The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The Tasks of Revolutionaries in the Face of War

Dec 3, 2023

The following article is a translation of excerpts from a longer report made at the 2023 Lutte Ouvrière Convention and posted in the Dec 2023–Jan 2024 Lutte de Classe, #236. This report may have been part of a political discussion in France, but it shows the commonality of the economic and political situation from country to country, and also shows the global aspect of the wars we face.

. . . .

Right from the start of the war in Ukraine, we highlighted the threat of a generalization of war. We were labeled by our former comrades as “alarmists,” “birds of ill omen,” “Cassandras” and so on. We wrote this to emphasize in our interventions and publications that capitalism is not only exploitation and all that flows from it, but also the permanent threat of war, the continuation of competition by military means. We didn’t have an abstract discussion. And we drew the practical conclusion of asking comrades to focus their discussions on this aspect of capitalism’s evolution. It didn’t take long for even the TV and press to become “alarmist,” and today, pseudo-specialists and high-ranking military officers are talking about the possibility of a third world war.

We want to stress that, even if the proletariat does not succeed in preventing war, war itself does not stop the class struggle. On the contrary, it exacerbates it. And the duty of revolutionaries is not to flee the class struggle, precisely when it is particularly exacerbated, but on the contrary to pursue it.

We’re not pacifists. Nor are we anarchists. And the axis of our intervention will not be the anarchist, i.e., individualist, attitude of deserting, nor the blissful pacifism that demands peace from the rulers and staffs of imperialism. It will be to stay with our class, with the proletarians mobilized; it will be to—as Lenin summed it up—“transform the bourgeoisie’s war into a civil war” of the oppressed classes against the capitalist bourgeoisie. We can speculate all we like about how and when the war will set the proletariat in motion, but what is certain is that there is no other way to prevent the war or put a definitive end to it than through the victory of the proletarian revolution.

Socialism or Barbarism

In November 2020, we published an article in our monthly Lutte de classe entitled “Today as yesterday, socialism or barbarism”….

At the time, we were talking about the murder of Samuel Paty by a young fanatic, but also about the proliferation of conspiracy currents in the United States, where “rotting capitalism has resurrected the Ku Klux Klan and multiplied conspiracy currents, modern variants of the proliferation of mystical currents in the Middle Ages in the face of the plague pandemic.” We said: “The obscurantist ideas that these currents take up are not a survival of the Middle Ages. It’s not the past seizing on the present, it’s the product of a society that was able to send men to the moon, but is incapable of controlling its economic and social life.”

That was three years ago, before war broke out in Ukraine and resurfaced between Israel and the Palestinians!

For some months now, barbarity has been manifesting itself on an altogether different scale. From Kherson to Gaza, the dead are buried under bombed buildings. In the large-scale terrorism of the State of Israel, in response to the terrorism of Hamas. By the killing of an entire population fleeing the bombs, starving, deprived of water and medicine. Barbarism is making sick people, faced with the guns of tanks, come out of Gaza’s main hospital with their hands raised, transforming the hospital into a death camp.

Barbarity is not only the war in Ukraine and the Middle East, it is also, and has been for a long time, the steady stream of refugees from Africa who attempt to cross the Mediterranean at the risk of their lives, while clean-cut, well-fed French, German and Italian MPs argue legal arguments to deny them entry into Europe. Barbarism is the Balkan route bristling with barbed wire, the wall erected on the Mexican border to cut off the route to the United States for the poor of Latin America.

Barbarity is on the rise everywhere, in many forms. In Haiti, with the proliferation of gangs. On the borders of Sudan, where tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting between military chiefs are parked in what can hardly be called a camp—the crammed populations have no shelter whatsoever, whole families, adults and children, sleep on the ground, their only food a few sacks of rice brought by relief organizations and fought over....

Of these multiple expressions of barbarity, we have only television images, when we have any report at all ... images filtered, selected and loaded with propaganda, particularly concerning the war in the Middle East, to suggest horror and astonishment at the terrorism of Hamas, but at the same time glossing over the horror represented by the bombardments of the open-air prison that has always been the Gaza Strip, transformed into a cemetery by the intervention of the Israeli army....

Then there’s the daily barbarity, even here, in this rich imperialist country, privileged compared to the rest of the planet, supposedly civilized, a barbarity that for the moment is confined to nauseating rhetoric, slogans and political hardening as soon as it comes to the poorest.

. . . .

The growing climate of war heralds the generalization of war as a quasi-permanent form of capitalism. And what’s worse, it’s becoming part of everyday life….

