In the history of the Communist Left, there is a key concept – that of continuity. Across the span of more than seventy of the most disastrous and counterrevolutionary years that the workers’ movement has ever known, it has been precisely this very powerful sense of continuity that has permitted the Communist Left to survive.
But what does continuity stand for? Both bourgeois and the most vulgar Stalinist or post-Stalinist thought have their own continuity, which arises not from the villainy and dishonesty of the individuals but from the roles these groups and their ideologies must assume within society. Therefore, how does the continuity of revolutionary communists differ, this continuity made up of theory, history, and memory? Let us consider it in greater detail.
There is good reason to put theory in first place. It is for us the non renounceable touchstone of obligatory reference: without it, to recall Lenin, there can be no revolutionary movement. Proceeding in term, what do we mean by theory? For us, theory is Marxism, or, better yet, dialectical materialism; that is to say, that conception of history and of economic and social data based on the determinism that Marx and Engels identified in the vibrant experience of a clash of classes unfolding within a bourgeois society emerging from the victory of its own revolution; a theory that, after the disaster of the Second International and amidst a crisis of immense proportions, Lenin restored to its most salient form, and to which the Communist Left was able to add a dramatic balance-sheet drawn from a critical time, the post 1926 period: something no other political movement was able to do.
What do we mean by this? We mean a number of things that have always distinguished communists, and of necessity we can only summarize here. We mean, for example, that Marxism did not emerge as a genial offspring from the super brains of individuals blessed by some divinity (a Karl, a Frederick, a Vladimir!). On the contrary, it emerged from the conflict between the dominant bourgeois class possessed of its own ideology and the proletariat to which it gave birth; a proletariat that learns from the intellectual activity of anonymous individuals (anonymous in the sense that if not they then there would have been others, as happens with all scientific discoveries that are the final result of a preceding and contemporaneous process), that discovers, on the basis of the material conditions of a collective existence and from being an international class, a revolutionary theory that explains the mechanism driving the societies of the past and present, and can serve to guide it through the shoals of the present towards the morrow.
We mean that precisely for this reason Marxism as a theory of revolution is not tied to 1848, 1861, 1884 or whatever. Rather it is bound to an entire phase of history (one that supersedes the particular contingencies of x or y year, and may last for decades or even centuries) wherein there begins a confrontation between two modes of production: capitalism, everywhere victorious but already no longer progressive and standing for one of the main sources of disasters and suffering, and communism, yet to establish itself, and to do so it must break and replace the domination of the bourgeois class with its own, thus providing a bridge to a classless society.
The work that the Marxists carried out in the middle of the 19th century and that Lenin and the Communist Left restored in the early 20th century was not that of capturing (taking a snapshot of) a given moment in social history. If they had limited themselves to doing that, our critics would be right when they tell us with certitude, «But how do you dare raise again these myths that are one hundred and fifty years old?» Not at all!
What our predecessors did was to pick out from an analysis of society the general laws behind the working of capitalism: and these remain valid for the entire time when capitalism continues to be the ruling mode of production.
To cite an example: Das Kapital is not to us what a Bible or a Koran is to religious fundamentalists or Nostradamus’s verses to his followers. What we read therein are not prophecies that, on the basis of indeterminate mechanical and metaphysical reasons, are valid for all times. On the contrary, we do get a knowledge of the laws governing general development, giving us to understand the evolution of bourgeois production, then and now, and to grasp the historic, not fatal, inevitability that it will collapse, as has happened with all preceding modes of production based on the division of classes.
This is why, to the ignominy of skeptics and opportunists, we maintain that Marxist theory was born as a single bloc at a determinate moment. Because it represents the synthesis of such a clash between two forms of production and is not simply an empirical and subjective description of a given situation. This is why, to the ignominy of skeptics and opportunists, we maintain that Marxist theory remains as valid today as when it emerged (which does not preclude the need to make ever clearer its key concepts, to apply them to reality and by means of them to verify most lucidly and convincingly that reality), until that final clash begins and the new mode of production triumphs victorious.
For us, this is our theory, the continuity of theory. On the foundation of this theory, on this continuity is founded the political organization needed to lead the proletariat along a road that however long and improbable it may seem today, given the very laws that underlie capitalism is inevitable and unavoidable. A party solidly anchored on that theory is the recipient of a collective international and impersonal experience, becoming the surgeon who, at the opportune moment, makes the cut that history has posed for so long. Whenever the party (the First, Second, Third International) departed from this teory, or forgot or modified parts of it, that continuity was broken, and a catastrophe resulted for the international proletariat, for the whole humanity.
It is clearly obvious however that theory by itself is not enough. If we thought so, we would not be materialists. We would fall under the illusion of the Thought or the Idea, and we would deny what we affirm as Marxists. Texts are not enough; words are not enough; to believe that for an instant is to turn them into articles of faith, and there is no worse Marxist than one who proclaims his faith.
