Daniel Bensaïd

The roots of the crisis

(Summer 1980)

From International Socialism 2 : 9, Summer 1980, pp. 118–127.
Daniel Bensaïd is a member of the Political Bureau of the LCR, French section of the Fourth International.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive

The extreme left in Europe is in crisis. The description of it given in Chris Harman’s article (IS 2 : 4) is a significant one. The common feature that characterises this extreme left is that it experienced a certain growth in the late sixties and early seventies, based on a wave of radicalisation in Western Europe. However, this common feature cannot disguise the profound differences: the various tendencies represented by the extreme left organisations, which had broken away to the left of the traditional reformist parties, are, in a number of variant forms, the refraction of fundamental tendencies within the international working-class movement. In our view, the crisis which (to different degrees and in different forms) most of the organisations of the extreme left in Europe have undergone, derives primarily and above all from a radical change in the political conjuncture on a European and world scale, compared with their phase of initial growth.

The change in the international conjuncture

In the late sixties, while breaking with reformism, the extreme left organisations turned towards current experiences which they believed would provide at least an empirical alternative to the Soviet bureaucracy, and would rehabilitate in the eyes of the European proletariat the idea of socialism which had been compromised in the Eastern bloc.

By 1967 the repression of the Shanghai commune had marked the end of the Cultural Revolution and the opening of a period of bureaucratic normalisation, marked by a series of conflicts within the apparatus, from the removal of Lin Piao and Chen Po-ta to the removal of the gang of four.

By 1967–68 the Cuban revolution had suffered the failure of Che’s mission in Bolivia and the failure of the ten million ton sugar harvest. The result was the isolation of the Cuban revolution (in contrast with the continental strategy envisaged at the time of the OLAS Conference) and an increased dependence on Soviet economic aid. The Castro leadership then steered a zigzag course from support of the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, support for the so-called progressive regimes in Peru or Mexico, and the maintenance of aid to certain guerrilla movements or anti-imperialist intervention in Africa (within the limits of what was compatible with the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy).

So it was also in a context of growing isolation that the Indochinese revolution fought until the victory of 1975, and immediately afterwards had to face the economic effects of thirty years of uninterrupted warfare, the existence of artificially swollen urban areas such as Phnom Penh and Saigon, and the effects of blockade. As a result there was accelerated bureaucratisation and the wars between Vietnam and Cambodia, and between China and Vietnam.

We can discuss how these events should be analysed, and the theoretical problems posed by different aspects of the situation. What concerns us here is the impact on the extreme left in Europe: the fact that it found it impossible to base itself on the international level, and the growing need for a programmatic definition in the face of these major events, a definition without which any revolutionary organisation would be doomed to disarray and national degeneration.

These factors weighed heavily on the trajectory of organisations which saw themselves as Maoist and inspired by Castroism. To a lesser extent they played a role in the crisis of organisations which called themselves Trotskyist, and which had played one of the most active parts in the defence of the Cuban and Indochinese revolutions.

The impact on the class struggle in Europe

This progressive change in the international conjuncture came to overlap with a change in the conditions of class struggle on a European level, especially after the economic crisis of 1974–75.

In the first stage, from 1968 to 1972–73, the revolutionary organisations took advantage of the upsurge of radicalisation (especially among the youth) and the paralysis of the reformist leaderships (particularly in France). They were able to play a role which has been called that of a tactical vanguard, in sectors which had got out of the control of the reformist leaderships – youth, anti-imperialist movements. They were even able to oppose the reformist leaderships in the arena of working-class struggles by supporting radical economic demands or forms of exemplary struggle, to which the union leaderships put up clumsy resistance.

