole of that triad of concepts must, therefore, be totally redefined so as to clarify two things. First, what is the form that will assure a living political content, that will be able to tolerate the co-existence of divergent positions and theories, while at the same time allowing both the centralization and minimum framework for open discussion and theoretical elaboration? Second, in light of what we have already learned in our theoretical exploration of the question of class consciousness, what is our political relation, as revolutionaries, to that consciousness, and what is our role in its development?

In August '79, the ICC published a pamphlet on Communist Organizations and Class Consciousness. We defended the ideas contained in that pamphlet, believing that it provided a correct vision of class consciousness and of the function of revolutionaries. All that was before the '80's, with the ICC's bizarre notions of class consciousness in extent and in depth, which led us to finally denounce the Leninism that we saw seizing hold of the ICC. What is there in that pamphlet? Doesn't it already contain an incorrect understanding of the relationship between revolutionaries and their class? Doen't it fall into the very trap that it ostensibly sought to combat? Here are some representative passages. "There are times, even in revolutionary periods, when the great majority of workers continue to be half-blinded by the maneuvers of the bourgeoisie. At those crucial moments, the `acceleration' provided by a revolutionary minority more aware of those very maneuvers can be decisive. At such points, it is not the reaction of the broad masses of the proletariat, who are subject to bourgeois ideology, that constitutes the `thermometer' measuring the level of maturity attained by class consciousness, but rather the clearest elements within the class. The task of those elements consists in extending their comprehension to the whole of the working class, and not in lowering their political vision to the level of the broad masses." "Communist organizations, far from passively following the flux and reflux of the struggle of their class ... are also an active factor in the maturation of proletarian struggles. ... their responsiblity is not to passively await the spread of class consciousness to the whole of the working class, but to organize and advance a perspective for struggle. Such passivity would make any progression of consciousness impossible." "To orient the proletarian movement onto the revolutionary path .... The first meaning of the term `orient:' direct, lead in a certain direction." Throughout the pamphlet, we find statements like: "homogenize class consciousness," or "the real impact of revolutionaries on the struggles."

I have re-read these passages with a certain bewilderment. Because, while the whole pamphlet is devoted to denouncing the Leninist vision of a party leading the masses, for me, there is only a very (too) subtle distinction between that denunciation and the understanding that we then had of our role as revolutionaries. I believe that that perception is connected to other factors. To present "clear analyses," to "take positions," so as to show the workers how to understand a situation, and not confuse their poor brains with a debate that is over their heads. The kind of relation existing between the class and its revolutionary minorities, and, therefore, the kind of intervention -- the term is, all in all, very well chosen -- in the class: to have a direct impact, to orient it. The necessity of preserving the organization -- the bearer of the revolutionary perspective -- at any cost, in the swamp of the reflux of class consciousness; in the image of our pre-historic ancestors keeping a flame burning in a basket. The very conception of the theoretical work of the organization: to reappropriate and develop the theoretical acquisitions of the past, and to reaffirm them at every opportunity (public meetings, press, interventions), just as the class must be able to "appropriate" a clear vision of things.

What strikes me in that vision is the one-way, non-dialectical, character of the relation between revolutionaries and their class. Theory seems to already exist, and must simply be appropriated -- whether by revolutionaries or by workers. Consciousness does not emerge through debate; indeed, it already exists, and there is no place for its permanent development. Basically, our class has nothing to teach us; it has everything to learn from us! Even if we had claimed that revolutionary minorities were a "secretion" of the class, we never considered ourselves -- in our actual practice -- as a part of the class. It was the same with the debates between revolutionary organizations: each had to present and argue for its own theoretical vision of reality; it had nothing to learn from the others, but merely had to convince them of the correctness of its own positions. Just as the capitalist world was divided into two imperialist blocs, the revolutionary world was divided into two groups: those who understood the importance of the revolutionary organization (and who articulated this Leninist vision) and those who rejected the organization -- the councilists (those who had, logically, become "the greatest danger").

