The ICC Ideology

The politics of the ICC are a dead end for todays Communists, writes Donald Parkinson in response to their recent critiques.  For the most recent articles the ICC wrote on CLT, go here and here. For an idea of the ICC’s basic program look heredecadence_bechman_the_night

In their exchanges with my writings for the Communist League of Tampa (CLT), the International Communist Current (ICC) have of course summoned the classical historical argument that sits as the spinal cord of the ICC’s entire political outlook. In our exchanges over the necessity of building a mass political party and the question of elections the ICC has made it clear we don’t see eye to eye on these issues. The ICC argues that only small minority organizations of revolutionaries that keep the genealogy of revolutionary tradition alive are possible, and that any organization of the working class will inevitably become integrated into capitalism if it achieves any mass support and is able to win reforms for workers during an extended period of social peace. They also argue that any participation in elections is strictly off limits, as well as holding a strident anti-union line. All of these positions of course are contrary to Marx if one has any familiarity with his political writings. Yet the ICC claim him as their lineage, so what gives? Why hold positions so divergent from Marx while claiming to be part of the red thread that guides back to him? The argument is that Marx was writing in ascendant capitalism, where capitalism is still progressive and plays a positive role in developing the forces of production. Since the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and the betrayal of Social-Democracy, we have entered decadent capitalism where now the rules of the game have completely changed. Capitalism no longer plays a progressive role so it therefore must be overthrown, hence revolutionaries must no longer participate in elections or unions or attempt to form mass organizations. The small dedicated revolutionary minority must wait for the class to rise up in mass strikes that lead to strike committees that then become councils, where the minority can guide the class to communism with all power ultimately being within the councils. What I would like to do here is break apart some of the assumptions and see if they hold up under scrutiny.

If any of this is an inaccurate depiction of ICC’s politics then I apologize, and of course even if my description is accurate they would argue for more nuance. However it seems clear to me that the ICC strongly holds onto decadence theory, and the notion that the current periodization of capitalism is what makes their positions correct (and therefore backed by the science of historical materialism). Yet decadence theory is never really outlined by Marx, beyond saying that at some point productive forces will make the current relations of production outmoded. The comment by Marx that apparently proves the centrality of decadence is the following:

 

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.


This comment from Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy is used by the ICC to justify a theoretical vision of history, where modes of production can be neatly divided into progressive ascendent phases and decadent phases of social decay. I am not sure where this is argued by Marx or Engels explicitly. Marx and Engels do not claim they are discussing the periodization of capitalism or a general tendency of capitalism itself, or the ultimate cause of proletarian revolution itself. Rather than simply looking at quotes from Marx, we need to look at his theory and practice as existing in a unity that inspired others who developed the theory and politics of Marxism.

It is more reminiscent of theories from Oswald Spengler that civilizations are organic entities with lifecycles of ascendence and decay. Really what decadence theory is is an organic metaphor for history, that simply describes a phenomenon (like the Fall of the Roman Empire) rather than explain it. Simply put, decadence theory is weak analysis that butchers the dynamism and complexity of history. It requires that its followers must, to a certain degree, romanticize a certain “progressive” phase of capitalism, ignoring that the development that capitalism provides has always been an uneven one, with progressive and regressive features existing simultaneously. Productive forces have developed since 1914 and industrialized nations outside the ‘core’ of Europe have seen developments in productive forces that resulted in increased standards of living. Yes, this was accompanied by financial crisis, destruction of social fabric and authoritarian government but when has capitalism not been this way? It is only communism that can provide an even development of society. These reasons alone should give considerable motivation to question any kind of strict adherence to decadence theory.

Decadence theory however allows the ICC to 1) justify a priori all of their political positions and 2) claim fidelity to Marx and Engels while holding political positions that are in stark contrast to them. For example, Marx and Engels stridently argued for running in bourgeois elections and for the importance of the union movement in organizing the working class. Yet decadence theory gives the ICC a seemingly deep theoretical reason for holding the exact opposite position, looking like this: in the time of Marx and Engels, capitalism was still ascendant and therefore it was justified to support running in bourgeois elections because capitalism was still developing and conquering feudalism. Yet the Marxist argument in the 19th Century for electoralism had nothing to do with needing to consolidate capitalism over feudalism; it was that the workers must engage in mass politics and become a force to be reckoned within mass politics.