With the development of the economic crisis, the context of trade union struggles changed. The need for an alternative political solution made itself much more sharply felt at the same time as the main organisations of the working-class movement moved into the front line to save the system. It was in this context that the extreme left organisations lost the initiative they had won in the previous years. Unable to act as alternative leaderships most of the organisations either adopted a stageist and realistic perspective of waiting for a necessary reformist experience to overspill its limits, or else took up an ultra-left sectarian position. The Italian organisations worked on the first hypothesis, thereby giving ground to the PCI which had incomparably more credibility on the level of governmental solutions: for if the obligatory first stage of the road to socialism goes via a left government, then it’s better to act effectively within the CP rather than in marginal critical groups. Whereas an organisation like Lutte Ouvrière in France has adopted a specific form of the second hypothesis, without any marked sectarian degeneration, but denying the reality of the crisis and refusing to take the slightest responsibility in its programmatic responses (whence the sometimes demagogic and apolitical character of its electoral campaigns).

It must be said that in this situation, the question of governmental solutions has come up for almost every organisation (at least in Southern Europe).

We consider that in this changed situation, the extreme left organisations have come up against a double problem; firstly a problem of programme followed by a problem of social implantation. These are the two necessary conditions which would allow them to play, amidst the crisis, the role of a global political alternative, even with limited forces, and not the role of a critical or purist opposition to the existing reformist parties:

The roots of the crisis according to Chris Harman

The order in which Harman lists the roots of the crisis cannot fail to surprise us. For indeed he examines four factors: a) the re-stabilisation of institutions; b) the attitude of workers; c) the crisis of militancy; d) political orientation. This list makes it hard for us to identify what is determinant and what is secondary. But in particular the first two factors, which would seem to be the most important unless the order in which they are listed is arbitrary, don’t clearly settle the crucial question: is the crisis of the extreme left to be seen as primarily the product of a conjuncture of downturn in the workers’ movement! In other words is it to be seen as chiefly explicable by objective reasons?

For Harman ‘the revolutionary left failed to take account of several factors’, of which the first was ‘the adaptability of existing institutions, especially of the reformist organisations within the working-class movement.’ Certainly the reformist organisations have shown, especially since 1972, that they have an indisputable capacity to feed on the radicalisation of the working class in order to be better able to channel it towards solutions involving class collaboration and managing the crisis. But where does this capacity come from? From hidden or unsuspected resources of the institutions in general, and of the parties in particular? Or else from a downturn in the working class which gave fresh room for manoeuvre to the reformist leaderships?

It is true that the institutions of parliamentary democracy still have considerable credibility, which was underestimated by the infantile ultra-leftism which came out of 1968, even among workers. For at least two reasons. On the one hand the context of continued economic expansion which for an uninterrupted period of thirty years enabled peaceful rule by the bourgeoisie through parliamentary channels in most European countries. On the other hand the skilful way in which bourgeois democratic institutions were given esteem in contrast to the bureaucratic dictatorships in Eastern Europe. But this credibility of democratic institutions was just as powerful, if not more so, in the late sixties and early seventies as since the outbreak of the crisis of 1973–74.

So has there been a downturn in working-class combativity since the mid-seventies? There is no serious evidence to suggest such a thing. 1975 was marked by the revolutionary explosion in Portugal, 1976 by the most massive working-class upsurge in Europe in Spain, and an absolute record for days lost in strikes. 1976 was likewise marked by the electoral advance of the PCI in Italy, and 1977 by the crushing victory of the French left in the municipal elections. It is true that the structural unemployment may undermine the strength of the working class. But not to the extent that it would mean a real downturn (all the more so since in most countries unemployment is still, in contrast to the thirties, ‘protected’ unemployment).

Overall the level of working-class struggle has stabilised at a level which is clearly higher than in the sixties, and the electoral victories of the bourgeoisie in various countries have been narrow victories against workers parties which got between 40% and 50% of the vote.

So the determining factor is not the underestimation of the adaptability of the institutions and in particular of the reformist parties. To present things in this way comes close to fatalism: reformist parties are in a majority everywhere in Europe, they are very flexible and capable of absorbing radicalisation or of channelling it towards solutions based on class collaboration ... Since these are invariable factors in the situation, we should have to conclude that there is nothing to do but act patiently from day to day and wait. Wait for what?