Deep down, even in the privileged imperialist country of France, most of those of our class reacted inwardly with “it’s sad, but it can’t happen to us.”

In the aftermath of the Hamas incursion on Israeli soil, some newspapers spoke of a state of shock in Israel. But what could have so stunned the Israeli population as a whole? Didn’t they realize that their state was crushing the Palestinian population, with their complicity? Yet the Jewish population rubbed shoulders with the Palestinians every day, not only those living in the West Bank, but also those in Gaza, and even more so those living in Israel itself. Israel believed itself so superior, so invulnerable because, protected by the coalition of all the imperialist powers, starting with the United States, it thought this couldn’t happen! Well, it did happen. But are we any safer from being “flabbergasted” the day war hits us here?

The legend still endures of a Western Europe living in peace since 1945, since the end of the Second World War. But how many generations, in how many Third World countries, have long been experiencing a permanent state of war? In the midst of what we call a period of peace, because there was no world war since 1945, Congo Kinshasa alone, become Zaire, become again Congo Kinshasa, has seen as many deaths due to armed conflict as, taken together, have most of the Western countries that were involved in the Second World War! Peace itself has long been the privilege of rich countries. The poor in many African countries have both poverty and war. And our leaders pretend to wonder why the poor don’t stay at home instead of crossing the Mediterranean, risking their lives!

It’s not just a question of asking which period is the most barbaric: the one Victor Serge depicted in his novel, Midnight in the Century, or the period that is opening up before us. We can guess at the answer but only in terms of military damage: the war that may be on its way to becoming a world war will be even more deadly, far exceeding the number of direct and indirect victims of the First World War (20 million dead: 10 million soldiers and 10 million civilians) and the Second World War (60 to 90 million dead: 20 to 30 million soldiers and 40 to 60 million civilians).

In the meantime, science and technology have advanced considerably, making weaponry far more effective, far more destructive or, to use their language, far more competitive on the global arms market.

Over and above the decisive political responsibility of Stalinism, to which we’ll return in a moment, complacency in the face of the threats posed by the maintenance of bourgeois order has a social basis. And this social foundation is the influence of the petty bourgeoisie, including its intelligentsia, on public opinion in general and on what some Marxists have called the “most bourgeoisified fraction of the working class,” i.e., the workers’ aristocracy.

In the final analysis, Stalinism has taken up the well-polished clichés of the reformist labor aristocracy. We must never forget that, while notions of class antagonism are essential to understanding society, different classes do not live separated by Chinese walls. And the labor aristocracy, by refusing revolution and believing itself to be outside the ranks of the proletariat, is copying the mentality, behavior and reasoning of the petty bourgeoisie, which in turn is copying the same mentality, behavior and reasoning of the big bourgeoisie. Just as the ex-Soviet bureaucracy does….

Humanity will pay dearly for a social organization that carries with it exploitation, competition, permanent economic rivalry and the wars that ensue.

From the Communist Manifesto to the Present Day

We are all familiar with the first sentence of the Communist Manifesto: “A specter haunts Europe: the specter of communism.”

The Transitional Program, bearing the same revolutionary communist conviction as the Manifesto of the Communist Party, has, however, a completely different tone: “The objective premises of revolution are not only ripe, they have even begun to rot. Without socialist revolution, and that within the next historical period, the whole of human civilization is in danger of being swept away in a catastrophe.”

Both texts form the basis of our program and, therefore, of our fight.

The Communist Manifesto is still our fundamental point of reference after 175 years—that’s because capitalist society has not fundamentally changed, despite all the progress made by humanity in a host of fields, including science and technology, and despite humanity’s growing control over its natural environment,

In a text written in March 1903, twenty years after Marx’s death, Rosa Luxemburg assessed Marx’s main contribution to the workers’ movement as follows: “If we had to formulate in a few words what Marx has done for the workers’ movement today, we could say that Marx has, so to speak, discovered the modern working class as a historical category, i.e., as a class subject to determined conditions of existence and whose place in history responds to precise laws. Before Marx, there was undoubtedly a mass of wage earners in capitalist countries who, driven to solidarity by the similarity of their existences within bourgeois society, groped for a way out of their situation, and sometimes for a bridge to the promised land of socialism. Marx elevated them to the rank of a class only by linking them to a particular historical task: the task of conquering political power with the perspective of the socialist transformation of society.” (“Karl Marx”, March 14, 1903).