The ICC also use decadence to justify their complete rejection of all unions, denial that any national liberation struggles and decolonization (the colonial world still existed after 1914) can have progressive content, and refusal of any kind of mass party in favor of minoritarian vanguards with this logic. Since the passage of 1914 and the rise of capitalist decadence, these positions are de facto correct regardless of circumstance even though Marx and Engels basically held the opposite positions. It’s not a stretch to say that with regards to the Marx and Bakunin split, when it comes down to actual political lines the ICC would side with Bakunin. Their only real retorts are that Bakunin was a nationalist anti-semite scumbag (which is mostly true) and that it was of course ascendant capitalism and not “Decadent” capitalism yet.

So behind all the ICC’s politics is a claim that 1) capitalism has been the same essentially since 1914 and is in a state of decline where immediate revolution is on the table and 2) the political positions of the ICC schematically derive from this. To question this is to question decadence, which is apparently a cornerstone of historical materialism. Decadence schematically implies the positions held on electoralism, mass parties and unions because under decadent capitalism it is not possible to build mass scale workers’ organizations, except in times of crisis, without these organizations becoming integrated into capitalism. So any attempts to build unions and build parties is going to be inherently bourgeois. Instead of doing these things, communist militants must organize as only small and pure minorities that hold true to the revolutionary faith, waiting for a the crisis to trigger a mass strike that will lead to the formation of workers councils.

The ICC see CLT as being in danger of falling into “leftism”. The left is an enemy according to ICC’s ideology, just as much as the capitalists themselves. They are for “partial struggles” and building mass scale workers orgs. The left is counterposed to the “proletarian milieu” which is basically the ICC and groups with positions it approves of. Apparently this milieu has nothing to do with the left, despite the fact that any normal person would agree that advocating for communism puts one on the left. By claiming to be “not leftist” the ICC just comes off as needlessly edgy and sectarian. Which of course they are, refusing any kind of engagement with the left at all because it is entirely bourgeois. Collaboration with leftists is as bad as fascists in the end, as both are simply factions of the capitalist class. So what results is a paranoid siege mentality about the left, where the left are always around the corner conspiring to calm the militancy of pure unmediated workers struggle. Rather than engaging with the left to try to win people over and influence them with their analysis the ICC sees this as a counter-revolutionary activity.

The ICC’s theory of leftism, while ridiculous, does contain a kernel of truth that the labor bureaucracy is capitalism’s last line of defense when worker militancy threatens its stability. The labor bureaucracy are not submitted to the democratic will of the rank and file and hence develops petty-bourgeois class interests since they are essentially small proprietors of intellectual property. Because the labor bureaucracy often plays this conservative role in class struggles a knee jerk response is to simply reject unions and the left as a whole. Yet this is ultimately a vulgar and simplistic answer to more complicated questions.

Yet these questions do not negate the fact that communists must build up a mass movement in times of social peace and become a force that can contest with the bourgeoisie for state power. The mere appearance of Soviets doesn’t prevent better organized social-democrats from ultimately winning their support, as the German Revolution of 1918-19 shows us. The claim that decadence makes building organizations under capitalism (except, of course, the most pure vanguard parties) means that success is ultimately reliant on spontaneity. It assumes the proletariat will follow the “vanguard” instead of other political forces once they are mobilized, and it is only when the masses are in motion and in struggle that they can be converted to communism. Against this line, which puts hope in soviet power and spontaneity to solve the question of mass political legitimacy, Communists must build institutions and win support from the working class before periods of crisis. For a workers republic to represent the proletariat it must maintain democratic norms. This means you must have mass support or else you must resort to rigging elections as the Soviets did because of fear of peasants being overrepresented. This political problem is a serious one, and cannot be left to faith in spontaneity. Rather it must be worked in the long term process of building mass communist party and other proletarian institutions over time in a strategy of patience. Developing revolutionary theory and a solid programme is important, but so is being active building the labor movement which is now in shambles and pushing for “class unions” as opposed to “corporatist unions” that act to stabilize capitalism. Communists must merge with the labor movement, which requires long term work of institution building and not simply showing up when mass strikes happen to push for the formation of soviets.

This is to say nothing of the inadequate gender and racial politics of the ICC. The ICC has been around since 1975 and their main insight on race is that “the bourgeoisie mobilizes the proletarian under anti-racist politics”. For a group that proclaims internationalism, the group suggests little in terms of actually combatting national oppression to unite a deeply divided working class. Class unity is assumed to arise naturally and trump all other questions, with struggles for democratic rights being “partial struggles” that simply increase the illusions the proletariat has about democracy. As far as I am aware, the ICC doesn’t allow womens or PoC caucuses in their org and rejects feminism as a whole as bourgeois. This shows not only that the ICC is stuck in the past, but that they don’t see the abolition of gender oppression as a task to be taken seriously.

