Communist Work: Getting Ready for Conjuncture

 

"[In stable times] the situation is generally unfavourable and the party’s work must take this into account. Though unable to intervene in the national political process, the party must still engage in practical political activity. The communist party may not be able to wield any mass influence, but it can prepare theoretically, ideologically and organisationally for the occasion when it could have such influence."

"If the party is well prepared theoretically, i.e. has appropriated and developed marxist theory in relation to the analysis of the conjuncture, it will be able to detect antagonistic tendencies maturing in the socially stable period before they come to a head in an open crisis."

We have discussed the matter of conjuncture -- the eruption of special moments and crisis within the capitalist system. Here are some excerpts putting forward one view of what conjuncture is, and how it affects revolutionary possibilities.

 

This is taken from a little-known piece "The Distinguishing Features of Leninist Political Practice" published long-ago in the British journal Communist Formation (November 1977). It has recently been made available as part of the archives of Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism Online. (Much appreciation to those energetically creating this EROL.)

Posting this essay is not an endorsement of its arguments and verdicts -- but an attempt to encourage investigation and debate over how communist prepare well (in non-revolutionary times) for the revolutionary opportunities provided by some special conjunctural moments.

 

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Communist Work in Ordinary Times

Contrary to the catastrophist views which have often held sway among Marxists, capitalism often sustains periods of relative social stability. There are certain invariant contradictions of capitalism – social production vs private appropriation, capital vs wage labour – but when exploitation and the accumulation of capital are proceeding “smoothly” class antagonisms remain latent rather than explosive.

The capitalist system develops on the basis of its contradictions but these contradictions are not manifest as open social conflict.

For instance, there is an inbuilt economic contradiction between bourgeoisie and proletariat under capitalism. From these there arises a struggle over the distribution of the social product. But at most times only a tiny minority of workers participate in such economic struggles as strikes, work-to-rules, boycotts etc. The economic struggles themselves in no way threaten the capitalist social order.

During periods of stability the existing state superstructure and juridical forms of private property suffice to ensure the continued reproduction of the economic base. When this base is predominantly capitalist, this stability implies the absence of antagonistic contradictions blocking the process of capital accumulation. Stability implies that the social relations as a whole constantly reproduce the preconditions of a certain trajectory of economic development. The classic example of such a period is Britain in the second half of the 19th century when an expanding world market, free trade, and a growing labour force allowed for a long period of stable capitalist development.

Conditions of long term economic and social stability in which no serious crisis is as yet forseeable, set severe restrictions on the political actions of a revolutionary party. In the absence of a serious social crisis, resulting either from the accumulation of economic contradictions, or from some external shock like war or invasion, opportunities do not exist for a communist party to effectively intervene in the political life of the nation. As Bordiga put it, describing the European scene in 1965, the situation is generally unfavourable and the party’s work must take this into account. Though unable to intervene in the national political process, the party must still engage in practical political activity.

The communist party may not be able to wield any mass influence, but it can prepare theoretically, ideologically and organisationally for the occasion when it could have such influence.

Theoretical Preparation

Theoretical preparation takes the form of the development of Marxist theory. Fundamental concepts must be elaborated and refined, lessons of previous history must be assimilated, and above all, understanding of the present situation deepened.

Critiques and refutations of the dominant themes of contemporary bourgeois ideology must be developed.

Theoretical work produces new knowledges. Ideological work produces a transformation of ’consciousness’ among either individuals or social classes. The precondition for the effectiveness of ideological work on a mass scale, on the scale of classes rather than a few individuals, is that it be accompanied by transformations in the practical activity of the masses. In conditions of social stability these transformations do not take place and the scope of ideological work is correspondingly limited to the propagation of communist ideology among relatively small numbers of individuals.

