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A eulogy to patience

A eulogy to patience
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We wish to profit this time of old accounts and new proposals, to focus on a particular issue that constitutes one of the vital nodes of proper communist behaviour, when confronting reality and the tasks of the revolutionary party. And we will do it with references to our own history and to considerations in general.

The economic crisis in which we are immersed - and whose depths we have yet to experience - began in the mid 1970s, when the expansive postwar growth phase made possible by the immense destruction of goods and human beings during the second world conflict was first interrupted and then reversed direction. From that moment, the economic cycles of the major industrial nations have begun to follow an identical pattern, even if not in synch, a consequence dictated by the respective «age» of each national capitalistic structure. Not without reason, the graphics plotted by their economic indices show, across the span of twenty years, an awing uniformity. As a result, the highs and lows of these cyclical movements point to a deepening crisis: the «recovery phases», other than being brief and less vigorous, are that only with respect to the recessive abyss reached during the preceding downturn, and are not able to gain back the earlier loss on what is now an overall constant descent (1).

In these twenty years, the unfolding of the crisis has minced «guarantees», certainties, and illusions, leaving evidence of its destruction on all planes of bourgeois history, politics, and economy. It has swept away entire blocs - the Soviet, for example, deemed «capitalistic» by us from the 1930s on (2) - and precipitated the world into the utmost instability. And it has shredded groups and organisations that had flourished in the hothouse atmosphere of the expansive phase: one thinks of the predictable, miserable and pathetic endings of the Stalinist parties and of their Left, of the putrefaction and disintegration of the galaxy of extra-parliamentarians, with all their facile theory, politics, and organisational set-ups.

But it had repercussions amongst those, including some from our own ranks, who, at the first appearance of the crisis quickly concluded that there would be a rapid social and political turn about, that the economic and social crises would coincide, or, at least, that the second would be the near linear successor to the first, and bring an automatic return «to the good old ways». Instead, on the one hand, the legacy of the putrefying Stalinist cadaver, i.e. its attitudes, inertia, convictions, material conditions, the praxis of its institutions and trade unionism, has continued to have an effect on the international working class; on the other, the overpowering influence of the preceding expansive cycle has been so that, at least in the so-called advanced West, the layers of «reserved fat» remaining to be burned before reaching bone have served, and will continue to serve, for a good while as a «material and psychological guarantee», feeding all type of reformist views posited on policies of «social peace».

This desire to see a return to the full amplitude of the class struggle, so understandable even in the absence of any real basis, has raised in many an urgency for speed and an impatience: an urgency to see the actual results of their own actions, an impatience with what was taken initially as a «slowness» and later as a «genetic defect» of the entire movement, and hence to be cast aside. However, the crisis showed no pity even to this group, reducing it first to impotence, then to silence, and finally to oblivion, whereas our party, though small and not yet influential, has remained on the scene and continued to work - the only «realistic» response to the spectacular failure of the others.

Our history did not begin with the economic crisis of the 1970s, so let us take a step back in time.

• • •

The formal reorganisation of our party took place during the years 1943-1945, when the comrades returning from exile reunited with those remaining in Italy, both in and out of fascist prisons, to stitch together a fragile international network. Amongst the problems to be dealt with, one of the most urgent was that of arriving at a homogeneous theoretical and political understanding given the disparate elements that, however splendidly and stubbornly they had kept their fealty to an exiguous communist tradition, had lived nearly twenty years in a Diaspora or in isolation. Necessarily, this meant starting at the beginning with the ABCs of communism, that is, to restore the theory that had been torn to pieces and discarded by Stalinism.

In this work of restoration, some problems came quickly to surface. Just to illustrate with some examples: the incorrect analyses and expectations that the working class might in the second postwar reprise the revolutionary role of the first or that the great majority of the working class understood already the opportunistic and counterrevolutionary role of the trade unions risked rendering vain the enormous contribution made in the course of the 1930s by our comrades in Italy or abroad.