This gets to a core issue that plagues not just the ICC but many ultra-left and left-communist circles: economism. The ICC doesn’t grasp that communists must not only support economic struggles of the proletariat, but struggles for greater democratic rights within capitalism, which allow the working class to have more strength organizationally. Democracy is the lifeblood of the proletariat, the means through which it is able to organize as a mass force within society. In capitalist societies or authoritarian regimes where the working class is denied political freedom, they are forced to organize underground and only become broader parties by emphasizing the fight for democratic freedoms (see the Bolsheviks under Czarism as depicted by Lars Lih in What Is To Be Done Reconsidered). The proletariat, through its struggles, must show itself as not being a class fighting for purely sectional interests, a higher slice of the pie, that a class that fights for broader social change. To “win the battle for democracy” is not a minor task in the class struggle.

Of course, the ICC would see this as superfluous, since the proletariat cannot build mass organizations in times of non-crisis, so democracy under capitalism is of no use to them. It is nothing more than a mirage, a way to mystify the true dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. This outlook ignores how it has been the proletariat (and petty-bourgeoisie under the process of proletarianization) that have typically pushed the hardest for democratic rights historically. It certainly wasn’t the merchant class but rather the plebian sans cullotes who pushed for the most radical forms of liberty in the French Revolution. The form of the state cannot simply be derived from the “law of value” but is something that is historically shaped by class struggle. Bordiga is just wrong that democracy is simply a political mirror image of capitalist logic, where the principle of “one man one vote” translates to the principle of “equivalence of exchange”. Things are much more complex; the bourgeois state was basically the absolutist state outfitted for the needs of enforcing capitalist relations, a rentier institution with its logic sometimes counter to that of capital accumulation, and a “”special body of armed men”  shaped by the balance of power in the class struggle as well as the needs of generalized social reproduction.  

Ultimately there is no reason to suppose capitalist rule naturally presupposes parliamentarism or any form of democracy. Parliament gives classes other than the propertied access to political influence in legislative bodies, which can theoretically allow the mass population to pass laws that would be a hindrance to capitalist accumulation. Why else would working class participation in suffrage have been so limited until the ascent of the workers movement? This is why in countries where there are parliamentary bodies, internal corruption of party regimes becomes more and more important for ensure that the needs of capital are met by the state. This is why the most ideologically zealous adherents to the pure abstraction of capital (Hans-Herman Hoppe for example) in the end apologize or advocate for monarchy or fascist dictatorship.

This isn’t to say Communists should fight for a democratic form of capitalism instead of a true transformation of the social order, nor that we should seek alliances with populist hacks who use democracy as a slogan. It’s obvious that democracy, in the sense understood by capitalism, is a powerful ideological tool of the capitalist class. Capitalist states have realized that they must project themselves as democratic, and use this as a way to promote a unity of citizens in a nationalist project. People in the USA vote because their candidate will do a better job at what is ultimately managing the hegemon state of global capitalist empire. Yet this is the current state of things – if a truly principled communist party engaged in electoral politics, the “rules of the game” may be disrupted and the idea of democracy as legitimating the nation-state could be questioned. For example, the campaign for Eugene Debs to many of his voters was seen as affirming internationalist principles. Workers in many cases in history have seen the ballot box as a weapon in the class struggle.

The positions of the ICC, if they were argued for without the vulgar historicism of decadence, would carry much more strength. Anarchists tend to provide a more convincing case of why communists should abstain from bourgeois elections. Decadence is a blinder in the end, that prevents communists from dropping a priori dogmas that prevent them from reconceptualizing a marxist theory and a communist practice that can function under current conditions. We of course must hold to certain basic principles, but to act if the answers to all the questions about unions, nationalism, elections, the left, and even sexual freedom were decided by the fate of 1914 prevents clear critical discussion that looks at current situations. What we need is open debate, experimentation with tactics and a Marxism that is more adept at explaining why things are the way they are than any other worldview. We also need to build political organizations that are built on programmatic unity, where members are bound to political rather than theoretical commitments like decadence theory. Otherwise an organization is doomed to political sectdom, internal authoritarianism, lack of debate, and separation from the world beyond purist left-communism. This will take years, but to give all hope to spontaneity means one might as well give up as a whole.

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Towards a communist left

What is the modern left in the USA? How can we escape the world of sects? Moving beyond both defeatism and activism will require an approach that’s aware of our historical limitations as well as opportunities. 