Communist ideology formulates, in a particular context, the scientifically derived propositions of communism in the language of popular ideology. The result is neither fully scientific nor comprehensive, but creates within the listeners’/readers’ ideology contradictions between their previous ideology and the raw communist notions being presented. Communist ideological work, whether education, propaganda or agitation, forces a choice: maintain the old ideas or break with them.

In periods of social stability, ideological work is the key link of party activity. It is directed towards advanced workers and individuals with a serious commitment to communism from other social classes and carried out in three general forms.

1. The party promotes the development of a socialist education movement. 2. The party popularises the basic principles of communism, criticises the dominant themes of bourgeois ideology, and through its exposure and analysis of topical issues, reveals to the working class the interests and activities of other social classes.

3. Through its intervention in individual reform struggles, the party breaks some of those participating from the hegemony of bourgeois ideology.

The very fact of relative social stability means that these various forms of ideological work will not have a mass influence. Their result is to produce a comparatively small cadre of communists and communist sympathisers. The organisational work of the party fuses these elements into a functioning centralised political organisation. This involves both the ideological formation and practical training of individuals on the one hand, and on the other the combining of these individuals into cells, fractions, branches etc., each with a structured collective workstyle and definite allocation of tasks.

 

In addition to the party organisation proper, with its full members, the party develops a periphery of working associates and sympathisers in various front organisations within which it has a dominant influence.

“Smooth” capital accumulation can sustain periods of social stability, but accumulation is an inherently contradictory process and these inherent contradictions (private appropriation vs social production, wage labour vs capital) make periodic crisis inevitable. These basic contradictions do not, however, appear as the immediate causes of particular crises. Instead a conjunctural crisis is necessarily the result of contradictions at the level of the superstructure, since it is this which normally ensures the continued reproduction of the economic base, in the face of its inherent contradictions.

Detecting the Arrival of Conjuncture

If the party is well prepared theoretically, i.e. has appropriated and developed Marxist theory in relation to the analysis of the conjuncture, it will be able to detect antagonistic tendencies maturing in the socially stable period before they come to a head in an open crisis.

In these circumstances, although we are still dealing with a socially stable conjuncture, the orientation of party work will change. As a priority the party must analyse the situation and identify the hierarchy of contradictions produced by antagonistic tendencies within the base and superstructure. This involves specifying which of the various contradictions is the most acute, which is the most chronic, and how the various contradictions articulate. This enables a prediction to be made regarding the general issues which will be at stake in the crisis when it finally breaks. By examining the contradictions it is possible to determine various ways in which they could be resolved. It is around the precise form of resolution that non-revolutionary class struggle will revolve.

The economic issues at stake in a class struggle never amount to a clear opposition or choice between capitalism and communism. What is at stake in any particular struggle is not this general historical opposition, but specific changes in either the existing property relations or political superstructure. The party must draw up analyses of the spectrums of possible superstructural and basic changes that correspond to the resolution of specific contradictions in the conjuncture.

The Challenge of Creating a Strategic Line

The party is then in a position to draw up a strategic line. This line aims to force that set of resolutions to the contradictions that is most favourable to the long term interests of the proletariat. It aims to make the ensuing crisis the opportunity for a restructuring of social relations that is to the benefit of the working class. Just how radical the restructuring will turn out to be, which contradictions will be resolved, and on just what terms, only the actual playing out of the crisis can reveal. But this element of unpredictability does not reduce the party’s strategy to the status of an arbitrary list of demands picked at random out of thin air.

Immediate party objectives propose certain forms of resolution of various contradictions. What distinguishes these from a “shopping list” of reforms, is that the resolution of these contradictions is historically necessary.

In other words if not resolved, they are reproduced with increased acuteness until so resolved. But the fact that certain contradictions must be resolved does not necessarily mean that there is only one way in which this can happen. The party seeks not merely their resolution, but their resolution on working class rather than ruling class terms.

In this case, the extent of the restructuring and its degree of radicalness will turn on the balance of forces during the crisis. The problems posed here are thus tactical rather than strategic. In advance, all the party can do is aim for a particular alliance of class forces in the crisis. Once the crisis breaks, new tactical lines have to be developed to handle the actually existing balance of forces.