We can hypothesize that the movement that arose from the dynamic of '68 had very little experience and suffered from the break with the political movement that had participated in the revolutionary wave set off by 1917. The groups coming out of the wave of struggles set off by '68 therefore sought to reforge links with that earlier experience, without, however, at the time (and this is understandable) being able to make a real critique of the body of ideas that characterized the working class and its revolutionary organizations at the beginning of the last century; and, above all, without being able to measure the profound changes that capitalism had undergone since then. That youthful political milieu was full of illusions, of romanticism, and had a very simplistic, and linear, conception of things. Within the complex unfolding of capitalist development over the course of the better part of a century, that movement sought to find fixed points on the basis of which to define itself: criteria to define what was and what wasn't real class struggle; criteria for intervention in the class that would be consistent with the practice of the earlier revolutionaries upon which it sought to model itself. It was in that period of a break with the past marked by the events of 1968, but full of illusions, and the attempt to align themselves upon past models of revolutionary activity, that Leninist conceptions imposed themselves on so many of the political groups, and came to define our theoretical understanding of the revolutionary organization and its relationship to the working class.

Fortunately, our growing incapacity to comprehend the world in which we lived shattered our theoretical certitude. And it was that salutary movement of doubt that permitted us to forge contacts with political groups and individuals who were going through the same experience. The creation of the Discussion Network is a feature of that dynamic, with its openness, its questioning, and its recognition of the theoretical insufficiency and outright errors with which we had lived and worked for so many years. But its creation also represented an attempt to find a new form of organization that would escape the mistakes of the past. If the Network is indeed an extremely useful tool, making possible the circulation of ideas and contacts, it also seems to me to contain two illusions: that of being seen by some as a "virgin" model, and that of being the bearer of values such as the absence of hierarchy, of power, of commodity values and competition -- all elements that have poisoned the functioning of so many groups in the past. Despite everything that I think is positive in the existence of the Network, it has not -- until now -- debated the fundamental issue that was its raison d'etre: what form to give to a permanent revolutionary political organization in the present period.

For me, the central element in the understanding of the relationship of revolutionaries to their class is the fact that they are a part of the class itself; and that their theoretical work and intervention in the class struggle constitutes a process of permanent activity within and with the working class.

As an integral part of the class, revolutionaries are experiencing a profound crisis in the understanding of who and what they are. If the working class is not simply the blue-collar factory workers of the past, revolutionaries cannot be merely those who harangue the multitudes and organize that class. The "crisis of the milieu" is a crisis of the very theoretical bases for the understanding of the capitalist world, the composition of the contending classes, and the dialectic through which the antagonism between these classes plays itself out and the way in which revolutionaries are an element of that process. For me, the function of revolutionaries is first and foremost to participate in the development of a clear understanding of the world, and to work to make that development an integral part of the life of the class. It is, therefore, not enough to take positions on political issues or to publish finished texts. What is needed, is to participate in, and contribute to, the process of questioning and clarification that is taking place within the multitude in general, and the working class itself. Thus, I do not believe that we fulfilled our role at the time of the various movements that shook Europe between '93 and '95. At that time, there was a confused questioning about "what can capitalism provide as a future." New questions had arisen, setting off that movement, and we should have taken up this questioning and tried to develop it with our class. Instead, we had a tendency to see things from the "outside:" were those movements "autonomous" vis a vis the unions; were they on the "class terrain" of the proletariat? In the face of a half-hearted answer to those two questions, we vacillated. We thought that we had nothing to say vis a vis confused popular expressions of discontent, and that seems to me to be wrong today (and then too). If the task of revolutionaries is to denounce the traps, explain the impasses and how to overcome them, when there is a movement or a process of questioning, then we cannot remain mute, and we have to link our own activity to that of the class. For me, that is what it means to be an integral and active part of the process of development of class consciousness.