Above all, one ran the risk of substantially underestimating the need to reconstruct theory, which was seen as a hindrance to the practical activity of «working amongst the masses», and resorting to various mechanical and non-dialectical assessments. Again, two specific illustrations: one, the view that the USSR was tout court state capitalism and «hence» at a level superior to the USA; two, the view that the anti-colonial movements were expressions of inter-imperialistic rivalry and «therefore» of no interest to the proletarians of the metropolis.

In «Activism», a marvellous article from 1952 and recently republished (3), we made clear in a most unambiguous manner how theory and practice are not two distinct areas separated from the work of the party, but two aspects of one continuous activity; that favouring one over the other fractures their inseparability with resulting damage to the party and to the revolutionary movement as a whole.

The split that occurred in our ranks in 1952 with the separation from «Battaglia comunista» and the appearance of «Il programma comunista» simultaneously indicated the end of the uncertain and problematical phase of the party and the beginning of theoretical, political and organisational reconstruction. In the subsequent decades, pari passu with this reconstruction, and in a real sense inevitably brought on by it, as well as from the isolation in which the party worked and the very' few class impulses existing in a society dominated by the expansive postwar cycle, other crises emerged, the most grave that of 1982-1983 which threatened the undermining of the enormous work done until then; when seen clearly, all were crises characterised by an impatience with the perennial tasks of the party, and arose from the rupture of the organic unity between theoretical work and its translation into reality.

Thus, like a shadow following its pendulum, with every «activist» crisis, i.e., impatience with theory, there followed an «intellectual» crisis, i.e., an impatience with activity, or vice versa. The crisis of 1982-1983 arose from the impatience of same comrades alleging the party's inability to place itself at the head of certain movements seen by them as marking the first signs of a general revival of the class struggle. Events quickly proved them wrong and they ended in impotence and failure, but not before they had broken with the party, its theory, and modes of work. In a way, this crisis was the explosive synthesis of all earlier crises and the dramatic demonstration of the blind alley served up by impatience.

But again, our history stretches well beyond the last half century: let us follow it during one of its most dramatic and heroic phases.

• • •

At the Congress of Lyons of the Partito Comunista d'Italia (1926), our current, the one that had founded the party in 1921 and led it until 1923, was eliminated; since we have already written about this, for the moment we will leave aside the methods used. In the end, we were expelled from the party.

During the course of the next fifteen years, our comrades were either lost to exile or enclosed in Fascist jails. But the integument of continuity was never broken. The Fraction Abroad (la Frazione all'Estero) was established and published «Prometeo» and «Bilan» in France and Belgium, and the «International Bulletin» in the US. Under the most unfavourable circumstances, theoretical and political work was carried on. Caught between Stalinists and Fascists, the comrades also had simultaneously to contend with the deception hidden behind the democratic rhetoric. And they had to resist recurrent bouts of impatience, especially in the second half of the 1930s. Even at the cost of further isolation, they knew enough to distance themselves from those groups who believed that it was possible to reverse the counterrevolution of Stalinism by some simple organisational stand: for example, set up a new International, as Karl Korsch intended in 1926 while giving the presidency to Bordiga; or found a Fourth International, as did Trotsky in 1938; or by a misreading of reality throw oneself into some proletarian struggle whose leadership was doubtful and whose policies were national and non-workingclass, rather than revolutionary, which was the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, as we indicated in a recent analysis (4).

The opposition by the Fraction Abroad to that sort of impatience, with the full backing of the comrades inside Italy though contact was often sporadic and uncertain, kept the Communist Left from watering down its traditions and disappearing. Thus it avoided the fate that faced and befell confused and opportunistic elements, i.e. the Trotskyites, and escaped becoming extremely long-winded and demagogic, as happened with The International Communist Current.

• • •

Let's take one last step back in time. Our history began in 1912, our «organised» history we should add, although as Marxists our history traces back to 1848!

At first within the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) between 1912 and 1921, and then at the leadership of the Partito Comunista d'Italia - Section of the Third International, between 1921 and 1923, the struggles we led were always directed against the various forms of a similar impatience.

