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  • markhayes9

On the ICC's concept of the historic course

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

This (rather long!) text is written as a contribution to discussion in the Communist Left rather than simply as a critique of the ICC's positions. I strongly believe that if we are to resist the corrosive effects of this rotting society we must strengthen our ability to understand it, and we can only do that by trying to go to the roots of previous mistakes and weaknesses in our method.


“the ‘normal' course of capitalist society is towards war.” (‘Revolution or war’, IR 21, 1980)

Recently there was a discussion in the CWO’s online forum about ‘”party, fractions and periodisation” in which the ICC’s concept of the historic course was raised. For the CWO Cleishbotham rejected this whole idea as “unmarxist”. In response I argued that surely the ‘historic course’ was simply another way of talking about the need to assess the balance of class forces? Wasn’t it the duty of revolutionaries to take a position on the possibilities for the proletarian revolution in any given period? After all, this is what Marx had always done, allowing him to identify periods of defeat in which the party was no longer possible, etc. I also pointed out that far from being ‘unmarxist’ the notion of the historic course was defended by the Italian Left in the 1930s when after the triumph of Hitler in 1933 they identified that the road was open to a new world war.

But the more I thought about this, the less convinced I became that the historic course was simply a way of talking about the balance of class forces. For a start Marx never uses the term and in fact the ICC argues that it can only apply to the epoch of capitalist decadence when the alternative posed is revolution or war, socialism or barbarism. But the more I looked at the concept the more I became convinced it was a schema, an attempt to make a general theory out of very specific historical conditions.

At its latest congress the ICC concluded that with the entry of capitalism into the final phase of its decadence in the 1990s, the phase of decomposition, it is no longer valid to talk about a historic course (see ICC website). But I think it’s still important to examine the original concept because its schematism not only influenced this decision but remains intact, resulting in further confusions.

As for the CWO, its own response was to dismiss the historic course as further evidence of the ICC’s idealism: socialism or barbarism, war or revolution are the ‘continual binaries’ of the class struggle in history and there is no ’historic course’, only specific historic periods ending in either the revolutionary reconstitution of society or the common ruin of the contending classes;. While this is true in the very broadest historical sense (when Marx talked in these terms in the Communist Manifesto he was talking about whole epochs of history marked by the transition from one mode of production to another), it seems to turn its back completely on the work of the Italian Left around Bilan in the 1930s. The CWO of course is politically attached to the PCInt (Battaglia Comunista), which in general dismisses the work of the Fraction in exile. So we ought to at least try to clarify whether the concept of a ‘historic course’ has a place in the political tradition of the Communist Left.

The starting point: the post-’68 upsurge of struggles

Rather than starting by setting out the concept of the historic course and tracing its development by the ICC since its formation let’s start with the empirical reality of the post-’68 upsurge of struggles which, by giving rise to the formation of revolutionary minorities tracing their origins in the contribution of the Communist Left, including the ICC and the CWO, indirectly led to its emergence as a theory.

We don’t need to go over this in detail. The ICC clearly recognised that the waves of struggles “From Paris to Cordoba, from Turin to Gdansk, from Lisbon to Shanghai, from Cairo to Barcelona” (ICC Manifesto) signalled the end of the counter-revolution and the emergence of the best conditions for the revolutionary overthrow capitalism since the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-21. It’s also worth pointing out that the CWO at the time recognised that “Since the end of the 1960s capitalism’s post war period of expansion has been drawing to a close and the objective conditions for revolution began to develop” (CWO text for the First International Conference, 1977).

These struggles, led by a new generation of proletarians who had not known defeat, meant that the bourgeoisie was not free to impose its only ‘solution’ to the crisis of capitalism, a new imperialist world war; first it had to defeat the proletariat. This was the lesson the bourgeoisie had learned from the experience of the 1917-21 revolutionary wave, only launching the second imperialist world war once it had ensured the physical crushing and defeat of the proletariat in the capitalist heartlands. And it was the surviving minorities of the Communist Left, in particular the Italian Left in exile around Bilan, which had most clearly grasped the political lessons of this experience; arguing against the idea that war could open up revolutionary possibilities, Bilan argued the opposite; that the physical defeat of the proletariat, crowned by the victory of Hitler in Germany, meant that the road towards revolution was definitively closed in this period. In other words, whatever the proletariat did, however massive and radical its struggles (and of course we are talking about a period which still saw the massive struggles in Spain 1936-37), it was unable to reverse the course towards war.