No: if we made a mistake, it was to overestimate the forms of radicalisation of the working class at the beginning of the seventies. There was indeed a rise in workers’ struggles and massive explosions, a high level of combativity but a limited level of consciousness among the layer of advanced workers which came out of this first wave of radicalisation. Essentially the mobilisation took place around economic demands in a context of growth (in Italy and even in France in 1968), or around democratic aims (Spain, Portugal).

The most militant workers were not ready to respond to the new conditions of a struggle about employment in a context of rising unemployment; even less were they ready to offer overall working-class answers to the crisis. Having been caught off guard by the initial radicalisation, the traditional leaderships regained the initiative as soon as the problems were posed in terms of overall political alternatives. Militant workers themselves could see no other solution than vigilance in the economic and trade-union arena, while supporting the reformist parties on the electoral level.

But this recapture of the initiative by the reformist leaderships, accompanied in some cases by electoral progress, does not thereby mean a recapture of total control over the working class. On the contrary the differentiations which had appeared are remaining and developing with the emergence of oppositional tendencies in the unions. Even on the electoral level, both the municipal and European elections in France confirmed the existence of a significant tendency of distrust within the working class.

So it is because of this gap between militancy and consciousness that we say that today it is programmatic questions which are the determining factor.

We are taking into account the objective changes in the situation, and the fluctuations in the conjuncture, but we say that in the last analysis subjective causes remain determinant in the crisis of the extreme left. We do not believe it has been crushed by the situation and by the irresistible rise of the reformist parties.

Moreover comrade Harman notes that we aren’t dealing with a situation where there is exact correspondence between the situation of the extreme left and the traditional organisations. On the contrary, since 1976 the crisis of the extreme left has gone in parallel with the electoral failures (or stagnation) of the main workers parties, and with a decline in unionisation. But there is no mechanistic interpretation of these phenomena. Either they mark the beginning of a downturn, or they are the expression of a phase of political maturation in the working class before a new offensive.

Without risking a direct answer, Harman suggests an interpretation through the indirect means of a quotation from Trotsky: ‘Prolonged unemployment following a period of revolutionary political assaults and retreats does not at all work in favour of the Communist Party. On the contrary, the longer the crisis lasts, the more it threatens to nourish anarchist moods on one wing and reformist moods on the other.’ Of course. But Trotsky makes clear that this is ‘following a period of revolutionary political assaults’. Such assaults have not taken place in Europe (except in Portugal, and even there in a limited form). We are not in 1922, nor in 1923, after the defeats in Italy, in Hungary, in Bavaria, after the failure of the German October. Essentially the assaults in Europe are still ahead of us, and we do not believe that a gradual deterioration of the social relations of forces is possible after thirty years of uninterrupted growth and accumulation of new and intact forces on the side of the working class.

Harman asks why the working-class movement in Britain accepted in 1975–78 the wages controls which it rejected in 1972–74? Why the Spanish working-class movement accepted the Moncloa pact? Why the Italian working class accepted the historic compromise? Why the Portuguese proletariat accepted Soares? Inevitably he is oversimplifying in setting out thus these acceptances, which never took place without clashes and contradictions. So we don’t hesitate to reply with another oversimplification: the proletariat in these countries accepted (in its majority) solutions based on class collaboration, not because it was broken and on the retreat, but because it didn’t possess any other tools to face the crisis than the traditional organisations, because after thirty years of growth and partial gains, it was still deeply steeped in reformist illusions, because there is still no alternative revolutionary leadership, and no network of conscious militants in the factories and unions who could provide the framework of an alternative leadership.

And that is why questions of political orientation, which for Harman come only in fourth place in a list of roots of the crisis, are for us the main factor on which we can and must act. So we must agree on what we understand by questions of orientation. Harman lists a series of deviations (third-worldism, populism which dilutes the role of the working class, substitutionist leadership of a Stalinist type, ultra-left triumphalism). All these things in fact existed. But what he gives us is a description rather than an analysis which goes to the bottom of things. The key question on which most revolutionary organisations, comparatively very small in size, failed was the question of their relations to the reformist organisations, that is, the question of the united front.