Against the anarchists, the revolutionary syndicalists, and the extremists in general, who are impatient when it comes to the tasks of organisation and establishing the political policies of the party this is to say, its ability to analyse the present in the light of theory; to determine strategy and tactics needed to guide the working class in its daily struggles and, later, in «storming the heavens» and finally, in the dictatorship of the proletariat. While they bring to the proletariat the exhaustion of short-lived illusions and hopeless struggles.

Against the reformism and opportunism of social-democrats, who are impatient with long-term perspectives and ultimate revolutionary goals. They privilege «daily incremental conquests» as the lever of a gradualist transformation of society - «conquests» that are punctually co-opted and nullified by capital, with the same ultimate demoralisation of the proletariat.

And, finally, against the ever more insidious menace that posits itself between anarchist extremism and reformist opportunism, even as its proclaims a wordy defence of revolutionary Marxism, and in a sense synthesises both anarchism and opportunism. We refer to centrism, whose stellar guardian figures [in Italy] were Serrati & company, then the Gramscis and Togliattis, and Stalinism from its first hour.

This was the battle waged by the Communist Left between 1912 and 1926, which was simply a continuation of the struggles led by Marx and Engels against anarchists, Proudhonists, and Lassallians; later by Lenin against the economists and Mensheviks.

• • •

Now, it is obvious that we have a long history, and we can say with pride and without modesty that none can boast of one similar. A history made possible only by the persistence of certain conditions: a Marxist theory cleansed of all deformation and debasement; the ability to read reality in the light of theory; a revolutionary passion that permitted one to grit one's teeth and pass unbroken through dark times; the stubbornness to always seek contact with the working class, even when it was distant and seemingly insensible to our words. And, above all, a great patience.

What does it mean to be «patient»?

Since we are Marxists - and we must stress that what is happening today is the most convincing confirmation of Marxism - we know that the capitalist system contains within its deepest self an unavoidable contradiction - the law of profit, and the inescapable corollary, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. These genetic characteristics lead to the most profound and devastating crises, from which momentary relief is possible only through the most horrendous and destructive wars.

We know that the conflict between capital and labour, however somnambulant it may appear even for a long historical period, cannot disappear, in part because it is an integral element of that central contradiction, and in part because the «level of pain» inflicted by the system of capital continues on the rise reaching its apogee during local and world conflicts.

We know, however, that the form and intensity of that class conflict depend on the real and live presence, next to the class and a step ahead of it, of the revolutionary party, the only one able to indicate the road ahead and turn past experiences into a treasure-trove of understanding.

Our stance is in no way fideistic - we expect no messiah, but know scientifically how things are and how they will go; neither are we fatalistic - we will not limit ourselves, according to the Oriental proverb, «to sitting on the river bank expecting to see the corpse of our enemy flow by».

The revolutionary denouement must be prepared in advance, and that involves continuing to sharply define and circulate theory, organise the international party, and win the class to it. But this preparation can be accomplished precisely and only on

the basis of an enormous, clear-minded, and mindful patience.

This means: patience vis-à-vis the slowness with which the crisis matures into its catastrophic outcomes, knowing that they are inevitable; patience vis-à-vis the inertia and passivity of the working class, which is capable of unexpected and generous actions, only to fall prey to discomfort and disillusionment - the highs and lows that only the presence of a party with its continuous and constant vision will allow it to cope, tapping that potential of energy that permits it to remain whole at times of disruption and contact is late in being reestablished; and then patience vis-à-vis the, at times enormous, delay in seeing the outcome of our efforts, knowing well that if our work has been well done and in line with our theory and precepts the results will flow.

In this patience, we are not alone. From Lenin we learned that
No political party can base its policies on outbursts of social conflicts and political crises without falling into adventurous gambles. We must follow our own road indefatigably carrying out our systematic work, and the less we rely on the unforeseen the less likely we will be surprised by an unexpected historical turn». («Where to Begin», 1901).
And from Trotsky that
the masses are never exactly identical: there are revolutionary masses, there are passive masses, there are reactionary masses. The same masses are moved in different periods by diverse inspirations and objectives. It is for this reason that we need a centralised organisation of the vanguard». («Moralists and Sycophants against Marxism», 1939).