Explicitly basing itself on the contribution of Bilan and the continuation and development of its work by the Gauche Communiste de France (GCF), whose leading member Marc Chirik played a hugely influential role in its formation, the ICC announced that the historic course was now towards revolution.

To reverse Bilan’s position – from a course towards war to a course towards revolution – may have seemed logical given the direction of the class struggle in the 1970s and the balance of class forces compared to the period of the counter-revolution. Not only that, but the arguments of Bilan itself at the time seemed to support such a position, referring to war and revolution as ‘opposite expressions’ of the contradictions of capitalism. But at the same time the ICC’s reversal of Bilan’s position highlighted the dangers of such a simplistic approach. For a young and inexperienced organisation to talk of a ‘course towards revolution’ smacked of immediatism and even triumphalism and more seriously implied, adopting the same logic as Bilan, that whatever the bourgeoisie did it was unable to reverse the course towards revolution.

This was clearly wrong, and the ICC was forced to correct its position to a “course towards class confrontations”. But this correction appears to have been made without a deeper questioning of the validity of adapting the position of Bilan in the 1930s to the new historical conditions of the post-'68 upsurge. With hindsight, the fact that the logic of Bilan’s argument led to the adoption of a patently wrong position should perhaps have rung alarm bells, and in this context the adoption of a ‘course towards class confrontations’ appears more as a centrist compromise than an attempt at a more precise analysis of the balance of class forces, which would include the following key points:

- unlike the 1930s, the road to revolution was not closed

- in fact the balance of class forces was more favourable to the proletariat than at any time since 1917;

- as long as the proletariat continued to push forward its struggles, and above all develop the consciousness of its historic tasks, it could prevent the final outcome of a new world war;

- nevertheless the tendency towards war continued to strengthen and the threat of a world war would remain until the proletariat finally seized power and overthrew capitalism.

Instead the ICC continued to develop its concept of the historic course into a more elaborate theory and to try to trace its origins in the history of the revolutionary movement before 1914. This led to important insights and clarifications, as we will see, but the determination to hold on to the basic schema led to these being obscured and or contradicted while basic confusions were deepened.

So what are these basic confusions?

A mechanistic view of the relationship between the tendencies towards war and revolution

The starting point for the ICC’s concept of historic course is the absolutely correct position defended by the Marxist movement that with the entry of capitalism into its decadent phase, announced in spectacular fashion by the first imperialist world war, the only alternative is either socialism or barbarism, world communist revolution or the destruction of humanity.

In decadence the contradictions of the system can only push it towards a generalised war as the ‘solution’ to its historic crisis. This tendency towards war exists within the dynamic of capitalism itself and continues to develop independently of the action of the proletariat right up until a successful revolution.

The only potential obstacle to generalised war is the class struggle of the proletariat. The tendency towards revolution also exists within the dynamic of capitalism, a mode of production based on associated labour that brings into being and must continually reproduce a class of wage labourers. As a revolutionary class that is also an exploited class in society, the proletariat can oppose capitalism only with its own organisation and its own consciousness. Above all the proletarian revolution depends on the class becoming conscious of its own nature, the lessons of past defeats and its historic tasks. The enormity of this step is the reason why the proletarian revolution is not an inevitability.

Only in one specific set of historical conditions so far has the proletariat been able to bring an imperialist world war to a halt and attempt to overthrow capitalism, in the revolutionary wave of 1917-1923.

In the specific context of the upsurge of class struggle after May ’68 the proletariat very clearly appeared as a major obstacle to a new world war, as long as it continued to push forward its struggles and develop its class consciousness; before capitalism could impose its final ‘solution’ to the crisis it would first have to crush the proletariat. This was the lesson learned by the bourgeoisie itself from its experience in 1917-18 and ruthlessly put into practice in 1939-45.