Because he fails to deal with this question in a systematic manner, Harman is led to establish a false symmetry – and the SWP to practise a precarious policy of seeking a happy medium – between organisations of Maoist descent and those which claim to be Trotskyist, between opportunism and dogmatism, which at the end of the day converge in a common drift to the right. They don’t distinguish between what is common to the crisis, and what is specific to each of the tendencies. In fact such a procedure ultimately serves only to confuse matters.

Finally, the crisis of militancy mentioned by Harman as one of the roots of the crisis is rather a manifestation of it. In fact, as soon as the centre of gravity and the mainspring of action move to the heart of the working class, as soon as the traditional organisations come to bear with their full weight on the political scene, then the organisations of the extreme left see the traditional radicalised bases of their development begin to crumble, and they feel very keenly that they are external and marginal to the working class. Their organisational structures, which often do not fit the situation, reinforce this feeling of impotence.

The Programme and the International

The central question to discuss with the comrades of the SWP, from the point of view of concrete intervention, is that of the united front and of transitional demands. We can understand that comrades have not faced the question of the united front in the same way as organisations active in countries characterised by the existence of two mass workers parties, Stalinists and Social-Democrats, as in Southern Europe. Perhaps the best way of testing our analyses in the light of practice would be to organise a specific discussion on the question of trade union tendencies, and more generally on the question of the tasks of revolutionaries in the unions. However, such a discussion requires very great care in order to take into account the specific national features in the traditions of the trade union movement.

However, it is certain, from a reading of Chris Harman’s article, that the comrades underestimate the importance of the central political battles which were on the agenda in recent years in a series of European countries. Thus the comrades accuse all the continental organisations of optimistic triumphalism about the situation in the respective countries in the 1974–78 period. However, it is wrong to settle a posteriori the slogans of the vanguard on the basis of the provisional outcome of events. Should or should not the Spanish comrades have directed their propaganda and agitation in 1975–76 towards the question of the general strike against the dictatorship, in a context marked by the evolution of the Portuguese revolution? It is an important question, separate from the question of whether – as we think today – we had illusions about the real relations of forces and the short-term perspectives opened up by the death of the dictator. There were indeed explosive struggles in Madrid in January 1976. The Arias government was overthrown as a result of the events in Vitoria and the great strikes in the Basque country. At that moment it was correct to launch the slogan of a centralisation of the struggles and a general strike around radical democratic demands (freeing of the political prisoners, a Constituent Assembly elected by universal suffrage, self-determination for national minorities).

Was it or was it not correct, during the summer of 1975 in Portugal, to fight for the centralisation of the workers’ commissions and area commissions, for the self-organisation of the soldiers, for a break by the CP and the SP with the PPD and the military hierarchy, and against disunity? We say it was correct.

In the same way, Harman’s articles picks up one or two headlines from Rouge, and a couple of sentences out of an interview by Krivine in order to criticise the policy of the LCR, but without ever dealing with this policy as a whole. Thus the comrades quote a statement by Krivine in order to criticise according to which, in the event of an electoral victory by the CP and the SP ‘for a longer or shorter period ... there would be a period of enthusiasm, of real mobilisation of the working class.’ The comrades cannot say on the one hand that electoral defeats helped the bourgeois counter-offensive and at the same time that the election result was of no importance. It indisputable that a victory by the reformist parties, despite their reformist programme, after twenty years of unshared rule by the right, would have meant an improvement in the relations of forces and a gain in confidence in its own strength for the working class.

It is in this context that we must situate our fight against disunity and for workers’ unity, beginning with the split between the CP and the SP. When the reformists unite in order to collaborate we stress the function of this unity and the programme of administering the crisis which has sealed their alliance. But when they split so as not to have to form the government, then we denounce the division as a central obstacle and we base ourselves on what is positive in the working class’s aspirations for unity.