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Today the existing left in America is largely composed of leftovers from the New Left student movements of the 60’s and 70’s, anti-globalization populism and a labor bureaucracy in decay. Left discourse today primarily focuses its critiques on neo-liberalism, which is identified with finance capital and a corrupt power elite, and cultural expressions of oppression and alienation. Class struggle as a unifying factor in the left is largely missing. Rather there is skepticism not only of movements centered around class but around any kind of universal project of human emancipation. For to posit such a project would mean to put forward a “grand narrative” where universalism is asserted, something forbidden in post-structuralist influenced leftist discourse. Rather than individual struggles being part of a greater project aiming to abolish capitalist relations worldwide we are presented with individual activist campaigns against given evils of the world. Fragmentation and individual subjectivity are more important than unity in a common project of emancipation, with mere allyship with individuals in struggles against subjective oppressions being celebrated as an alternative to solidarity.

Otherwise popular leftist discourse focuses on a surface critique of existing conditions, refusing to truly delve into the root of things. Anything but communism itself is suggested as a solution to the continuing crisis of capitalism, as the Thatcherite credo of TINA (There Is No Alternative) is essentially absorbed by the left. This is reflected in everything from Jacobin magazine’s endorsement of market socialism to enthusiasm for co-ops and universal basic income. Finance capitalism is presented as the real enemy, in counterposition to productive capitalism that is unionized and domestic and therefore preferable. Instead of capitalism itself, which requires a global solution, movements uphold “Neo-liberalism” or “globalization” as the problem, upholding the sovereignty of the nation over the international scope of the world market. Social movements expressing this ideology are not class based, but instead a broad front of liberals, far left participants and even aspects of the right.

The ostensibly Marxist left in the United States, who unlike much of the left do play lip service to class, is primarily composed of “soft-Trots” like the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative who offer bureaucratic organizations and actual politics on slightly to the left of the democrats despite proclaiming allegiance to Bolshevism. On the other hand are the Maoists and Stalinists of groups like Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO), Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and Workers World Party (WWP) who are essentially leftovers from the various splits of groups from the New Left generation. These groups offer antiquated cold-war era politics to a mostly student audience, often basing much of their identity on support for various third world dictators.

Truth is that the world of the organized radical left still exists in the shadow of the New Left. The existing official leadership of these groups for the most part are old-timers from the social movements of the 60’s, 70s and 80s. This is true for RCP, FRSO, WWP, International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Spartacus League, as well as left-communist groups such as International Communist Tendency (ICT) and International Communist Current (ICC). Essentially the “world of sects” is under control of a gerontocracy of leftists who grew up with different movements and different conditions. It’s the decaying remains of an old generation of social movements. They are able to attract revolving door membership amongst youth, meaning that only the most committed recruits stay for long while most quickly get bored or disillusioned and leave. Very few groups amongst the marxist left have a central leadership comprised of younger militants who didn’t get their political education from the New Left.

The “world of sects” is also a world full of splits, many quite mundane. Look at PSL, FRSO-ML and WWP. These three groups have essentially identical politics, as dreadful and incorrect as they are. There’s no real reason for them to not be one larger group with minor internal disagreements. It’s a similar case for ISO and Socialist Alternative. These “soft-Trot” groups have little different about them at the political level. So why so many splits? These people go on and on about the necessity of centralism yet see no real reason to centralize around their actual politics. Part of the problem is that organizations don’t aim for programmatic unity through the broader organization but instead have a political and theoretical line imposed by the leadership. Splits are often over theoretical disagreements rather than political disagreements where real issues are at stake. Rather than having complete theoretical unity an organization should aim for unity in basic political questions – programmatic unity. Another problem is the notion of vanguardism taken from an ahistorical reading of Lenin that sees splits as a mean to purge potential rightist bureaucracy and maintain revolutionary purity. Splitting is often justified, but as a tool for achieving purity it accomplishes little. Yet is the fractured, sect-like nature of the left really a reason to embrace some vague project of broad left-unity?

What left unity really offers today when groups don’t have any real political weight is very unclear, and “left” is such an ambiguous term these days it is bound to mean capitulation to awful politics.  Most of these groups are not only isolated from any mass movements of the working class but are also quite toxic in their behavior, with rape scandals, silencing of opposition and opportunism at large. Yet it would also be a mistake to consider them “The main enemy” with our primarily goal as an organization to prevent them from having influence over workers (as the Nihilist Communism writers suggest).