But this wasn’t the position defended by the ICC on the ‘historic course’. Fixated on the argument of Bilan in the 30s that war and revolution are opposite expressions’, despite having abandoned its position that the course was towards revolution, the ICC continued to assert that the conditions for revolution must mean the disappearance of the conditions for war. From this it was a short step to the mechanistic schema that the tendencies towards war and revolution were mutually exclusive not only in their ultimate outcome but also on a day to day basis, so if one develops, the other is necessarily weakened:

At all times, the dominance of one or the other tendency is the exact reflection of the balance of forces between the two main classes in society: bourgeoisie and proletariat.” (‘Report on the World Situation’, IR 13, 1978, my emphasis)

What’s more, as the responses of two historically antagonistic classes, imperialist war and revolution mutually exclude each other not only for the future of society, but also in the day-to-day manner that these two alternatives being prepared.” (‘The historic course, IR 18, 1979, my emphasis)

This mechanistic vision of the balance of class forces loses sight of the fact that the tendency towards war exists independently of the action of the proletariat and continually pushes the system towards war because it is rooted in the dynamics of capitalism itself. The proletariat, depending on the balance of class forces, stands as an obstacle to the full working out of this tendency in capitalist society through a generalised war, but there is no mechanical relationship between the advance or retreat of the tendency towards war and the level of workers’ struggles at any specific moment.

We need only look at the early congress reports of the ICC to see clearly how the tendency towards war, driven by the dynamic of the deepening capitalist crisis, was unfolding at the same time as the upsurge of workers’ struggles up to the end of the 1970s:

- the growth of armaments spending and military budgets

- the move of localised inter-imperialist conflicts from the peripheries to its centres

- indirect imperialist confrontations between the blocs in the Middle East, Horn of Africa, Yugoslavia

- deployment of new nuclear missile systems in Europe

- aggravation of inter-imperialist antagonisms (Afghanistan 1980).

This is more than enough to demonstrate that the tendency towards war can and does manifest itself at the same time as the tendency towards revolution, and that there is no mechanical link between the tendency towards war and the balance of class forces “on a day to day basis”.

At the same time, it is not hard to see the mass strike in Poland 1980 as proof that the struggle of the proletariat in this period did indeed constitute an obstacle to the bourgeoisie’s war plans; the Polish workers clearly showed their unwillingness to be mobilised for a world war and the strikes themselves were undoubtedly a factor in the eventual collapse of the Russian bloc. But a more detailed study would surely reveal a complex interplay here between the class struggle, inter-imperialist conflicts and the deepening economic crisis, exacerbated by the arms race; not a simple retreat of the tendency towards war as a result of the advance of the class struggle.

Parallel and simultaneous tendencies?

The logical conclusion from all this is that the tendencies toward war and revolution must develop in parallel and simultaneously in capitalist society but in a dialectical manner, through clashes and contradictions, continually impacting on each other in complex ways. Broadly we would expect these clashes and contradictions to become more extreme over time, as the crisis of the system deepened, making the ‘solution’ of war more urgent while at the same time strengthening the resistance of the proletariat to its worsening effects on conditions.

This view of parallel and simultaneous tendencies is inherent in the recognition by the ICC that the tendency towards war exists within the dynamic of capitalism itself, independent of the balance of class forces, continuing to develop even in massive class confrontations, right up until the proletarian revolution.

But the ICC explicitly rejected the whole idea of parallel and simultaneous courses. Why? Because allegedly it called into question the role of the class struggle in history: “The main error in this conception is that it totally neglects the factor of class struggle in the life of society” (‘The historic course’, IR 18, 1979). The basic idea that two tendencies in capitalist society – both inherent in the dynamic of the system – could develop in parallel and simultaneously was simply denied, and yet it is surely the secret to understanding the whole question.

One reason why the ICC so vehemently rejected this view is undoubtedly that a version of it was defended by the PCInt at the first two conferences of groups of the Communist Left in 1977 and 1978. These revealed basic differences between the groups on a whole range of basic issues including whether it was even possible to make pronouncements about the nature of the historical course, let alone the nature of the historic course, provoking a lengthy response from the ICC (‘The historic course, IR 18, 1979).

The ICC’s position at the 2nd Conference was still that the course was towards revolution.

Against this, the PCInt defended the view that there were two possible outcomes of the capitalist crisis, war or revolution; that the relationship between the two was a dialectical one, and that it was not yet possible, in the late 1970s, to know which it would be.

Another participating group, the Nucleo Comunista Internazionalista, also warned against seeing a mechanical relationship between the crisis pushing the bourgeoisie to war and the response of the proletariat, although at the same time it still saw the possibility of a recovery of the system as in 1945 (see the Proceedings of the Second Conference, 1978, pp.10-13).