If we consider in detail the politics of the LCR in the pre-electoral period, it is clear that the weakness does not lie in a desire for unity without content. On the contrary, we devoted enormous time and energy to detailed propaganda in order to prepare and arm the workers on the programmatic questions under discussion. We did not pose the question of unity first and foremost in terms of unity between the parties, but in terms of the sovereign self-organisation of the workers in order to settle the differences and strike together against the bourgeoisie: inter-union meetings and sovereign assemblies in the factories, united action committees. If today we are making a self-criticism, it is because we didn’t put enough energy into a central agitational campaign about the urgent question which was then posed: that of an automatic agreement between the workers parties to stand down in favour of the best placed for the second round, in order to unite and drive out the right, without thereby in any way confusing the confrontation of programmes to be achieved by each party presenting its programme in the first round.

This is the sort of question we want to discuss. Because they are meaningful and vital, not only for the past, but for the future. Today the question of orientation in the trade unions and in the working class concerns the same problems.

For us, the question of programme cannot be separated from the question of the Party and of the International we are seeking to build. This question is not dealt with as such in Harman’s article, but it is touched on in the contribution by Goodwin and Callinicos for the XIth World Congress of the FI (IS 2 : 6).

In fact, the comrades begin by dealing with the question of regroupment and end up with the question of the International. For reasons of method we shall take the problems in the reverse order.

The comrades claim that they share with us ‘the firm belief in the necessity of building a revolutionary international’. Such a commitment is obviously positive. But in practice it doesn’t mean very much; few revolutionaries in the world today would be willing to deny the need for an International in the long term. But immediately after this statement of faith, the comrades accept the idea in order to reject the reality. The conditions are said to be not yet ripe for taking on the job of building an International. Here they seem to us to be confusing questions of principle (the permanent necessity for an International, the simultaneous building of national sections and of the world party) with questions concerning the organisational form which may vary according to the implantation and the stage of development of a national or an international organisation.

For us, the building of the International is a question of programme, that is, a question of principle. We don’t believe it is possible to wage a consistent struggle against the theory of socialism in one country in the name of the theory of permanent revolution, without giving this struggle an organisational expression: the translation of internationalism by the building of an International, in opposition to all forms of chauvinism, including ‘national communism’ and ‘national Trotskyism’.

We conceive this International as a democratically centralised party and not a mere federation of sections or factions, giving an internationalist cover to all those who take part without committing them to any common action. What is quite different is to define the internal regime of the International on the basis of its real development. The relations between the leaderships of the national sections and the leadership of the International are not unchanging. It is open to discussion as to what questions the International will impose its discipline on, what questions will be left publicly open, and what questions permit a coexistence between positions taken by the leading bodies of the International and a contradictory tactic on the part of a particular section (as was the case when the Portuguese section participated in the FUR in 1975).

But, on the pretext that the International is small and has no leadership Reeled in revolutionary struggle, the comrades of the SWP, like those of Lutte Ouvrière, simply give up and put off until later what needs to be undertaken right away: the building of the International. The arguments Put forward on this question seem to us to be totally fallacious: ‘Even its [the FI’s] biggest sections lack the real mass roots in in the working class which make international discipline a living reality rather than a formalistic pretence. Secondly, it embraces only a minority of what, even on the strictest definition, constitutes the revolutionary left today.’

So real roots in the working class are needed for discipline to be a living reality. It is curious that the comrades themselves approach the question of centralism from the administrative point of view of discipline and not from the standpoint of programme. At the present stage of the building of the FI, centralisation does not have substantial disciplinary implications, it is rather of a programmatic nature, that is, it means a collective taking of positions towards the major events of the class struggle. Are significant roots (and on what scale would they be measured?) needed to undertake joint campaigns, to defend the necessity of political revolution in the USSR and China, to fight for socialist democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat, to defend permanent revolution against Stalinist theories? We don’t think so.

