The republication of Activism (which appeared in No. 7, 1952 of Battaglia Comunista, the organ of the International Communist Party in Italy) is an integral part of our efforts to clarify the substance of the voluntarist disease. Voluntarism is not so much the frenetic activism of those who found fictitious committees and act as apologists for the “movement”. These aspects are only the products of a much more dangerous and insidious deviation, which often cloaks itself in a rigid “orthodoxy”, a deviation which holds that the solution to the serious problems posed by the counter-revolutionary period consists in “building” the party. Whether the intent is to “make up the lag in the subjective factor” or to “construct” the party in order not to miss the “bus” of the revolution (the second version is the more deceitful and difficult to unmask), the result of such reasoning is a total inversion of the correct Marxist thesis. For Marxism, without the party there can be neither a victorious revolution nor, as our article states, a truly revolutionary situation. This does not imply that the party makes the situation revolutionary or – an even more subtle version of the same thesis – that the difference between a revolutionary social crisis and a crisis of the system that does not develop into a revolution resides entirely in the presence of the party’s force. The party is always, simultaneously, a “product and a factor” of history. The existence of the party depends not on our will to construct it, but on the complex evolution of an historical crisis. As our text explains, not all historical crises are favourable for the revolution and the development of a strong Marxist party (witness the period from 1929 to 1945). It is therefore true that there is no “mechanical relationship” between social and economic crises, on the one hand, and revolutionary crises, on the other; consequently, capitalist crises may occur without a party and a revolution). The two curves – one objective, the other subjective – are nonetheless closely linked, not just in the obvious sense that without a favourable objective situation the development of a strong communist party is not possible, but also in the much more complex sense that, without an adequate “interplay” of objective and subjective factors prior to acute phases of the crisis of the bourgeoisie, an interplay that, in the final analysis, is independent of any individual’s will, the political vanguard, whose activity is definitely necessary, will have no chance to play its determining role and, in certain cases, cannot even grow to a significant size. As we have stated: Such choices do not devolve upon leaders, governments and parties. The force of history compels them to take ppositions that arise from the physical relations of the infrastructure.1 It is as insipid and incorrect to state that there was an objectively revolutionary situation in the West after the first world war, but “the party” was lacking, as it is to say that the only difference between the period after the second world war and the postWorld War I period was “the absence of the party”. In Russia, the revolutionary phase was ripe enough to give rise to new forces in short order and break out of dead forms. Elsewhere in Europe the situation was not genuinely revolutionary, and the conjuncture was not decisive: theuncertain, unstable attitude was the effect, not the cause, of the deflection of the historical curve of class potential. If a mistake was made and if it is sensible to discuss political mistakes made by men and politicians, it is not because someone missed the bus of history that could have been caught. Rather, it is because the supreme situation was seized in the struggle in Russia, while parties in Europe thought they could replace it with the effect of clever, suggestive illusions, and because the movement did not have the strength to say that the bus of proletarian power had not yet arrived in the West. It was thus a lie to announce the arrival of the bus of socialist economy in Russia. For us, history is not made by heroes, not even by class traitors… History is not made…. Instead, the right path is not deciphered by anyone (to believe so would lead right to fatalism), and this horrifies the congenitally impotent: only a few links between given conditions and corresponding developments can be established.2 Elsewhere we have written: The analysis that claims all the conditions for the revolution are present, while only a revolutionary leadership is lacking, is therefore meaningless. It is, however, correct to say that the leadership organ is indispensable, although its emergence depends upon the general conditions of the struggle itself, and never upon the genius of a leader or the virtues of a vanguard.3 A reading of Activism will therefore definitely help clarify the difficult, dialectical relationship between the emergence of the party from material determinations, by which is understood both the elements of the economic infrastructure and all the interwoven events of history, even in the field of the political struggle, the results of which, favourable or unfavourable, influence the course of events. Included with the article on Activism is a letter from Marx to Kugelman. Speaking of the Paris Commune and its fate, with his characteristic lucidity, Marx analyses the role dialectical materialism assigns to parties and individuals, as well as the “accidental” element of historical development. Rather than deny their role, Marx places them in the context of determinism. We invite the reader to reflect on the following modest conclusion. Revolutionary Marxists are not defined only by the fact that they “prepare themselves” to catch the bus of the revolution. They must also prepare for the eventuality that the bus may not arrive n the immediate historical cycle. i ***