Such practical interventions as the party now embarks upon over and above the activities that it would normally engage in when no developing crisis is apparent, are guided by its strategic line. At the minimum it engages in propaganda centred on this line, exposing the contradictions that are leading towards crisis and pointing out how the party advocates resolving them in the working class interest. Organisational work extends from attempts to build campaigns around specific items of strategy to exploratory attempts to see the possibilities of constructing a broad front organisation around the programme of restructuring envisaged in the strategic line.

POLITICO/ECONOMIC CRISIS IN PROGRESS, NO MILITARY CRISIS

A general social crisis may be precipitated by either economic or political events. Such economic events as a sharp rise in prices, a wave of economically motivated strikes involving large parts of the working class and which disrupts economic life, or even a severe economic recession might provoke a general social and thus political crisis. Alternatively, political events like a parliamentary crisis, a war, or a sudden spontaneous upsurge of mass protest against the government as in France in ’68, may be the detonator. If such a crisis occurs, it is crucial to the orientation of party work to decide if it is potentially revolutionary.

The fundamental question in any revolution is the question of state power. In a revolution, the state power of one class is replaced by that of another. In a revolution which involves the replacement of one kind of exploitation by another, (e.g. the bourgeois revolution which overthrew feudalism) the existing apparatus may, to a large extent, survive the transfer of state power from one class to another, or at least changes in the institutions which constitute the state apparatus may be slow and piecemeal. A proletarian revolution, on the other hand, which aims at the ending of all exploitation, must involve the smashing of the existing state apparatus. The bourgeois state apparatus is the structural embodiment of:

1. a political practice in which politics is divorced from production and becomes a domain of professional career politicians, and

2. the ideology of the state standing “above classes”, “above society”, as a “neutral arbitrator”. i.e. the ideology which serves to conceal class struggle to the benefit of the exploiting class.

If the proletariat is to exercise state power this apparatus must be broken up and replaced by a new apparatus which directly and clearly serves the class interest of the workers-the state of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this context the precondition for the process of proletarian revolution is the inability of the existing state apparatus to exercise state power.

 

The minimum preconditions for a state apparatus to exercise state power are:

1. it must have an effective executive centre;

2. this centre must be able to command the various subordinate state apparatuses;

3. these must include a hegemonic coercive/military force. Where the executive (or an executive) remains in control of the military, then a transfer of state power involves the outright defeat of the existing state. Where conditions do not permit its military defeat or internal disintegration, then a revolutionary situation does not exist, and the crisis will at most lead to a restructuring under the ultimate hegemony of the existing ruling class. In such circumstances the party must work to produce the best possible compromise terms for the working class.

In a restructuring crisis, the following factors may induce the state to make compromises with the working class, or other subordinate classes.

1. The long term need of the bourgeoisie to maintain the legitimacy of the existing state apparatus in the event of a party or coalition of parties that does not represent the hegemonie bourgeois bloc being elected to government.

2. The need to maintain social peace and the ideological standing of the existing state in the event of large scale outbursts of mass discontent – e.g. May ’68 in France, or the workers riots in Poland in ’70 and ’76.

3. The need to come to terms with the economic power of the working class exercised through various forms of unions. Possible examples of this are some of the US New Deal measures in the ’30s and the compromises made by the British ruling class during WW II.

4. The recognition that certain reforms are necessary for economic development to continue. Examples of this are the British factory legislation of the 1840’s and the introduction of the mixed economy with Keynsian interventions post 1945.