So actually none of the participating groups defended a clear position at this time on the question of the direction of the class struggle, although the ICC’s verbal interventions gave a good summary of the key issues:

Today the relations of force are tipped in favour of the proletariat. New generations have not known defeat. On the other hand the state of decomposition of the bourgeoisie pushes it towards war. Nevertheless, the revolution is not automatically a concrete possibility at any moment. We say that there is no fatality in history. If the proletariat does not arm itself and develop its struggle – and here we must take into account the contribution of revolutionaries – then the class will be defeated and the bourgeoisie will triumph.

It is tempting to imagine that if the debates between the groups of the Communist Left had been able to continue, without the sectarianism that crippled the emerging revolutionary movement, there may even have been a clarification on this question by all of the groups, leading to a modification of the ICC’s mechanistic schema on the balance of class forces and the adoption of a more dialectical vision of the relationship between the tendencies towards war and revolution. As it was, of course, the conferences collapsed and the ICC’s lengthy response to the arguments of the PCInt saw an entrenchment of its position and a further rejection of any idea of a parallel or simultaneous course.

Underestimating the tendency towards war

The idea that the conditions for revolution involve the disappearance of the conditions for war leads logically to an underestimation of the danger of war because it obscures the fact that the tendency towards war exists within the dynamic of capitalism.

It replaces the position, based on the experience of both classes in the 1930s, and in the specific historical conditions in the period opened up after May ’68, that the class struggle of the proletariat constitutes an obstacle to the final outcome of world war, and that the bourgeoisie must first defeat and crush the proletariat in order to impose its own ‘solution’ to the capitalist crisis, with the abstract idea that the proletariat ‘bars the road to war’.

Having put forward its position that there is a historic course towards class confrontations, the ICC has continually had to warn that this is ‘course’ is subject to change or even reversal – to the point where one is led to question whether it is meaningful to talk of a ‘course’ at all. The ICC itself appears to have recognised this, when it warned that “In reality, what could be called the ‘normal’ course of capitalist society is towards war. The resistance of the working class, which can put this course into question, appears as a sort of ‘anomaly’, as something running ‘against the stream’, of the organic process of the capitalist world” (‘Revolution or war’, IR 21, 1980).

This is throws a critical light on the whole idea that the proletariat ‘bars the road to war’, because as the ICC admitted, “when we look at the eight decades of this century, we can find hardly more than two during which the balance of forces was sufficiently in the proletariat's favor for it to have been able to bar the way to imperialist war (1905-12, 1917-23, 1968-80).” (Ibid)

These examples are themselves, at the very least, debatable:

- The first (1905-12) implies that all the other conditions for world imperialist war already existed, when for a fact we know the blocs were only finalised in the final stages of the run up to war in August 1914. More fundamentally we know that at this historical moment, on the eve of capitalism’s entry into its decadent epoch, the bourgeoisie itself did not fully understand the implications of the impending war and nor did the proletariat;

- The second (1917-23) is of course the revolutionary wave which brought the war to an end, so this is not so much an example of the proletariat ‘barring the road to war’ as stopping it in its tracks by starting a world revolution;

- The third (1868-80) is clearest example of a period in which the struggle of the proletariat constituted a potential obstacle to world war, but even this is debatable because it ended not with revolution but the collapse of the blocs and a historic stalemate between the classes and the precise role played by the class struggle in preventing a world war up to 1980 must now be a matter of historical debate.

In summary, these few historical examples given by the ICC of when the proletariat was supposedly able to bar the road to war are all debatable to say the least.

Misinterpreting the position of Bilan and the confusions of the GCF

There is no evidence to suggest that Bilan considered its position on the road to war in the 1930s could simply be reversed, ie. that it was equally true that there was a 'road to revolution' that excluded war. Here is the full quote used by the ICC to justify its position:

"We have already said: war and revolution are two opposite expressions of the same situation, in that they mature out of the explosion of contradictions … but they are 'opposite expressions', which means that the unleashing of war results from political conditions which exclude the revolution. It is an anarchistic simplification that considers that since the moment has arrived when capitalism has to arm the workers, the conditions are already ripe for the proletariat to use these arms for the triumph of its revolutionary cause … The opposition between war and revolution reveals its full breadth when we consider that the political conditions which allow the war to be unleashed involve not only the disappearance of all the conditions that would permit the victory of the proletariat, but of any kind of revolutionary movement up to the least statement of the consciousness of the proletariat." ('Draft resolution on the international situation', Bilan 16, quoted in IR 107)

“…the unleashing of war results from political conditions which exclude the revolution…”

“…the political conditions which allow the war to be unleashed involve not only the disappearance of all the conditions that would permit the victory of the proletariat…”

Exactly. But it doesn’t flow from this that the opposite is true: that the conditions for revolution involve the disappearance of the conditions for war. This is a misreading of the position defended by Bilan and the source of the confusion in the ICC’s general concept of the course of history. It is an attempt to replace an analysis of the balance of class forces at a specific historical conjuncture with an abstract mechanical schema.