It would be wise to dwell on this term. Like certain blood infections that are at the root of a number of diseases – including those normally treated in mental asylums – activism is an illness of the workers’ movement that requires constant care. It always claims to have a precise understanding of the conditions of the political struggle, that it is “on top of the situation”. But it is incapable of giving a realistic appreciation of the relationship of forces, and wildly exaggerates the possibilities of the subjective factors of the class struggle. It is only natural that people stricken with activism react to criticism by accusing their adversaries of underestimating the subjective factors of the class struggle and reducing historical determinism to an automatic mechanism, which is the usual argument of the bourgeois critique of Marxism. For this reason we stated, in our Bases for organisation: The correct conception of historical determinism signifies that, while the development of the capitalist mode of production in different countries and its incessant spread throughout the world (in technical, economic and social terms) proceed without relent, the alternatives of class forces in collision, by contrast, are tied to the vicissitudes of the general historical struggle, to battles won and lost, to erroneous strategic methods. This means essentially that the phase in which the revolutionary workers’ movement returns does not coincide merely with impulses that arise from the contradictions of the material – i.e. economic and social – development of bourgeois society, which may actually go through periods of severe crisis, violent struggle and political depression without a revolutionary movement becoming radicalised around extreme, revolutionary positions. In other words, there is no automatic relationship between capitalist economy and revolutionary proletarian party. It may be, e.g. today, that the bourgeois economic and social world is “convulsed” by powerful shocks that provoke violent struggles, but without enabling the revolutionary party to develop its activity, or allowing the masses, subjected to atrocious forms of exploitation and fratricidal carnage, to unmask the opportunist agents that tie their fate to internecine imperialist wars, as the counter-revolution refuses to release the ruled class, the mass of have-nots, from its iron grip. To state that “an objectively revolutionary situation exists, but the subjective element of the class struggle, the revolutionary party, is lacking” is to pronounce a crude lie, a patent absurdity, at any juncture in history. However, it is true that, in even the most difficult moments of the existence of bourgeois rule, even if everything (the state machine, the social hierarchy, the alignment of bourgeois parties, the unions, the propaganda apparatus) seems to be crumbling and falling in ruins, the situation will never be revolutionary, but, for all intents and purposes, it will be counterrevolutionary, if the revolutionary class party is absent, poorly developed, or unschooled in its theory. A profound crisis of bourgeois society can give rise to a revolutionary movement when “the `upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way” (Lenin: “Left-Wing Communism”), i.e when the ruling class is no longer able to make its own apparatus of repression work and the majority of workers “fully realise that revolution is necessary”. But this consciousness can only materialise in the class party which, in the final analysis, is the decisive factor in transforming the bourgeois crisis into a revolutionary crisis of the whole society. In order for society to escape from the paralysis into which it has sunk (and which the ruling class is unable to cure because it is no longer able to find the new forms that will liberate the productive forces and lead them in further development), it is therefore necessary that an organ of collective revolutionary thought and action exist that directs and heightens the subversive will of the masses. The masses’ desire “not to live in the old way”, the will to struggle and the spirit to act against the class enemy presuppose the crystallisation of a solid revolutionary theory within the proletarian vanguard called upon to lead the revolutionary masses. In the party, consciousness precedes action, contrary to what happens in the masses and individuals. But if we repeat things that are not new, not in step with fashion, is it because we want to transform the revolutionary party into a circle of thinkers, observers, or theoreticians of social reality? Not at all. In part IV, point 7 of the Fundamental Theses of the Party we stated: …the party, although small and having only limited links with the mass of the proletariat, although tenaciously attached to the theoretical task as the most immediate task, absolutely refuses to consider itself as a circle of thinkers or simple researchers who are looking for new truths, or who have supposedly lost yesterday’s truth and consider it inadequate. Need we say more! The transformation of the bourgeois crisis into a class war and a revolution presupposes the objective collapse of the social and political structure of capitalism, but it cannot come about – at least potentially – if the majority of workers are not convinced of or influenced by the revolutionary theory embodied in the party: it cannot be improvised on the barricades. But perhaps it can be fabricated in closed carrels by thinkers isolated from the masses? We answer this accusation, the product of an activist fever, that the unrelenting, assiduous work of defense of the movement’s doctrinal and critical heritage, a daily effort to immunise the movement against the poisons of revisionism, the systematic explanation, based on Marxism, of the most recent forms of capitalist production, the denunciation of opportunism’s attempts to portray such innovations as anti-capitalist measures – all this is struggle, struggle against the class enemy, struggle to educate the revolutionary vanguard, and, if you will, active struggle, even if it is not activist. While the enormous bourgeois propaganda machine works day and night, not so much – nota bene – to refute revolutionary theses as to show that socialist demands can be satisfied in spite of Marx and Lenin; while political parties, and even constituted governments, swear that they govern – i.e. oppress the masses – in the name of communism, do you seriously believe that the bitter, untiring struggle to restore the revolutionary Marxist theory is not just theoretical work? Who would dare say that this is not also a political task, an active struggle against the class enemy? Only someone who is possessed by the demon of activist action could imagine such a thing. The movement, even reduced to diminutive proportions, which works in its newspaper, meetings and factory discussions to “liberate” revolutionary