«Turned externally» so to speak, this patience has permitted our party to hold firmly for decades to the thin red line of communist tradition; «turned internally», it is a valued patience that - on the par with a restored theory and a sense of belonging to a unique experience - is part of our «genetic inheritance», and to be imparted to all who draw close to us.

In the daily life of the party, this means having the capacity to resist two central aspects of capitalist society - the need for speed and the anxiety for success; both ideological reflexes of bourgeois relations - a behavioural and social aspect of the material and economic necessity «to conclude the matter quickly and in the best possible manner, otherwise the competition will screw us!» It means knowing how to resist the strong and disastrous mirage of «personal magnification», and, instead, oppose to it the profound and understanding that to work for the communist revolution will demand work across the abyss of time, with attention focused not on a brief span of a lifetime, but on that of entire generations. At stake in this historical drama is not the fate of the individual with his fleeting presence on the world scene, but the future of the entire human species.

In turn, however, this patience, this capacity to stand firm, is made possible by the very concept of the party as a collective organ; it distils our tradition from the syntheses and, at the same time, the absorption of the entire communist experience from 1926; this makes our party something completely diverse from what is currently regarded as a party. We are a party that is disciplined and centralised, based on a tight and dialectical tie between center and periphery, with a participation of all the activists in all the theoretical, political and practical tasks; we effectively integrate the highest energy and ability of the individual - whose capacity is amplified and sharpened, when freed from a self-concerned personalism and directed to a communal goal, and this in an ambience that is opposed to any form of self-centerd individualism, relying instead on a passionate and fraternal sharing of daily experiences and ultimate ends. As militant communists, recalls one of our texts, we are not so arrogant as to believe that history has given us a blank check to be used in protest if «the great day» does not arrive within the time we believe; and we are not spectators who demand their money back, if the drama was not pleasing.

Now, this very view of the party risks becoming abstract, impractical, and even selfdamaging, if it remains a mere slogan, a holiness, a verbal and rhetorical effigy. Rather it turns lively, vital with enormous potential, if all the comrades, if all who are close to us participate in its programmatic complexity, knowing that is not given to us, once and for all, as a sort of «grace» to the «predestined»; that we are really embarked on a conquest, as difficult as it is exalting, to be undertaken day after day notwithstanding our limits and inadequacies, against all the obstacles and resistance of an environment we must stand up to without the «miracle» of immunisation.

Do you remember what Lenin once wrote?
A small compact group, we walk along a steep and difficult path holding on to each other. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies and we must proceed under fire. We are united by a freely made decision to fight our enemies and not slip into the nearby swamp, whose inhabitants from the first have vilified us for having formed a separate group and chosen the path of struggle rather than conciliation..». («What Is To Be Done?», 1902)

In effect, our view of the party as a collective organ presupposes demands and - like all our work directed to the preparation of the communist revolution - cries out for an enormous patience. Day after day.

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  1. This is not the place to develop this question in detail which will be handled in «The course of capitalism and crisis», an insert in the next edition of the Italian periodical «Il Programma Comunista». [back]
  2. See our classical analyses in «Dialogue with Stalin» (1953), «Economic and Social Structure of Today's Russia» (1955), «Dialogue with the Dead» (1956), «Bilan d'un révolution» (1968), and, more recently, «The Myth of »Socialist Planning in the USSR» (1976) and «Russia Opens itself to the World Crisis» (1977), all titles in English are translated from the Italian. [back]
  3. See « Il Programma Comunista» n.3-4, 1995. [back]
  4. See «60 Years from the War in Spain», (trans. from Italian), in «Il Programma Comunista», n. 2, 4, 5, 6-7, 8-9, 1996. [back]

Source: »Internationalist Papers«, n. 6, may 1997

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