This passage sums up the transformation of utopian socialism into scientific socialism. But that’s not all. At the same time, it marks the fundamental difference between a revolutionary communist and a trade unionist. Marxism isn’t just about a bias toward the working class, let alone compassion for its plight. Marxism consists of seeing in the working class, whatever its state of mind at a given moment, the social class capable of conquering political power and, wrote Rosa Luxemburg, “with a view to the socialist transformation of society.”

Marx took socialism from utopia to science by discovering the internal dynamics of capitalism. Capitalism has never ceased to be based on the exploitation and oppression of the majority of society for the benefit of a privileged minority. The race for profit has always been its driving force, with all its consequences: competition, anarchy of production, waste, rivalries, wars. But at the same time, during its rising period, capitalism has contributed to the progress of humanity, to the increase in man’s productive forces, to the unification of the planet, to his growing control over nature. Capitalist competition has been a formidable engine of progress compared to other, earlier forms of class society. In the words of the Communist Manifesto, “the bourgeoisie has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.”

But the development of capitalism spawned its opposite, monopolies, imperialism—that ultimate, senile stage of capitalism—which over a century ago became the main obstacle to human progress.

The 140 years since Marx’s death have also largely confirmed the inability of the capitalist organization of society to overcome its contradictions and open up a path that would vindicate those who, following in the footsteps of Bernstein and company, envisaged a steady diminution of capitalist contradictions in favor of a harmonious evolution toward a form of socialism.

“Above all, the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers”

By developing the productive forces of humanity, by weaving links between all regions of the planet, capitalism has prepared the materials for reorganizing society on bases other than those of private ownership of the means of production and the fragmentation of states.

But history is not driven by a clockwork mechanism. It is the work of flesh-and-blood social classes. It is only on the basis of this analysis of society, i.e., on the basis of Marxism, that a revolutionary force capable of overthrowing capitalism can be reconstituted.

“The emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves” is not just a slogan. The expression eliminates the idea of any automatic mechanism. This is where Rosa Luxemburg’s expression, speaking of the discovery “of the modern working class as a historical category”, ties in with the Transitional Program, in particular the idea that Trotsky repeats several times in different forms: “The historical crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.” Or: “The present crisis of human civilization is the crisis of proletarian leadership.”

These sentences are an assessment of the past decades but, at the same time, sum up what we have to do. There’s no need to go back over the decades that transformed Russia’s victorious proletarian revolution into its opposite. That is to say, one of the most democratic forms of power, that of the workers’ councils—the soviets—into one of the worst forms of dictatorship over the working class, which Trotsky so often compared to fascism, even while contrasting them according to their respective social bases.

Stalinism and Trotskyism

The analysis of bureaucratic degeneration is part of Trotskyism. It pits us against all those who, from Stalin to Mao Zedong and a myriad of lesser imitators, have claimed Marx and Marxism at some point in their political existence.

The question of why this crisis of proletarian leadership has arisen cannot be asked without evoking the responsibility of Stalinism. Not only its direct, immediate responsibility, during the decades of the 1920s and 1930s, for the complete elimination of the Bolshevik party leadership, whose members did not die a natural death. Not only its responsibility for hunting down all those who tried to renew links with the proletariat’s revolutionary past. Not only in introducing gangsterism into relations between the components of the workers’ movement, assassinations, torture, concentration camps.

The historical responsibility of Stalinism is not limited to the brutal class struggle waged by the usurping bureaucracy against the working class. It’s not just the opportunities missed by the working class for lack of valid political leadership, from England and Germany to China in the 1920s; it’s not just the revolutions betrayed, like the one in Spain in 1936. It’s not just the revolutions directly stifled or crushed in the Eastern European countries of the 1950s: East Germany, Poland, Hungary. There is also the legacy of Stalinism, which continues to rot class consciousness.

Stalinism as such is dead, as is Stalin. The laws of biology suffice to explain why there are no survivors of that era, some of whom were direct executors or accomplices of Stalinism. Today, not many people claim to be Stalinists, but its destructive consequences continue to this day. It was Stalinism that blurred the line between proletarian class consciousness and the vile magma that Stalinist parties created, even while retaining the communist label: a kind of populism, vaguely tinged with workerism and anti-imperialist slogans. This magma was propagated by all C.P.s under the influence of the Soviet bureaucracy, as they evolved toward Stalinism. It was transformed into a state religion in both the USSR and the People’s Democracies; propagated by the authorities and all their organs; spread by radio and, when the time came, by television, taught in faculties under the name of Marxism-Leninism.