Rather than an enemy to be actively battled, these shitty left groups can for the most part be dismissed as “Live Action Roleplayers” or “LARPers”. Stuck in the past, the radical left of today often tries to roleplay the movements of old in search of a way to maintain permanent activity with an inflated sense of importance. We can see this in the various Maoist/Stalinist groups looking to relive the student activism of the 60s or certain sections of the IWW who think that recreating the good old fashioned industrial unionism of the early 20th century is possible today. LARPing is an expression of the cult of activism – a phenomena which goes back to Lasalle’s notion of the “permanent campaign”. Activism doesn’t mean activity as such; rather it means refusing to make an appraisal of what limitations are generated by the current historical conjecture, to pretend as if one’s group must merely try harder to generate a movement when no real movement exists. Activism damns those who sit back during a quiet period to focus on theory and make a discerning judgement on what is realistic. Instead the need to take action takes priority above all else. Out of organization, agitation and education the cult of activism leaves us only with agitation.

With regards to the ultra-left (where we would situate ourselves, Marxist tendencies to the left of Trotskyism and Maoism) there is little in terms of formalized organization in the United States beyond scattered members of the ICT, ICC, certain sections of the IWW, online cliques and heavily theoretical journals.  Amongst the “ultra-left” is a heavy element of defeatism and anti-organizationalism. Many mistake a justified critique of activism with a way to legitimate complete political quietism, falling in line with the dominant neo-liberal discourse about “The end of history”. Others maintain hope in revolution, but first announcing the end of “proletarian subjectivity” in favor of immediately establishing communist relations without the mediations of politics, creating a vision of revolution so idealistic it might as well be impossible. Amongst this eclectic milieu of “communizers” any kind of associational organization on a programmatic basis is frowned upon with many instead placing hope in the spontaneous riots as a path forward.

There is of course much to take from the analysis coming from groups such as Endnotes and Theorie Communiste who take up the mantle of communization, and we in many ways are sympathetic to their project of creating a fresh analysis of current conditions. De-industrialization in core economies, fragmentation of workforces, increases in the reserve army of labor and a decrease in the power of unions are very real phenomena that pose real challenges to the formation of the proletariat as a class. It would be a mistake to think we can bring back the old workers movement, that old school left-communist politics can be applied today untouched from their original form without taking new conditions into consideration. But questioning orthodoxy doesn’t mean that all orthodoxies need be abandoned and are necessarily wrong.

Much of the skepticism of modern ultra-lefts towards organization is with good reason. Fear of falling into the misery of the LARP-form and degenerating into the cult of activism as well as experiences of being burned previously by various leftists groups often deters individuals from being politically active. Yet by refusing to build a movement and engage with the greater public we merely cede ground to the politics of liberals, reactionaries and the left-wing-of-capital. A “real movement” isn’t going to fall out of nowhere without a pre-existing era of organization by conscious radicals. There is no historical precedent to believe otherwise. The question should not be “organization – yes or no?” Rather, it should be “how can a formalized organization be self-aware of its own historical limitations?”

Those who have completely given up and declared “There is no alternative” only empower the dominant ideology. There is no reason to think that capitalism will have a future of peaceful and balanced growth where crisis tendencies and class conflict are liquidated, nor is there strong evidence to believe that mass political mobilizations are now historically obsolete. Given these two claims there is reason to think that communist politics can have potential relevance in the coming years. However moving forward will require fresh perspectives and organizations, organizations not under the leadership of left-overs from the New Left but rather a new generation of communists that are in tune with current realities.

Is it possible to avoid being a sect in todays era? At this point, probably not. But what groups can do is 1) be self-aware of their actual importance and limitations and 2) fight against the various symptoms that are expressed in sects. One way of doing this is to form organizations that are based on unity in politics, programmatic unity, as opposed to unity through a totalizing theoretical interpretation of Marxism. An example of the latter would be International Communist Current, which is unified around a certain interpretation of “decadence theory”, or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) which is unified around a specific theory of state-capitalism regarding the USSR. Ultimately these theoretical issues should be up for debate and discussion in a group, not a basis for unity. What should instead be a basis for unity is basic political positions, which can often be arrived at through differing theoretical paths. To take the example of the SWP and state capitalism, what matters is ones basic political position on whether the USSR was a positive example of working class rule rather than ones theory on what specific mode of production existed there. To fight the symptoms of the “sect-dom” means an organization must tolerate factions and internal dissension rather than senselessly purging opposition. Rather than every disagreement being a sign of a need for splitting, groups must develop a culture that can tolerate internal disagreement and debate. Centralism that is imposed rather than achieved through collective debate and political struggle is usually a form of bureaucratic consolidation, not a centralism based on real unity within the group. While these basic suggestions are no guarantee against pointless splits and the clique-like dynamics of sects they do provide some ideas for trying to tackle the problem.