Comrades often feel discouraged, because they had hoped to have an "active role," an "impact." I believe that we must see ourselves, and our theoretical work, as a part of the dialectical process at work within the class, and of its development of its own class consciousness. One part of that process is a resistance to change, to the unknown, a holding on to familiar kinds of jobs, tools, even to the competition that prevails between individual workers. Another part of that same process, however, is the suffering imposed by those very conditions, and the revolt and consciousness that will ultimately arise. We live with this reaction of life against death and the hopelessness engendered by the way society functions. Without wanting to engage in psycho-babble, we exist in a state in which the life drive counterbalances the death drive. The elements of this life drive are startling: it is the drive that ceaselessly pushes us forward. The death drive, by contrast, acts as a sometimes necessary brake on that agitation. These two drives interact, pushing towards change and questioning the foundations of society, of the known, of "security," and of fear and resistance to change, to the abandonment of the known and of security. When those forces are present in a movement, there exists an opening where our reflection as revolutionaries can find an active place. For me, much more than the question of the autonomy of the movement vis a vis the unions, it is there that the criteria for our presence or absence in a given movement reside.

This vision places us in a very different situation than the one in which we found ourselves placed when we were in the ICC. We can anticipate a series of waves of struggle and levels of consciousness bringing about a revolution after 15-20 years of economic crisis; a vision of a slow process of social transformation in a different situation of historical temporality. As a function of such a situation of historical temporality, and of the uneven, contradictory, dialectical, character of this process, we have nothing in particular to "expect" from the working class. What we can hope for, is that the development of class consciousness will proceed in the sense of a questioning of perspectives, and in the perception of the antagonistic character of the interests of capitalist development and the life of humanity. But, I don't think that we can codify this into a rigid global process or be sure about the way in which it will unfold on the historical level.

Finally, one last point: the question of organization. What has been revealed by the Network is that dialogue and the exchange of texts were necessary, but by no means sufficient, to permit an elaboration of revolutionary thought. For that to really occur, a clear framework for discussion is needed: a space must be created, not just to talk, but where we can see where we agree, disagree, or simply don't understand one another. For that, I do not see how we can proceed without more of a formal framework at a minimum; that is to say, an actual framework that can facilitate and make possible such a dynamic. To merely allow things to take their course, as the comrades of the Paris Circle did, cannot succeed. It seems to me, that there are two ways to centralize a discussion. The first is to undertake it with a precise goal in mind, to conclude the debate with the adoption of a single, common, position. That is how discussions were envisaged in the ICC. It is in part what explains the failure of so many discussion circles and efforts at regroupment. Another way to centralize a discussion, however, is to work towards the maximum clarification and specification of the different arguments and positions: what is clear and what not; what are the points that have been developed, explored, or not; who is in agreement on what; who wants to work on this point and who on another; what time-span is set for the next issue to be debated. This framework seems to me to be the one that increasingly characterizes the work of IP, which does not aim at closing a debate, but rather at continuing it and allowing it to develop. What's important is less the organizational structure than the objective for, and the conception that one has of, debates. This could be seen in the reproach that the ICC made to us when we were still an "external fraction" of that organization: "there are as many positions in the EFICC as there are comrades." What seemed to them catastrophic, appeared to us to be the only possible way to carry on a serious discussion.

By way of conclusion, the revolutionary organization is not an organ apart from the class. Its existence reflects the dialectical process through which the consciouness of the necessity to change society emerges from an intensification of the pressure of the dominant ideology. The need to seek another way is created by the "inhumanity" of capitalist society and by the quest for a collective dimension to life, itself arising from the increase in loneliness, competition, and individualism, bred by that society. That alienation from bourgeois society gives rise to the expressions of revolutionary life and the confrontation with the reigning order. The function of the revolutionary organization today is, therefore, first of all to participate in an active way in the process of questioning and the development of an awareness of the societal and class stakes of the dominant order, together with a comprehension of the world in which we live. Its functioning requires an organizational framework that must be conceived as a tool for the development of debates, and their deepening as opposed to their closure. That means that the existence of divergences is not a brake on the development of the discussion, but rather the reflection of positions that must be explored. The theoretical elaboration undertaken by revolutionaries must try to link up, as often as possible, with the questioning -- confused though it sometimes is -- that arises in the ongoing social movements.


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