The fraction/party question

An introduction to “Fraction and Party”

The following document was originally written in 1979. It was then translated in 1981 in handwritten form for discussion within the Communist Workers’ Organization on the tradition of the Italian Communist Left. The original article had appeared during the International Conferences of the Communist Left (1977-1980), and was partially a reply to claims the International Communist Current were then making about the Fraction around the journal Bilan. According to the ICC, this Fraction was the highest expression of the Italian Left.

The article also explains that the experience of the Italian Fraction of the Internationalist Communist Left abroad refers to a particular historical phase: that of fascism in Italy, which forced many militants of the left to flee abroad (mainly to France and Belgium). The term Frazione came into common use in 1928, and was intended to indicate political continuity and unity with the old “party of 1921.” Militants of the Left had founded this party — the Communist Party of Italy, Section of the Third International, to give it its full title — and still claimed political and organizational continuity with it, despite being physically detached. Hence their self-image as a “fraction.” Left communist militants were also aware that the Comintern and the Italian party under Gramsci and Togliatti were already on the road to counterrevolution. But until these organizations and individuals got there, they were designated as “centrist.” The efforts of the fraction were directed against them, in an attempt to turn them back to revolutionary politics.

During the thirties, when it became obvious that the degeneration of the USSR, the Comintern, and its Italian party had finally delivered them into the arms of the class enemy, the Fraction was faced with a new dilemma. It could no longer remain a fraction of a party that was lost to the class. Yet they had difficulty deciding at what point to launch a new party. Vercesi, in particular, thought they should wait until the conditions for a mass party would arise again. As a result, the Fraction became paralyzed at the start of the Second World War. Eventually it was dissolved. Only in 1943, with the sudden postwar rise of a potentially revolutionary class, would the party issue be resolved. Namely, through the formation of the Internationalist Communist Party (PCInt).

Historical experience

What this article argues, in short, is that the experience of the Fraction was historically unique. Anyone who claims to be a fraction today has to answer the question: “Fraction of what?” These old parties no longer exist: the battles have all been fought, and the problems surrounding the issue long since decided. Our situation is different today. So while we draw upon the wealth of proletarian experience that has been passed down to us, we do so in order to build a future international under vastly different conditions. In other words, we do not intend to lock ourselves away from the present by taking refuge in the past. Nevertheless, as Marx noted in the Eighteenth Brumaire, there is a pronounced tendency even among revolutionaries to look backward.

Just as we appear to be engaged in bringing about what never was before, at such moments of revolutionary crisis we anxiously conjure up into our service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

Today we are setting out on a new road, with a newly formed proletariat creating nuclei of a future party and not fractions of a party dead and buried. History can be liberating when we learn from it, but enslaves us when we ape the past.

Furthermore, this is true for the question of the so-called “historic course.” Vercesi, the main spokesman of the Italian left abroad, did not support this course. But it was taken up by others, most notably Marc Chirik. There is a theoretical link here, in the sense that the notion of the historic course also sees the balance of class forces as the decisive factor in the formation of a political party. It was very similar to the position initially taken by Bordiga in 1948-1952, when he began to question the very formation of the Internationalist Communist Party. Now was supposedly “not the time.” Bordiga even suggested that the PCInt should be dissolved, when it still had over 4,000 members in Italy alone. For defenders of the “historic course” the counterrevolution was not yet over, so the question of the party should not yet have been posed at that juncture. It was in this sense a return to the old game of “wait-and-see.”

A similar methodology was adopted by those who argued that the party should wait until the objective conditions are ripe, underlining both the position of the “wait-and-see” [attentiste] tendency in the Fraction and defenders of the “historic course” idea. Here the error was to assume that the party should only be formed when there is an instantaneous possibility of it becoming a mass party. This not only nods in the direction of Second and Third International conceptions about the role of the revolutionary vanguard, but does not even fit history. Following their separation from the Mensheviks in 1912, the Bolsheviks existed as a tiny minority of 8,000 members. Yet they were already sufficiently known within the Russian working class to act as its chosen instrument in 1917, when they were the sole defender of soviet power. In this respect they offer a sharp counterexample to the German Spartacists, who did not form a distinct organization during the First World War (instead being swallowed up by the centrist USPD). Only after the proletarian revolt of November 1918 did they finally consider forming a communist party. By then, though, it was too late, as the new party quickly succumbed to putchism and opportunism, torn between revolutionary and conservative policies.