Over time, and through the Moscow bureaucracy’s diplomatic alliances with Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Siad Barre’s Somalia, the People’s Republic of Congo-Brazzaville and many others, the Communist label came to cover regimes which, having nothing to do with the October Revolution or the proletariat, had only their anti-worker character in common.

For years, in Brazzaville’s main avenue, portraits of the dictator of the day, Ngouabi or Sassou N’Guesso, stood side by side with portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and at least until a certain point, Stalin—portraits that were far more numerous than in the People’s Democracies, even though they were directly dominated by the Soviet bureaucracy!

It was Stalinism that gave a multitude of bourgeois nationalist currents the opportunity to hide behind anti-imperialist rhetoric at first, before revealing their true political identity: reactionary, and increasingly linked to religion.

The Role of the Proletariat

Marx left us an analysis of the dynamics of capitalism that has stood the test of time, just as the irreplaceable role of the proletariat, which he had discovered, according to Rosa Luxemburg, has stood the test of time, despite the jolts of the class struggle that make up history.

In terms of the numerical importance of its presence all over the planet, and its role in every aspect of economic functioning, the proletariat is infinitely stronger today than it was in Marx’s time, and even much later, at the time of the Russian Revolution.

In Marx’s time, the modern proletariat was confined to those countries that had already experienced or were in the process of experiencing the Industrial Revolution, essentially those of Europe, or at least its western part, and the United States.

Today, the proletariat is everywhere, because capitalism is everywhere. And it hasn’t become amorphous, it fights back. Look at Bangladesh, which reminds us that, while the textile industry has declined in France, the United States, and a number of countries that have become imperialist, the factories of Manchester, Liverpool, etc., are today in Dhaka!

When Rosa Luxemburg writes that “before Marx, there existed a mass of wage-earners who were driven to solidarity by the similarity of their existences within bourgeois society,” she is making the point that workers were aware of being part of the same class. But it was Marx who “elevated them to the rank of a class only by linking them to a particular historical task: the task of conquering political power with a view to the socialist transformation of society.”

Well, the difference between Marx’s time and that of Lenin and Trotsky lies not in the possibilities or the strength of the proletariat, but in the inability of the intelligentsia to elevate from its ranks even a minority of intellectuals capable of transmitting Marx’s ideas to the workers in struggle.

“The bridge that Marx built between the proletarian movement, as it arose from the soil of present-day society, and socialism,” writes Rosa Luxemburg in the same text, “was the class struggle for political power.”

The Intelligentsia, Revolution and Stalinism

The intelligentsia has always been a product of the bourgeoisie. In the rising days of the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia was in the vanguard of the struggles of its still-progressive class. But a fraction of this intelligentsia knew how to go further, how to break with their predecessors and ancestors, pushing the desire for social transformation far beyond the limits of bourgeois society.

This category of intellectuals was in the minority, but they brought the ideas of the future to the workers. The era of Marx and Engels was followed by that of Guesde, Lafargue and many others, who played a major role in transmitting revolutionary socialism to the proletariat during the era of the Second International.

The same thing happened with the Russian intelligentsia a little later, even before Bolshevism. It sought the path to political and social transformation of tsarism through a whole host of errors: “going to the people,” literacy for poor peasants, various forms of populism, terrorism. But this political trial-and-error fertilized the soil on which Bolshevism grew. This generation produced Plekhanov, who recognized that Marxism was a far more effective tool than terrorist attacks, and Lenin, who added professionalism to the previous generation’s commitment, enabled Marxism to be expressed in a way that put the working class in a position to succeed.

This continuity was interrupted by Stalinism. And not just interrupted, but perverted.

The victory of Stalinism in the USSR was the victory of a counter-revolution that spawned the Soviet bureaucracy. In Stalinism’s stranglehold over the workers’ movement outside the country of the vanquished proletarian revolution, the intelligentsia played a major role. Here in France, we have reason to remember Aragon, Kanapa, Politzer, Roger Garaudy and hundreds of others who placed themselves at the service of the bureaucracy and literally sold themselves out by singing the basest praises of Stalin and his successors. But beyond that, how many artists of the stature of Picasso, scientists like Joliot-Curie, actors like Yves Montand or Simone Signoret, gave their support and credit to Stalinism, equating it with communism?

We’re not talking here about that fraction of the intelligentsia, the vast majority, who have never left the camp of the bourgeoisie and whom the latter holds by money, by ambition, by assuring them enviable living conditions compared to those of the proletariat. We’re talking about this minority faction which, while claiming to choose the workers’ camp, has above all helped Stalinism pervert the political class consciousness of the workers. It played a major role in helping the Stalinist bureaucracy to establish itself as a continuation of communism.