In the absence on the communist party’s part of a clear conception, derived from theoretical analysis, as to just which kind of reforms are historically necessary and conjuncturally possible in the crisis, its outcome will probably be a compromise on terms chosen by the bourgeoisie. For example, the bourgeoisie will be willing to make economic concessions over wages even if this necessitates inflation, rather than allow changes in property relations or in the state structure to take place. In France in ’68 in the absence of correct communist leadership, the bourgeoisie got away with conceding no more than a few wage rises. In Italy, by making economic concessions at the same time (’68-9) the bourgeoisie have been able to postpone their restructuring crisis until the late ’70s.

 

A communist party that  has done its analysis in the preceding period will be aware of the issues that will figure in the crisis, and will thus have fulfilled the first prerequisite for a scientific intervention in the political life of the nation. For some time now, it should have been carrying out propaganda on and around the main issues of the crisis. With the upsurge in political interest and participation on the part of the masses that is induced by a social crisis, it becomes possible to switch from propaganda – which necessarily only reaches advanced elements on the periphery of the party – to agitation which affects the masses in large numbers. This requires the identification of tactical objectives derived from an analysis of the short term aspects of the conjunctural situation and the party’s immediate restructuring objective. These tactical objectives can then be expressed in the form of slogans which take into account the current stage of development of popular consciousness. The promulgation of such slogans constitutes the key link in the ideological aspect of the party’s political intervention.

At this stage, the party’s organisational work consists in:

1. promoting the development of new political structures within which the masses can be drawn into active participation in political life;

2. trying to win support for its immediate objectives within these structures;

3. trying to build up fronts or coalitions around the major strategic objectives of the party, these being either coalitions with other pre-existing political organisations, or, preferably, mass organisations in their own right;

4. trying to use its influence within the economic organisations of the working class to commit them to struggle for its immediate objectives; these objectives may encompass the restructuring of the working class organisations themselves.

Many of these activities would also have to be carried out in a revolutionary conjuncture, but with this difference: in a revolutionary conjuncture these are preparations for insurrection, the smashing of the existing state power and the direct enaction of working class economic objectives; in a non-revolutionary conjuncture these are aimed at backing up demands made upon the state power. The practice of advancing practicable demands upon the state power is an indispensible component of communist political practice in a restructuring conjuncture, but merely diversionary in a revolutionary situation. There are no situations within which the so-called ’transitional’ demands have application.

 

The success or otherwise of the party’s strategy during the restructuring crisis will have a crucial influence upon the ensuing period. The contradictions resolved, and the mode of their resolution will determine:

1. what will be the terrain of class struggle in the ensuing period;

2. which contradictions are likely to precipitate the next crisis.

In a non-revolutionary crisis it is therefore in the working class interest that restructuring be as progressive as possible, in the sense of establishing a terrain that is favourable for proletarian class struggle, that is, for the development of the cohesiveness, initiative, and combativity of the working class. It is impossible to specify in advance of concrete conjunctural analysis the specific content of such a “progressive restructuring” but at the most general level such elements as the concentration of capital, the advance of class polarization and the growth of the proletariat, can be identified as tending to give rise to a more advanced terrain. A good example of this is provided by the various anti-imperialist movements of the last three decades. Even where these have merely transferred power from the imperialist to the local bourgeoisie, they have often brought about a restructuring in economic conditions, which has led to an accelerated development of capitalism, growth of the proletariat, and a change in political and ideological conditions which has led to greater strength and assertiveness on the part of the working class.

 

A proletarian party that has played a leading role in. fighting over the terms of the restructuring, and has been seen to take the initiative and force the pace, is likely to experience a growth in influence and support as a result. A more radical restructuring will also be in the immediate interest of many sections of the working class and its allies (and also inevitably sections of the bourgeoisie), so victories won here rebound to the credit of those who fought for them. To oppose restructuring on the grounds that it benefits leading sectors of the bourgeoisie, would ideologically tie the working class to the petty bourgeoisie and to the ideological structures within which the bourgeoisie has previously accommodated working class interests: an example of this is the left’s opposition to EEC entry, which tied the working class to the petty bourgeoisie and to chauvinist labour ideology.