True: there are instances in history, coincident with the most serious setbacks for the revolutionary movement, when the physical presence of a revolutionary vanguard has been swept away, and all that remains is a mere assembly of Marxist texts. But in every case, these texts declare to the world their indispensability, that they are the constituent plasma, the fundamental basis of the party. Woe, if it is not so.
This is the history of the laboured process by which theory gave itself flesh – and we should not be disturbed referring to an example from the history of religion, the details are in keeping with the prevalent mysticism of those times, but portray a very materialistic event, i.e. the formation of a party of those who as bearers of a new means of production fought against the classical method of production founded on slavery. Hence, the history by which theory gives itself an organization, translates itself into a revolutionary praxis, is another pillar of our continuity.
This is a history that tells of the clash between Marxism and anarchism (a petit-bourgeois and prebourgeois doctrine), between Marxism and social-democratic reformism (the ideology of a labor aristocracy born in the era of the «peaceful» development of capitalism), between Marxism and anarcho-syndicalism (a manifestation of an instinctive, yet sterile and inadequate, reaction and disgust to the political betrayal of reformists), and between Marxism and counter-revolutionary Stalinism (a veritable reversal of Marxism). It is the bloody history of the working class’ effort to «assault the heavens» – a narrative made up of many significant defeats and some equally important victories: the proletarian revolts of 1830 and 1848, the 1871 Commune of Paris, the first Russian Revolution of 1905, the victorious Red October of 1917, the German «rèvolution manquè» of 1919–1923, the generous, betrayed, struggles of the Italian proletariat between 1919 and 1920, the failed British general strike of 1926, and the failed Chinese revolution of 1927… It is the history of the First and Second Internationals, of the small surviving revolutionary communist grouplets that met at Zimmerwald and Kienthal to begin the task of stitching together a new revolutionary praxis and an international body, after the bankruptcy of social democracy in 1914. Although it ends in defeat, it is the grand epic of the Third International between 1919 and 1922. And it is our own history, the account of the Communist Left’s documented resistance to Stalin’s counter-revolution, that allowed us to offer to the new militant revolutionaries a complete and definitive account of what happened in the seventy years following the going into effect of a bastardized Stalinist «socialism in one country.»
All of the above account is seen by bourgeois and opportunist commentators as a mere sequence of unrelated brute facts, one following the other («the damned succession from one fact to another» as Winston Churchill would say), or, worse, embalmed as an icon, to be covered with religious devotion or reviled with sarcasm from time to time, to a degree equal to the fear that they continue to evoke. For us, on the other hand, all of the above is one whole, the corpus of a precious experience. It is another example of a living and palpitating text of exemplary clarity to be read, studied, assimilated, and from which to draw a guide to the future. History, which in bourgeois ideology is a listing of illustrious names and of mechanically registered facts, is for us a continuum, a process from which we draw laws and constants, the best demonstration of the practicality of theory. As Marx affirmed in the II Thesis on Feuerbach, «Man must prove the truth, i.e. the reality and power, the this-sideness of his thinking in practice».
Obviously, it is not enough for us. For us, history is also today, however it may be bereft of great clashes; the today in which exiguous vanguards wrestle to restore revolutionary doctrine, organization, and strategy; to diffuse the communist program; to define with greater clarity the unavoidable communist tactic that permits involvement in the small and as yet episodic contradictions that open in a society mired in counterrevolution; to reintroduce into the memory and experience of a working class whose ever towering global presence daily grows the lessons of its history; to become again the praxis of a class fighting for itself finally. For us, history is yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The identification of a red thread amidst the working class and communist history, from Babeuf’s League of Equals (the first indication of the birth of the proletariat in the epoch of the bourgeois revolution) to the theoretical, practical, and organizational experience of the Communist Left after 1926, and the effort to retie it to a today that continues to be sterile and miserly – precisely that for us is the continuity of history.
And it is here that the question of the party comes to play a major role. Because all the above theory, history, scientific consideration, and the experience of struggle risks melting into air, if there is no material means of anchoring it in the experience of today and tomorrow, in order to assure a continuum that rises above the incidental of the moment, the individual, the contingencies, and to continue the work of applying the theory, tradition, and experience, that acts as a catalyst in reality, and thanks to which the casual is transformed into necessity. In this for us is the continuity of memory.
Individuals pass from the scene, generations move on, but the corpus of doctrine and experience must survive, particularly in a situation in which the enemy class does all to destroy with calumny, manipulation, and silence. In particular during counter-revolutionary phases, when the «assault on the heavens» is not the order of the day, the party is all the following: the guardian that insures the heritage, that guards against the dispersal of theory and history, that keeps alive theory, history, and the historic memory of the proletariat, notwithstanding the limited number of its members and the low level of class energy. And it is also through this role that the party gains the confidence of the class, accompanying it in its resistance and struggles, episodic and isolated at first, and then serving as guide when the clashes become more antagonistic, numerous, complex, decisive, and move toward the revolutionary rupture.