To link the building of the International to the question of the programme means a different approach to regroupment. You say that the FI only includes a minority of what ‘on the strictest definition’ constitutes the revolutionary left. But what is this strict definition which leads the SWP to carve out an area which on the one hand excludes the Healyites and on the other the ORT? It is an arbitrary and shifting boundary, because there is no programmatic criterion: all those who support the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat? Or else the dictatorship of the proletariat plus the permanent revolution? The first four congresses of the Comintern? But why stop there when since then there has been Stalinism, the struggle of the Left Opposition crystallised in the Transitional Programme, and new revolutions in China, Indochina and Cuba, which have produced a deep restructuring of the world working-class movement?

In our view a living programme must include the programmatic bases of revolutionary Marxism, the lessons of the Russian Revolution and the struggle against Stalinism, as well as a position on the great revolutions of this half century. That is what provides the basis for an International.

Having started from this programmatic and organisational definition, we should not be sectarian or proclaim that we alone are revolutionaries. History has shown on several occasions that there can be revolutionaries outside the Fourth International. This results from a whole historical period and the relations of forces on a world scale. We may consider that an organisation such as the SWP is a revolutionary organisation, and that it stands on the side of revolution and does not oscillate between reform and revolution. But we are also entitled to consider, for as long as its political positions have not had a systematic programmatic expression, that we are dealing with unstable and shifting realities, open to the most varying pressures. Who could have predicted the break-up of Lotta Continua and the opportunist drift of the PDUP at the height of its influence in 1975?

Certainly the sections of the FI do not represent, even in Europe, more than a minority of the extreme left, but it is the only part of this extreme left which is held together by a programme, and which is striving to build an International by common action, whatever difficulties it may encounter in so doing.

Contrary to what the comrades of the SWP believe, a strict definition is not an obstacle but a weapon for a bold policy of regroupment, without preconceived judgments and vetos. We may have differing estimations and predictions about organisations such as Lutte Ouvrière and the OCI. But as far as we are concerned, as long as these organisations have not broken with certain programmatic bases, there is no reason to write them off and draw a subjective dividing line between a ‘living extreme left’ and an ‘ossified extreme left’. We address ourselves to everyone on the basis of current tasks in the class struggle, on the basis of a programmatic discussion, and on the basis of an organisational structure governed by democratic centralism in order to consider the possibilities of a joint organisation. The recent fusion with a tendency representing about half the OCT seems to us to be a good example of such a procedure.

Likewise the SWP’s rejection of the possibility of building factions within the reformist parties or their youth sections seems also to be consistent both with their analysis of the conjuncture and with their subjective definition of the revolutionary left. If we are coming up to important developments in the class struggle, we must deduce that the process of differentiation will get deeper within the mass reformist parties, without necessarily being expressed by a direct strengthening of the vanguard organisations. Centrist currents may emerge within the framework of the great reformist parties, as was always the case in the past, in Germany in 1918-23, in France and Spain in the thirties. Likewise oppositional tendencies will grow up in the unions. Not to respond to such phenomena is in effect to resign oneself to a linear construction of the party through the recruitment of individuals, instead of preparing for the dialectical developments of the class struggle.

For us an active policy of regroupment and the perspective of building factions in the reformist parties are two aspects of the same approach and result from an analysis of the period. If we don’t consider the coming years as a period of downturn, but as one in which the class struggle will intensify, if we are certain that the question of revolutionary leadership will now be more decisive than ever, if we are convinced that the speed and direction of the tendencies to radicalisation in the working class will not be independent of the existence of a significant organised revolutionary force, then we must take these complementary tasks seriously, approach the question of regroupment in a non-sectarian manner, being willing to leave aside tactical questions that are not incompatible within the framework of a single organisation, in order to reach an agreement on essential programmatic questions which will define the shape and viability of a revolutionary organisation.

Last updated on 13 February 2019