REVOLUTIONARY CONJUNCTURES

A revolutionary conjuncture is one in which there is a real possibility of state power passing from the hands of the ruling class. In all such conjunctures the decisive element is military force. Political power is transformed at gunpoint. It is possible to usefully distinguish four types of revolutionary conjunctures in which the transfer of power is possible:

a. peaceful transfer of power brought about by the latent presence of superior forces on the revolutionary side; e.g. Mongolia 1923-4;

b. transfer of power due to the defection of the decisive element of the armed forces of the existing state to the side of the revolution e.g. March 1917 in Russia;

c. peaceful transfer of power clue to the collapse of the executive organs of the state and the consequent lack of co-ordination in the military, e.g. initial establishment of the Paris Commune with the disintegration of the imperial executive;

d. violent transfer of power by means of insurrection or civil war: October revolution, Chinese revolution.

The importance of the military factor in revolutions is so obvious that it scarcely needs to be emphasised, except to point out, that even in case c) power can only be retained if the revolutionary forces are able to organise an army before the enemy re-establishes its executive. It is sheer adventurism to advance revolutionary objectives (i.e. ones necessitating the transfer of power) as slogans in a period when military factors make a transfer of power impossible. Against every democratic and constitutional prejudice it has to be emphasised that the military situation determines where effective state power lies in a revolutionary conjuncture. Repeated experience has shown that a well disciplined and trained army under decisive centralised command can suppress any threat to the state power other than a superior army. An army cannot be successfully opposed by trades unions or other peaceful organisations of the proletariat. Chile is only the most recent proof of this. The one possible counter example, the French withdrawal from occupation of the Ruhr in 1924, owed less to passive resistance than to international political and financial pressures.

 

To say that the military question is decisive in revolutionary situations does not mean that the revolution reduces to a question of military organisation. The prerequisite for a favourable military balance is often the existence of widespread political support for revolutionary objectives. Bourgeois control over the armed forces can only be broken by their political subversion. An armed insurrection would probably fail, and a revolutionary civil war certainly fail, without a large measure of political support. The party cannot sirnply carry out a military putsch regardless of the political balance of forces. Apart from the immediate military question, working class state power can be maintained only if it is possible to destroy the mass base of bourgeois state power, which depends on a mass mobilisation of the workers in support of the revolution, and also crucially on a correct policy of class alliances with respect to the other classes affected by the process of proletarianisation (in countries with a large peasantry-a worker/peasant alliance; in advanced capitalist countries alliance with sections of the salariat and petty-bourgeoisie).

On the other hand the necessity for popular support for the workers party cannot be reduced to a question of percentages. Communism does not subscribe to any simplistic majoritarian ideas, and in fact revolution is possible with the active support of only a minority of the population, provided that the majority of the popular classes in struggle do not actively oppose the communists and provided that the military situation is favourable. The revolution does not have to be legitimated according to the criteria of bourgeois democracy, and in this sense the communists have no “democratic” prejudices. Nonetheless it is a cardinal point of Leninism that the development of the dictatorship of the proletariat must involve the development of a higher form of democracy by and for the working class. In contrast to bourgeois democracy, which allows the working class a choice between rulers every few years, proletarian democracy aims at reorganising the workers as the ruling class. Communists do not make a fetish of particular democratic insititutions, and under certain circumstances it may be necessary to suspend formal democratic procedures, but these circumstances are exceptional and must be justified as such.

When the party argues that a revolutionary conjuncture is in existence or is imminent, then is the time to put forward its socialist programme as a imminent objective of the working class. What distinguishes the socialist programme is not the immediate objective it puts forward; indeed, many of these might be attained through reforms within the bourgeois regime; it is the fact that taken as a whole, at that point in time, it is economically feasible but politically incompatible with the continued rule of the bourgeoisie.

