Letter 2: Castoriadis to Pannekoek

Introduction | Letter 1 | Letter 2 | Letter 3 | Original
Now available (8/6/13): Letters 4 and 5

Your let­ter has pro­vided a great sat­is­fac­tion to all the com­rades of the group; sat­is­fac­tion of see­ing our work appre­ci­ated by a com­rade hon­ored as you are and who has devoted an entire life to the pro­le­tariat and to social­ism; sat­is­fac­tion of see­ing con­firmed our idea of a pro­found agree­ment between you and us on the fun­da­men­tal points; sat­is­fac­tion finally of being able to dis­cuss with you and of enrich­ing our review with this dis­cus­sion.

Before dis­cussing the two points to which your let­ter is devoted (nature of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion, con­cep­tion and role of the party), I would like to under­line the points on which we agree: auton­omy of the work­ing class as both means and end of its his­tor­i­cal action, total power of the pro­le­tariat at the eco­nomic and polit­i­cal level as the sole con­crete con­tent of social­ism. I would fur­ther­more like on this point to to clear up a mis­un­der­stand­ing. It is not cor­rect that we restrict “the activ­ity of these organ­isms to the orga­ni­za­tion of labor in fac­to­ries after the tak­ing of social power.” We think that the activ­ity of these soviet – or work­ers’ coun­cil – organ­isms after the tak­ing of power extends itself to the total orga­ni­za­tion of social life, which is to say that as long as there is need for an organ­ism of power, its role will be ful­filled by the work­ers’ coun­cils. Nei­ther is it cor­rect that we would only think of such a role for the coun­cils in the period fol­low­ing the “tak­ing of power.” At the same time, his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence and reflec­tion show that the coun­cils could not be the organ­isms truly express­ing the class if they were cre­ated to thus decree the future of a vic­to­ri­ous rev­o­lu­tion, that they will be noth­ing unless they are cre­ated spon­ta­neously by a pro­found move­ment of the class, there­fore before the “tak­ing of power”; and if it is thus, it is evi­dent that they will play a pri­mor­dial role dur­ing the entire rev­o­lu­tion­ary period, whose begin­ning is pre­cisely marked (as I said in my text on the party in num­ber 10) by the con­sti­tu­tion of the autonomous organ­isms of the masses.

Where in con­trast there is, in fact, a real dif­fer­ence of opin­ion between us, is on the ques­tion of know­ing if, dur­ing this rev­o­lu­tion­ary period, these coun­cils will be the sole organ­ism which plays an effec­tive role in con­duct­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, and, to a lesser extent, what the role and task is of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tants in the mean­time. That is, the “ques­tion of the party.”

You say “in the con­quest of power we have no inter­est in a ‘rev­o­lu­tion­ary party’ that will take the lead­er­ship of the pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion.” And even fur­ther, after hav­ing quite rightly recalled that there are, beside us, a half-dozen other par­ties or groups that claim to rep­re­sent the work­ing class, you add: “in order for them (the masses in their coun­cils) to decide in the best way pos­si­ble they must be enlight­ened by well-con­sid­ered advice com­ing from the great­est num­ber of peo­ple pos­si­ble.” I fear that this view of things has no cor­re­spon­dence with both the most glar­ing and the most hid­den traits of the cur­rent and prospec­tive sit­u­a­tion of the work­ing class. Since these other par­ties and groups of which you speak do not sim­ply rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent opin­ions on the best way to make rev­o­lu­tion, and the ses­sions of the coun­cils will not be calm gath­er­ings of reflec­tion where, accord­ing the opin­ions of these diverse coun­selors (the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the groups and par­ties), the work­ing class will decide to fol­low one path rather than another. From the very moment that these organ­isms of the work­ing class have been con­sti­tuted, the class strug­gle will have been trans­posed to the very heart of these organ­isms; it will be trans­posed there by the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the major­ity of these “groups or par­ties” which claim to rep­re­sent the work­ing class but who, in the major­ity of cases, rep­re­sent the inter­ests and the ide­ol­ogy of the classes hos­tile to the pro­le­tariat, like the reformists and the Stal­in­ists. Even if they don’t exist there in their cur­rent form, they will exist in another, let us be sure. In all like­li­hood, they will start with a pre­dom­i­nant posi­tion. And the whole expe­ri­ence of the last twenty years – of the Span­ish war, the occu­pa­tion, and up to and includ­ing the expe­ri­ence of any cur­rent union meet­ing – we learn that the mil­i­tants who have our opin­ion must con­quer by strug­gle even the right to speak within these organ­isms.

The inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the class strug­gle dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion­ary period will inevitably take the form of the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the strug­gle of diverse fac­tions within the mass organ­isms. In these con­di­tions, to say that a van­guard rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tion will limit itself to “enlight­en­ing with well-con­sid­ered advice” is, I believe, what in Eng­lish is called an “under­state­ment.” After all, if the coun­cils of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary period prove to be this assem­bly of wise men where nobody comes to dis­turb the calm nec­es­sary for a well-con­sid­ered reflec­tion, we will be the first to con­grat­u­late our­selves; we feel sure, in fact, that our advice would pre­vail if things hap­pened this way. But it is only in this case that the “party or group” could limit itself to the tasks that you assign it. And this case is by far the most improb­a­ble. The work­ing class which will form the coun­cils will not be a dif­fer­ent class from the one that exists today; it will have made an enor­mous step for­wards, but, to use a famous expres­sion, it will still be stamped with the birth­marks of the old soci­ety from whose womb it emerges. It will be at the sur­face dom­i­nated by pro­foundly hos­tile influ­ences, to which it can ini­tially oppose only its still-con­fused rev­o­lu­tion­ary will and a minor­ity van­guard. This will be by all means com­pat­i­ble with our fun­da­men­tal idea of the auton­omy of the work­ing class extend­ing and deep­en­ing its influ­ence on the coun­cils, win­ning the major­ity to its pro­gram. It may even have to act before; what can it do if, rep­re­sent­ing 45% of the coun­cils, it learns that some neo-Stal­in­ist party pre­pares to take power for the future? Will it not have to try to seize power imme­di­ately?

I do not think that you will dis­agree with all that; I believe that what you aim for above all in your crit­i­cisms is the idea of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship of the party. I have how­ever tried to explain that the party can­not be the lead­er­ship of the class, nei­ther before, nor after the rev­o­lu­tion; not before, because the class does not fol­low it and it would only know how to lead at most a minor­ity (and again, “lead” it in a totally rel­a­tive sense: influ­ence it with its ideas and its exem­plary action); not after, since pro­le­tar­ian power can­not be the power of the party, but the power of the class in its autonomous mass organ­isms. The only moment when the party can approach the role of effec­tive lead­er­ship, of the corps which can try to impose its rev­o­lu­tion­ary will with vio­lence, may be a cer­tain phase of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary period imme­di­ately pre­ced­ing its con­clu­sion; impor­tant prac­ti­cal deci­sions may need to be taken out­side the coun­cils if the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of actu­ally coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions par­tic­i­pate, the party may, under the pres­sure of cir­cum­stances, com­mit itself to a deci­sive action even if it is not, in votes, fol­lowed by the major­ity of the class. The fact that in act­ing thus, the party will not act as a bureau­cratic body aim­ing to impose its will on the class, but as the his­tor­i­cal expres­sion of the class itself, depends on a series of fac­tors, which we can dis­cuss in the abstract today, but which will only be appre­ci­ated at this moment: what pro­por­tion of the class is in agree­ment with the pro­gram of the party, what is the ide­o­log­i­cal state of the rest of the class, where is the strug­gle against the coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary ten­den­cies within the coun­cils, what are the ulte­rior per­spec­tives, etc. To draw up, as of now, a series of rules of con­duct for the var­i­ous pos­si­ble cases would doubtless be puerile; one can be sure that the only cases that will present them­selves will be the unfore­seen cases.

There are com­rades who say: to trace this per­spec­tive is to leave the path open to a pos­si­ble degen­er­a­tion of the party in the bureau­cratic sense. The response is: not trac­ing it means accept­ing the defeat of the rev­o­lu­tion or the bureau­cratic degen­er­a­tion of the coun­cils from the very start, and this not as a pos­si­bil­ity, but as a cer­ti­tude. Ulti­mately, to refuse to act in fear that one will trans­form into a bureau­crat, seems to me as absurd as refus­ing to think in fear of being wrong. Just as the only “guar­an­tee” against error con­sists in the exer­cise of thought itself, the only “guar­an­tee” against bureau­cra­ti­za­tion con­sists in per­ma­nent action in an anti-bureau­cratic direc­tion, in strug­gling against the bureau­cracy and in prac­ti­cally show­ing that a non-bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tion of the van­guard is pos­si­ble, and that it can orga­nize non-bureau­cratic rela­tions with the class. Since the bureau­cracy is not born of false ideas, but of neces­si­ties proper to worker action at a cer­tain stage, and in action it is about show­ing that the pro­le­tariat can do with­out the bureau­cracy. Ulti­mately, to remain above all pre­oc­cu­pied with the fear of bureau­cra­ti­za­tion is to for­get that in cur­rent con­di­tions an orga­ni­za­tion would only know how to acquire a note­wor­thy influ­ence with the masses on the con­di­tion of express­ing and real­iz­ing their anti-bureau­cratic aspi­ra­tions; it is to for­get that a van­guard group will only be able to reach a real exis­tence by per­pet­u­ally mod­el­ing itself on these aspi­ra­tions of the masses; it is to for­get that there is no longer room for the appear­ance of a new bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tion. The per­ma­nent fail­ure of Trot­sky­ist attempts to purely and sim­ply recre­ate a “Bol­she­vik” orga­ni­za­tion finds its deep­est cause there.