This continuity of memory is as fundamentally important as theory and history. It confers on the party a role it cannot step away from. Here we are dealing with an organization that in the common understanding of the word must be separated from the loathsome mannerisms developed by self-serving individualistic bourgeois practice and the brutalities of Stalinist manipulation.
We will seek to explain what we mean using as witness the comment of a contemporary anthropologist, Carlos Castaneda, although overall his idealistic and metaphysical views are of little interest to us. Here is Castaneda’s answer to the interlocutor’s question why he refused to be photographed and have his biography taped. «In reference to photographs and personal data, I and the other three disciples of Don Juan [the Mexican shaman of whom Castaneda is a disciple] followed his instructions. For a shaman like Don Juan, the principal reason for not providing personal data is very simple. There is the imperative to get away from what one calls personal history. To divest oneself of the ‹me› is very disturbing and difficult. What the shaman like Don Juan seeks is a state of fluidity wherein the ‹me› does not count. He asserted that an absence of photographs and biographical material acted in a positive, though subliminal, manner on whoever came into this field. We are continuously habituated to the use of photographs, self-assertions, biographical details; all of which derive from the concept of personal importance. Don Juan used to say that it is better to know nothing about a shaman; in this manner, instead of meeting a person, one encountered an idea that has substance. This is the opposite of what occurs every day in the world, where daily we find only personalities with psychological problems and without ideas, people stuffed up the gills with me, me, me…».
Within the very clearly metaphysical and idealistic concept invoked by Castaneda (which so attracts the mystic-seeking middle classes looking for a gratifying «way out» of the frustrations of which they are daily a victim), we note a strong trace of the leading role that the old man, the shaman, played in «primitive communism»; the lead role in the collective knowledge, experience, and remembrance – exactly that of theory, history, and memory. He was the focus around which the entirety of the tribe rotated, in its past, present, and future; the conjunctive link between the individual and the collective; the depository of the knowledge of the species, however conditioned and limited by the low level of productive relations. He was the racconteur (the storyteller, the fabulist) of the non personal and non individual experience, the corpus of collective learning valid yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The fusion of oral accounts and memory were the cement of community. Interestingly, a trace of this past echoes more nostalgically than realistically in the cultures of communities such as the Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans of the United States, and in a partial and contradictory manner recall a distant internal memory of that long-ago «primitive communism.»
A trace and an echo, we said. But it is also a very clear description of the categorical imperative within each community for an impersonal organ that serves as axis, as guide, as a continuum of a non-individual collective history. An organ that is all the more collective as it is impersonal, becoming more so as it gathers and synthesizes experience. An organ that does not… electioneer, yet is selected from amidst to exercise a function not graced with particular honors, even as it remains accepted by the community as its focus and heart.
Trace and echo. In this, in this remnant of a «primitive communism», we find an ulterior confirmation of a past that must, following a dialectical leap into the enormous socio-political potential of the future, return, and by which in a most clear manner we espy our concept of the party and its necessary osmotic and reciprocal tie with the class; an impersonal party that is alien to individualism, anonymous, the synthesis of an entire historical period, and the guide to a tomorrow prepared today on the basis of yesterday’s lessons.
A party arising from a continuum of theory, history, and memory.
We are using the term «communist Left» in a wide sense, and are not interested in getting into petty squabbles at this point. We know full well that there are many organizations that trace themselves to the traditions and heritage of that Left, and that to divide and separate them is something more than mere pettiness. Verbal anathemas and excommunications, or hassles over personalities, do nothing to overcome these divisions. Let us work coherently and correctly in practic and on a theoretical plane, and in keeping with those traditions and heritage, contact with the working class and participation in its struggles will provide the litmus test that resolves these differences in one manner or the other, either eliminating them or rendering them unbridgeable.
A propos, we refer the reader to the articles, «Where We come From. A Brief chronology», in Internationalist Papers, 4 (June 1995), and to «A Eulogy to Patience», in Internationalist Papers, 6 (May 1997).
To those who complain that we speak of a communism that «has not been able to come about in one hundred and fifty years», we must point out that the bourgeois class took five centuries to finally emerge – the time between the birth of the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages and the French Revolution and in some areas of the world even later! We communists possess time. And have never been bitten by the «hurry-up» bug.
«The Portable Karl Marx», Penguin Books, 1983, pp 155–156.
See Daniel Trujillo, «The Invisible Shaman Castaneda» in «La Repubblica», December 5,1997. The original text appeared in the chilean review «Uno Mismo», February. 1997.
To avoid misunderstanding: a «primitive communism» which would make no sense to reinvent here and now, in a mystical and mystifying «abandonment» of bourgeois society à Ia agricultural communes or the hippies of the 60's or the creations of Oriental mysticism.