On the resolutions of the 23rd Congress of the ICC
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
Editor's note: The ICC published a response to this text (and to the forum discussion on this topic) here. While I don't intend to reply to every point made, I did post some comments on the forum thread here.
“Marxism is a revolutionary world outlook which must always strive for new discoveries, which completely despises rigidity in once-valid theses…” (Rosa Luxemburg)
“Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement.” (Rosa Luxemburg)
It is over three years since the publication of texts from the ICC’s 21st Congress marking 40 years of its existence. Now we have the publication online of the first texts from the 23rd Congress, on the class struggle, the international situation and the balance of class forces. What do these tell us about the current state of the ICC? And to what extent has it been able to fulfil its self-proclaimed task at the 21st Congress “to develop a critical spirit in lucidly identifying its mistakes and theoretical shortcomings”? (IR 156).
An overall assessment of the congress is not yet possible so here we will limit our critical comments to the resolutions on the international situation (RIntSit) and the balance of class forces.
The historic ‘stalemate’: a product of the balance of class forces?
The framework for both texts is the position of the ICC that in the 1990s the capitalist system entered the final phase of its period of decadence, that of decomposition. The balance of class forces in the current period is characterised by a historic ‘stalemate’ between the classes:
"In this situation, where society's two decisive - and antagonistic - classes confront each other without either being able to impose its own definitive response, history nonetheless does not just come to a stop. Still less for capitalism than for preceding social forms, is a ‘freeze’" or a ‘stagnation’ of social life possible. As crisis-ridden capitalism's contradictions can only get deeper, the bourgeoisie's inability to offer the slightest perspective for society as a whole, and the proletariat's inability, for the moment, openly to set forward its own historic perspective, can only lead to a situation of generalised decomposition. Capitalism is rotting on its feet." (Decomposition, the final phase of the decadence of capitalism, Point 4, IR 62, quoted in the 23rd Congress RIntSit).
Capitalism thus enters a new and final phase of its history in which all the destructive tendencies of its decadent epoch are both broadened and deepened to the extent that “decomposition becomes a decisive, if not the decisive factor in social evolution." (Ibid, Point 2, quoted in the Resolution)
So what conclusions does the ICC now draw from this?
The concept of the historic course is no longer valid
The ICC has concluded that in the phase of decomposition the concept of a ‘historic course’ is no longer valid. In other words, it no longer defends the position that there is a ‘course towards class confrontations’.
Why? Because it has now concluded that in the phase of decomposition the balance of class forces is no longer the determining factor in “the general dynamics of capitalist society”.
And why is this? Because today, “Whatever the balance of forces, world war is no longer on the agenda, but capitalism will continue to sink into decay”.
We will come back to the idea that world war is no longer on the agenda, but first we must note that it has taken the ICC almost thirty years to decide that in the current historical conditions the ‘course of history’ is no longer towards class confrontations. In other words, for the last three decades it has defended what it now admits was an erroneous view of “the line of march” of the proletarian movement.
While such a position is anticipated in the ‘Theses on Decomposition’, as quoted above where they say: “decomposition becomes a decisive, if not the decisive factor in social evolution", the idea that the balance of class forces is no longer the determining factor in the ‘general dynamics of capitalist society’ is a new departure.
In fact it is so new that it appears to be directly contradicted by other congress resolutions, for example, the one directly dealing with the balance of class forces, which simply repeats the words of the 1990 ‘Theses on Decomposition’: “Despite the deleterious effects of decomposition and the dangers facing the proletariat, "Today, the historical perspective remains completely open … the class has not suffered any major defeats on the terrain of its struggle.”” (Point 13, my emphasis)
So still a course towards class confrontations then? The accompanying report on the class struggle defends a similar perspective:
“The balance of class forces exists historically and we can say that, even if time is not on its side, even though decomposition is becoming a growing threat and the working class is experiencing considerable differences in emerging from its current retreat, globally the class has not been crushed since 1968 and thus remains an obstacle to the full descent into barbarism; it thus retains the potential for overcoming the whole system.”
Did no one point out these apparent contradictions when the resolutions were being adopted? As a result of these inconsistencies we are left unclear exactly what the ICC’s position is. But let’s come back to the ICC’s basic arguments in the RIntSit:
1. The balance of class forces is no longer the determining factor in the general dynamics of capitalist society
Firstly, what exactly is meant by ‘the general dynamics of capitalist society’ is never spelled out.
“Since the First World War, capitalism has been a decadent social system … In the 1980s, it entered into the final phase of this decadence, the phase of decomposition. There is only one alternative offered by this irreversible historical decline: socialism or barbarism, world communist revolution or the destruction of humanity.” (ICC Basic Positions)
Surely this is overall framework for understanding ‘the general dynamics of capitalist society’?
Secondly, the ICC’s position on decomposition is precisely that it is the product of a specific balance of class forces, which since the 1990s has been characterised by a historic ‘stalemate’ in which neither class has been able to impose its own response to capital’s historic crisis. But this situation is not static; it cannot be a permanent state and the Theses on Decomposition explicitly refer to its temporary nature (Point 6); the dynamic of capitalism itself must drive society inexorably towards full-blown barbarism unless the proletariat is finally able to emerge from its current retreat.