The existence of a revolutionary situation clearly presupposes a high level of militancy and combativity on the part of the working class and its allies. One of the features of such a situation is likely to be the spontaneous crystallisation of that class power in the form of alternative political structures (e.g. councils, soviets). These can be the germs of an alternative state apparatus (although a particular institutional form doesn’t guarantee a correct political line), and the party should attempt to promote their development in that direction. If the military situation is favourable and if the structures have drawn large sections of the working class directly or indirectly into them then the party should agititate for them to seize power. For such agitation to succeed the party will probably have to become the dominant organisation within these structures, even if this is achieved through alliance with some other revolutionary party

If on the other hand the revolutionary situation is precipitated with such a suddenness that the party is faced with the possibility of seizing state power in advance of the crystallisation of popular organs of working class political power it must call for, and play a leading role in, the development of such organs to broaden the base of the new state power.

In addition to the ideological work of preparing the working class for the seizure of power, and the organisational work of promoting working class political structures, the party must prepare itself to rule. It must prepare to become the effective nucleus of the new state power with a clear programme of immediate tasks and priorities.

Finally, the party should have a military programme. The form that this should take is an open question, demanding both theoretical analysis and concrete examination. It is bound, however, to have two key elements: subversion of the standing army and consititution of a red army. How a red army is to be formed cannot be laid down in advance. The mutiny of regular army regiments, the arming of the populace by the state in the event of an external threat, and the independent formation of a red army from a nucleus of workers’ militias and guerrilla forces seem to be the three main alternatives open. It should be borne in mind that it is rare for an irregular force to be able to defeat a well equipped, trained and disciplined regular army in an urban setting.

CONCLUSION

Leninist political practice is based upon the theory that in the course of social development there occur certain nodal points from which the paths of possible development diverge. At such nodal moments, relatively minor changes in the play of class forces can have a decisive influence upon the course of development that society subsequently takes. The existence of such divergent courses of possible development can be derived from analysis of the contradictions inherent in social development during relatively stable periods. Analysis can also reveal the class forces likely to be in play at nodal moments and the alliances necessary for a particular outcome to be achieved. Political practice is then directed to bring about the required alignment of forces at the crucial point in time.

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People in this conversation

  • Guest (worker antagonism)

    There is a lot of Bordiga influence here, which is interesting but not what I would expect from Maoists in the 70's.
    These Communist Formation folks must have been rather eccentric.

  • Guest (Paul Saba)

    They were very eccentric. They got some of their Bordiga influence from a member Gwyn Williams, who wrote the important book Proletarian Order, on Gramsci and Bordiga.

    They were also very much influenced by Daniel De Leon's Socialist Labor Party and by its European adherents, such as James Connolly.

    But their attempt to specific the objective limits on revolutionary activity inherent in Lenin's practice, is. I think, very important and enormously useful in thinking about revolutionary strategy. In particular, I think their discussion of transitional conjunctures has immediate relevance for our strategic thinking about how we should be approaching revolutionary practice today.

  • Guest (Carl Davidson)

    This is an odd piece.

    In many ways, I agree with most of it. But in some important ways, I don't.

    First, it 'calls for' all sorts of sophisticated analyses, 'hierarchies of contradictions' and such. I'd much rather see how they actually applied these exhortations to their time and place, ie, don't just name the task, show us how you carried it out.

    Second, when it refers to us, I'd substitute 'revolutionary education' for 'ideology' across the board. Ideology is a term I use for the ossified ideas of the old order; science and the art of politics is what I'd use to describe our approach to revolutionary thought.

    Third, what's the problem with 'transitional programs?' The Trotskyists shouldn't have a monopoly on this idea. Many relevant structural reforms are also transitional. Otherwise, you're reduced to arguing for immediate redistributionist demands, or the 'd of the p,' without much in between. Is this a Deleonist hangover?

    Fourth, the part on military policy is good--and often overlooked.

    But I think the most important question of all--who are friends, who are adversaries--is left to the very last sentence, and it begs to be unfolded.