Contemporary applications

Like the article below states, the party cannot be set up over night. It is instead the outcome of a lot of preparation, establishing a political message (program) and mode of operation that prepares its members to act in a revolutionary manner in any given situation. A party is the subjective part of the equation, a tool for liberation forged in the struggles that precede a revolutionary outburst. Onorato Damen once remarked that the working class, whatever its immediate desires, is always in need of a party. The Fraction was simply an interlude, at a time of acute confusion brought about by monumental betrayal.

But the other side of the historic course can be seen in Marc Chirik’s return to Europe during the late sixties, when the first signs of the end of the postwar boom were becoming evident. Workers put up some resistance to the attacks that followed, but largely on the basis of corporate struggles controlled by unions. There were a few notable attempts to go beyond this framework, but these were exceptions. However, they were enough for Marc Chirik to decide that the counterrevolution was over and that now was the time to form new revolutionary organizations. Numerous groups that had until recently been councilist joined together in the International Communist Current, which now proclaimed that it was “the pole of regroupment.” For them, the working class was already revolutionary and only needed to be “demystified” since the historic course was now on the side of the working class. Once workers were told that the unions were against them, the scales would fall from their eyes and the road to class confrontation would be open. Alas, things did not work out this way. Like the 1940s, the 1970s proved to be another period in which the revival of class struggle did not translate into revolutionary consciousness for broad swathes of the working class. Those who insisted “war or revolution” were possible outcomes of the class struggle, though the counterrevolution was over, were condemned as “rudderless” at the time.

Early in the 1980s, the ICC announced that “the years of truth” — i.e., years of growing class confrontation — lay ahead. In a sense, this was true, as economic restructuring brought on by crisis led capital to be written off wholesale in many old industrial centers. Production was instead transferred to low-wage economies like China. Workers fought a desperate rearguard action to stop this, but striking to save a job when capitalists are already prepared to it write off as constant capital is never a comfortable position. Demoralization set in as the class began to retreat. However, supporters of the idea that the historic course was leading toward greater class confrontation did not foresee this dynamic. Only with the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc did they call for a reevaluation. Still, even then there was no suggestion that the historic course had ever been wrong. Rather, it was just that neither the workers nor the capitalists had succeeded in fully imposing their agendas. The fact that workers’ living standards have declined consistently since 1979, or that restructuration has destroyed entire communities in the meantime, does not seem to enter into this balance sheet.

Instead, a more “postmodern” analysis prevailed. Capitalism was now decomposing. (This new metaphor suggested that decadence was not enough. Now things were really, really decadent.) One material factor this did not take into account, however, is that capitalist crisis has not gone away. Many mechanisms exist by which to either manage the crisis or raise the rate of profit over the decades. Yet the fact remains — as stubborn today as it was in 1971 — that the overaccumulation of capital means productivity can only be revived through massive devaluation of capital. Today, only the kind of destruction brought about by widespread war could achieve this. Again, this leads back to the perspective we have held since the beginning of the imperialist epoch: “War or revolution” is posed as a dilemma, or as the only way out of the increasing contradictions of the system. Those who dance about, claiming the situation is not urgent or that we do not need to start building an international proletarian party based on the experience of the communist left, have their heads in the sand.

Of course, the precondition for the formation of any future party is class struggle itself. But it also depends on the active work of revolutionaries today. Should the revolutionary minority enter into a passive relationship with ongoing struggles, any chance at understanding the complex dialectical relations between poles of party and class is thereby foreclosed. It is like claiming history will solve itself, and forgets that real human beings make history — a retreat into passive contemplation. And at a time when the capitalist crisis looks to be worsening rather than improving, when capitalism is preparing its own reactionary “solutions,” when the ecological degradation of the planet demonstrates daily its threat to our existence, the last thing we need is to “wait and see.”

Jock, England
October 2018