The balance of class forces thus remains the determining factor in the ‘general dynamics of capitalist society’, up until the point where we must conclude that the proletariat has been definitively defeated; surely only at that point does it cease to the the determining factor?
The main argument of the resolution that “Whatever the balance of forces… capitalism will continue to sink into decay” is an almost meaningless statement. Of course capitalism will continue to decay, because the dynamics of this decay are rooted in the objective laws of the system, but the speed and extent of decomposition remain at least in part determined by the balance of class forces; by the presence of the proletariat in capitalist society, even in its current state of retreat.
2. The proletariat can suffer a deep defeat without this being decisive for capitalist society
“In the paradigm that defines the current situation (until two new imperialist blocs are reconstituted, which may never happen), it is quite possible that the proletariat will suffer a defeat so deep that it will definitively prevent it from recovering, but it is also possible that it will suffer a deep defeat without this having a decisive consequence for the general evolution of society.” (RIntSit)
Again, we are forced to ask: what is this “general evolution of society” that could “possibly” not be affected by a deep defeat of the proletariat? How could a deep defeat of the proletariat not have a decisive consequence for balance of class forces and therefore for the determination of the historic outcome: socialism or barbarism? How could such a defeat not constitute a qualitative step towards full-blown barbarism and a further erosion of the material conditions for a communist society? As the resolution on the balance of class forces itself states: the proletariat “remains an obstacle to the full descent into barbarism” – but if it suffers a deep defeat, even if it is not definitive, surely this can only weaken the proletariat as an 'obstacle' and accelerate the descent into barbarism?
Of course we are in a historically unprecedented situation today. But we are entitled to ask what evidence the ICC has for itsassertion?
“In a way”, we are told, “, the current historical situation is similar to that of the 19th century” (apart, presumably, from the fact that capitalism is now in terminal decay rather than progressively expanding). Why? Because in the 19th century:
“…an increase in workers' struggles did not mean the prospect of a revolutionary period since proletarian revolution was not yet on the agenda, nor could it prevent a major war from breaking out (for example, the war between France and Prussia in 1870 when the power of the proletariat was rising with the development of the International Workingmen’s Association) … a major defeat of the proletariat (such as the crushing of the Paris Commune) did not result in a new war.”
There are so many non sequiturs in the above it’s hard to know where to begin. Since proletarian revolution was not yet on the agenda how can examples of workers’ struggles be directly relevant to today’s situation? Since wars in the 19th century still had an economic rationality for the expanding capitalist system and, perhaps more importantly, did not necessarily require the full mobilisation of the proletariat to fight them, how exactly is the Franco-Prussian War relevant to capitalist decomposition?
And that’s it in the way of supporting evidence.
3. World war is no longer a threat
This brings us to the ICC’s view that world war is no longer a threat, or at the very least is unlikely, which is surely the most dangerously naïve aspect of the position defended by its latest congress resolutions, and the most glaring example of schematic thinking, of attachment to “once-valid theses”.
The 1990 Theses on Decomposition explicitly refer to the sharpening of inter-state imperialist rivalries due to the aggravation of the economic crisis (Point 10) and the growing dynamic of “every man for himself” unleashed by the breakup of the blocs.
The Theses conclude that “by preventing the formation of a new system of blocs, it may well not only reduce the likelihood of world war, but eliminate this perspective altogether” (Point 10). But significantly they still leave open the possibility that the destruction of humanity could come about as a result of generalised war: “In the end, it is all the same whether we are wiped out in a rain of thermo-nuclear bombs, or by pollution, radioactivity from nuclear power stations, famine, epidemics, and the massacres of innumerable small wars (where nuclear weapons might also be used).” (Point 11)
The Resolution of the 23rd Congress turns its back on these insights in order to cling on to the rigid schema that unless two imperialist blocs are formed (two blocs, note; not even three of four), there can be no world war. It fails to even consider the possibility that, in the unprecedented conditions in which we find ourselves today, with the increasing tendency for the bourgeoisie to lose control over its political apparatus, the growth of populism and proliferation of terrorism, etc., this assumption may no longer be valid.
The ICC’s fixation on the question of whether it is possible or not to form military blocs ends up seriously underestimating the strong and increasingly uncontrollable tendencies towards generalised war in decomposing capitalism. It betrays an attachment to rigid, schematic thinking rather than an analysis of specific historical conditions which is the basis of the Marxist method.
As they stand, the texts published so far from the ICC’s 23rd Congress reveal definite weaknesses. We can point to:
· a lack of rigour and consistency, with apparent contradictions between the resolutions for example on the question of the historic course and the balance of class forces;
· weak or absent supporting evidence for new positions, eg. on the possibility of the proletariat suffering a deep defeat without this having decisive consequences for the balance of class forces.
Perhaps most seriously, in the context of the tasks the organisation set itself at its 21st Congress, we find an attachment to rigid and schematic thinking, an inability or unwillingness to really question previous positions or perspectives in the light of changed conditions; in Luxemburg’s phrase, to get to “the core of things”. This genuinely critical spirit is absolutely vital if the ICC is to live up to its role as a ‘fraction of a certain type’ in the coming period. The signs so far from the ICC's latest congress are not encouraging. In fact they are grounds for concern.