Similarly, the GCF argued against the specific thesis that revolution could develop out of war:

Imperialist war does not develop in response to rising revolution; quite the reverse, it is the reflux following the defeat of revolutionary struggle, the momentary ousting of the menace of revolution which allows capitalism to move towards the outbreak of a war engendered by the contradictions and internal tensions of the capitalist system.” (‘Report on the International Situation, GCF conference 1945, quoted in ‘The historic course’, IR 18, 1979).

But, as we know, this correct conclusion did not prevent the GCF from making a basic error in its analysis of the balance of class forces after 1945 which had catastrophic consequences for the group. In fact the GCF ended up defending precisely the view that it had previously rejected; that revolution could come out of war. Theorising the integration of the old workers' organisations into state capitalism as the integration of the proletariat itself, the GCF concluded that it was only in war that the proletarian struggle could take on a revolutionary content, and that with the prostration of the proletariat after WW2 the road was now open towards the third world war.

How could the GCF, which explicitly based itself on the work of Bilan, and which correctly opposed the confusions of those who believed a revolution would come out of the war, make such a basic error on the historic course?

Partly because it had a schematic understanding of capitalist decadence which denied the possibility of any further phase of growth in the system, leaving it unable to see that WW2 had created the conditions for a period of reconstruction, in which inter-imperialist antagonisms did not pose the immediate necessity of a new world war.

But also because its incorrect analysis of the balance of class forces led it to conclude that if revolution was off the agenda, then war, the opposite expression’ of capitalism’s contradictions, must be on the agenda, ie., the disappearance of the conditions for revolution must mean the conditions for war. Therefore, “In the present conditions of capital, generalized war is inevitable” ('The evolution of capitalism and the new perspective', 1952, reprinted in IR 21, 1980, my emphasis).

The lesson of the GCF’s error on the question of the historic course can only be the need to analyse specific historical conditions and avoid trying to make a new and changed reality fit outdated schemas.

In conclusion

The concept of the historic course is the product of an erroneous attempt by the ICC to make a general theory out of historically specific conditions, on the basis of a misreading of the position defended by Bilan. The Italian Left was absolutely correct to conclude that with the physical defeat of the proletariat in the 1930s the ‘normal course’ of capitalist society towards war was no longer obstructed and the road was open to war. This remains the only period in the history of decadent capitalism where we can talk of a definite ‘course of history’.

As I said at the beginning of this text, the ICC has now changed its position. At its 23rd Congress it finally concluded that in the conditions opened up by the entry of decadent capitalism into its final phase, that of decomposition , it is no longer valid to talk of a historic course, partly because a world war is no longer on the agenda (see the accompanying text on the ICC’s 23rd Congress resolutions). But as I said at the beginning, I think the schematism of the original concept not only influenced this decision but remains intact, resulting in further confusions. There has already been some discussion of this in the ICC’s online forum.

Briefly, on the basis of what has been covered here I think we can point to:

  • An underestimation of the extent to which the tendency towards war is inherent in the dynamic of capitalism itself, a forgetting of the insight that “the ‘normal' course of capitalist society is towards war";

  • A fixation on the question of whether or not it is possible to form military blocs which risks underestimating the tendency towards war, whether it is in the form of a world war or a generalised war, proliferation of local wars, etc;

  • A forgetting of the insight that "there is [nothing] to say that, a priori, a future imperialist war would need to have identical conditions” (‘Revolution or war’, IR 21, 1980) – something the ICC would have done well to have nailed to its masthead;

  • Following on from this, an overestimation of the extent to which, in the from approximately 1968 to 1989, the proletariat ‘barred the road to world war’;

  • Finally, an attachment to the schema of a ‘course towards class confrontations’, despite the evolution of capitalism from c1989.

All this to me betrays an attachment to rigid, schematic thinking rather than an analysis of specific historical conditions which is the basis of the Marxist method.


31 July 2019

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