To close these reflec­tions, I do not think either that one could say that in the cur­rent period (and hence the rev­o­lu­tion) the task of a van­guard group would be a “the­o­ret­i­cal” task. I believe that this task is also and above all the task of strug­gle and orga­ni­za­tion. For the class strug­gle is per­ma­nent, through its highs and lows, and the ide­o­log­i­cal mat­u­ra­tion of the work­ing class makes itself through this strug­gle. But the pro­le­tariat and its strug­gles are cur­rently dom­i­nated by bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tions (unions and par­ties), which has the result of ren­der­ing strug­gle impos­si­ble, of devi­at­ing them from the class goal or con­duct­ing them to defeat. A van­guard orga­ni­za­tion can­not indif­fer­ently attend this show, nei­ther can it con­tent itself with appear­ing as the owl of Min­erva at dusk, let­ting the sound of its beak fall with tracts explain­ing to the work­ers the rea­sons for their defeat. It must be capa­ble of inter­ven­ing in these strug­gles, com­bat­ing the influ­ence of bureau­cratic orga­ni­za­tions, propos­ing forms of action and orga­ni­za­tion to the work­ers; it must even at times be capa­ble of impos­ing them. Fif­teen res­olute van­guard work­ers can, in cer­tain cases, put a fac­tory of 5,000 into strike, if they are will­ing to knock out some Stal­in­ist bureau­crats, which is nei­ther the­o­ret­i­cal, nor even demo­c­ra­tic, these bureau­crats hav­ing always been elected in com­fort­able majori­ties by the work­ers them­selves.

I would like, before end­ing this response, to say a cou­ple things about our sec­ond diver­gence, which at first glance has only a the­o­ret­i­cal char­ac­ter: that of the nature of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion. We think that char­ac­ter­iz­ing the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion as a bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion does vio­lence to the facts, to ideas, and to lan­guage. That in the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion there were sev­eral ele­ments of a bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion – in par­tic­u­lar, the “real­iza­tion of the bour­geois-demo­c­ra­tic tasks” – has always been rec­og­nized, and, long before the rev­o­lu­tion itself, Lenin and Trot­sky had made it the base of their strat­egy and tac­tics. But these tasks, in the given stage of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment and the con­fig­u­ra­tion of social forces in Rus­sia, could not be dealt with by the work­ing class who, in the same blow, could not pose itself essen­tially social­ist tasks.

You say: the par­tic­i­pa­tion of work­ers does not suf­fice. Of course; as soon as a bat­tle becomes a mass bat­tle the work­ers are there, since they are the masses. But the cri­te­rion is not that: it is to know if the work­ers find them­selves the pure and sim­ple infantry of the bour­geoisie or if they fight for their own goals. In a rev­o­lu­tion in which the work­ers bat­tle for “Lib­erty, Equal­ity, Fra­ter­nity” – what­ever mean­ing they sub­jec­tively give to these watch­words – they are the infantry of the bour­geoisie. When they fight for “All power to the sovi­ets,” they fight for social­ism. What makes the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion is that the pro­le­tariat inter­vened in it as a dom­i­nant force with its own flag, its face, its demands, its means of strug­gle, its own forms of orga­ni­za­tion; it is not only that it con­sti­tuted mass organ­isms aim­ing to appro­pri­ate all power but that this itself went past the expro­pri­a­tion of the cap­i­tal­ists and began to real­ize work­ers’ man­age­ment of the fac­to­ries. All this made the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion forever a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion, what­ever its sub­se­quent fate – just as nei­ther the weak­ness, nor the con­fu­sions, nor the final defeat of the Paris Com­mune pre­vents it from hav­ing been a pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion.

This diver­gence may appear at first glance to be the­o­ret­i­cal: I think how­ever that it has a prac­ti­cal impor­tant inso­far as it trans­lates par excel­lence a method­olog­i­cal dif­fer­ence into a con­tem­po­rary prob­lem: the prob­lem of the bureau­cracy. The fact that the degen­er­a­tion of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion has not given way to the restora­tion of the bour­geoisie but to the the for­ma­tion of a new exploita­tive layer, the bureau­cracy; that the regime that car­ries this layer, despite its pro­found iden­tity with cap­i­tal­ism (as the dom­i­na­tion of dead labor over liv­ing labor), dif­fers in many aspects that can­not be neglected with­out refus­ing to under­stand any­thing; that this same layer, since 1945, is in the process of extend­ing its dom­i­na­tion over the world; that it is rep­re­sented in the coun­tries of West­ern Europe by par­ties deeply rooted in the work­ing class – all this makes us think that con­tent­ing our­selves with say­ing that the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion was a bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion is equiv­a­lent to vol­un­tar­ily clos­ing our eyes to the most impor­tant aspects of the global sit­u­a­tion today.

I hope that this dis­cus­sion can be pur­sued and deep­ened, and I believe it is not nec­es­sary to repeat to you that we wel­come with joy in Social­isme ou Bar­barie all that you would like to send us.

—Trans­lated by Asad Haider and Salar Mohan­desi

Author of the article

was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie and the author of The Imaginary Institution of Society.