theory from outrageous falsifications and opportunist contaminations, thereby accomplishes revolutionary work; it works for the proletarian revolution. It absolutely cannot be said that we conceive the role of the party as a “struggle of ideas”. Totalitarianism, state capitalism and the collapse of the revolution in Russia are not “ideas” to which we oppose our ideas. They are real historical phenomena that have broken the back of the proletarian movement by leading it onto ground sown with antifascist or philo-fascist “partisanism”, the “union nationale, pacifism, etc. Those who – though small in number and far from the din of ” big politics” – carry out the tasks of Marxist interpretation of these real phenomena and confirm Marxist predictions definitely perform revolutionary work, since they define the trajectory and the outcome of the proletarian revolution. The resurgence of the revolutionary movement does not require the crisis of the capitalist system as a potential eventuality. The crisis of the capitalist mode of production is underway, the bourgeoisie has gone through all the possible phases of its historical course: state capitalism and imperialism are the extreme limit of its evolution, but the fundamental contradictions of its system remain and are becoming exacerbated. The crisis of capitalism is not being transformed into a revolutionary crisis of society, into a revolutionary class war; the counter-revolution is still triumphant, even though the chaos of capitalism is increasing, because the workers’ movement is still crushed under the weight of defeats suffered for thirty years because of strategical mistakes committed by the communist parties of the 3rd International, mistakes that persuaded the proletariat to regard the weapons of the counter-revolution as its own. The resurgence of the revolutionary movement has not taken place because the bourgeoisie, by introducing daring reforms in the organisation of production and the state (state capitalism, totalitarianism, etc.) and sowing doubt and confusion, has broken not the theoretical and critical foundations of Marxism – which remain unassailed and unassailable – but the capacity of proletarian vanguards to apply them correctly in interpreting the current phase of bourgeois society. Under such conditions of theoretical disarray, the task of restoring Marxism against opportunist deformations is not just an intellectual one. It is an active, substantial and consistent struggle against the class enemy. Boastful activism claims to have turned the wheel of history “at a foxtrot”, wiggling to the music of the electoral symphony. This is an infantile disorder of communism, but it can flourish marvellously in the geriatric clinic where the pensioners of the workers’ movement vegetate. May they rest in peace. May they march, as if under a spell, like a tank division, barely having sent our “factory” groups to conquer factory committees. You really don’t need electronic calculators to add up their membership. Making even imbeciles laugh, they claim the two imperialist blocs are identical in terms of weight, form and colour, like bowling balls. They claim these inanities are are the last word in analysis, which they deny anyone else can accomplish. They end up being stupefied by the hedonistic temptations the parliamentary or senatorial seat inspires in their lazy buttocks. All our poor activists end up in electoral glory. In 1917, we witnessed the end of the super-activists of the social democracy: In decades of activity aimed entirely at winning seats in parliament, high positions in the unions and political influence, they put on a show of unbridled activism. But when the toxin of the armed insurrection against capitalism sounded, we saw that only the party that had “wrtked among the masses”, the party that, more than all the others, had worked to hone Marxist theory – only this party was able to lead the insurrection. Those who possessed a solid theoretical preparation marched against the class enemy, while those who had a “glorious” history of (parliamentary) struggle hesitated shamefully and went over to the class enemy.
Yes, we are quite familiar with these activist maniacs. Compared to them, used car salesmen are honest. We think there is only one way to avoid their contagion: a classic kick in the butt! *****
Letter from Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann5
London, April 17, 1871
Dear Kugelmann, Your letter duly received. Just at present I have my hands full. Hence only a few words. How you can compare the petty-bourgeois demonsrations ‘ la June 13, 1849, etc., with the present struggle in Paris is quite incomprehensible to me. World history would indeed be very easy to make if the struggle were taken up only on condition that the prospects were unmistakably favourable. It would on the other hand be of a very mystical nature if asccidents” played no part. These accidents naturally form part of the general course of development and are compensated by other accidents. But acceleration and delay are very much dependent upon such “accidents”, including the “accident” of the character of the people who first head the movement. The decisively unfavourable “accident” this time is by no means to be sought in the general conditions of French society, but in the presence of the Prussians in France and their position right before Paris. Of this the Parisians were well aware. But of this, the bourgeois canaille of Versailles were also well aware. Precisely for that reason they presented the Parisians with the alternative of either taking up the fight or succumbing without a struggle. The demoralisation of the working class in the latter case would have been a far greater misfortune than the doom of any number of “leaders”. With the struggle in Paris the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and its state has entered upon a new phase. Whatever the immediate outcome may be, a new point of departure of world-wide importance has been gained. Adieu! K.M.
Notes 1. Struttura economica e sociale della Russia d’oggi (Economic and Social Structure of Modern Russia), p. 245. 2. Ibid., pp. 245-6. 3. Theory and Action in Marxist Doctrine, point 12. 4. c.f. our text Party, Intermediate Organisations and the Resurgence of the class struggle. 5. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, Moscow, 1975, p.248.