Instead of being a bridge between Marx’s ideas and the working class, the intelligentsia was, directly or indirectly, a bridge between the workers’ movement and the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy and, by the same token, a bridge to the bourgeois nationalism disguised as the communism of Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung and many others.

Those nationalist leaders, who took the communist label while abandoning its perspectives, have opened the door for the nationalist bourgeoisies of the poor countries to deceive their popular masses and enlist them in the service of creating a bourgeois state capable of resisting the political stranglehold of imperialism.

. . . .

If there’s a social conclusion to be drawn from all this, it’s certainly not that the proletariat has failed as a class with “a particular historical task, the task of conquering political power with a view to the socialist transformation of society.”

It is the intelligentsia that has failed to bring forth from itself even a small minority capable of reinstating the ideas of social revolution and, above all, transmitting them to the social class that is the only one capable of realizing them.

Our Tasks

It’s not a question of deploring the missed opportunities of the past. We need to recognize that this task has not been fulfilled, and that it needs to be. It’s up to future generations, proletarians and intellectuals, to accomplish it.

The 140 years separating us from Karl Marx’s death is a long time, but in his time there was the Paris Commune and later the Russian Revolution, and a few others which, even when defeated, showed that the working class is capable of fighting for power.

In the history of class struggle, even failures are often a learning experience for the future. Marxist political culture is not only made up of winning episodes, but also of failures. Some are so serious as to set back a struggling oppressed class. This was the case with fascism and, on a different social basis, with Stalinism. Others are disillusionments, such as those that followed all the Popular Front episodes and their betrayals.

The bourgeoisie, a social class once oppressed by the feudal classes, took some 800 years to come to power, after many battles but also many failures!

Besides, history is made by human beings themselves, and there is no supreme arbiter holding a stopwatch.

Like all revolutionaries, Marx and Engels acted as if the revolution were just around the corner. All their work during and in the wake of the European revolutionary wave of 1848–1849 shows that they anticipated and obviously hoped that this revolutionary wave would not stop at the limits of bourgeois revolution, but that it would become permanent (the word and the concept date from this period) and that it could be transformed into a proletarian revolution.

Many others, far greater than ourselves, have argued that if the proletariat had taken power when imperialism, that is to say, the power of the monopolies, replaced free-market capitalism, humanity would have saved a great deal of suffering, starting with the First and Second World Wars.

The only conclusion we can draw is that what hasn’t yet been done must be done.

What can we expect in the period ahead? The past year has shown us how quickly the flames of war have spread from Ukraine to the Middle East, not to mention the multiple flares of war from the Caucasus to Sudan. It has also shown the interdependence of events and the crisis, notably through sanctions. The multiple links forged between the economies of different countries, which could, and should, give humanity a formidable foothold in controlling its economic life and social organization, are instead a source of chaos.

The fire may come from the economy itself, with consequences for relations between nations as well as between classes. To take just one example: the current phase of the economic crisis has not, or not yet, seen a stock market crisis on the scale of Black Thursday on October 24, 1929. Not even a financial crisis on the scale of the one that almost engulfed the global banking system in 2008–2009. But in this respect, the financial system has left so many time bombs ticking that all the international bourgeoisie’s talking heads fear a new cataclysm. How will the different social classes react to a brutal financial crisis, with speculation inevitably playing a destructive role?

Behind the time bombs in the financial sphere, there are those in the social sphere, the respective reactions of the two main popular classes, the working class and the petty bourgeoisie, and their respective relationships in a society dominated by the big bourgeoisie. Will they be able to unite against their common exploiter and oppressor, the big bourgeoisie? Or will the bourgeoisie succeed in deceiving both through a popular front policy? Or set the petty bourgeoisie against the working class? The evolution of politics toward the right and the extreme right shows that the human elements of an evolution toward fascism are still there. Fascism is not just hate speech and racist anti-Arab or anti-Semitic demagoguery. Above all, it’s anger capable of mobilizing the petty bourgeoisie, turning it against the working class and providing the bourgeoisie with the instrument of repression to back up its official state apparatus.

The only thing we can be sure of is that all the buffers put in place to soften social upheavals, even—and especially—in imperialist countries, won’t be enough.

The sheer duration of the crisis, dotted with armed conflicts, will mean that the bourgeoisie will make no concessions to the working classes. The period that lies ahead will give renewed relevance to transitional demands. But in what order? With what priorities? The class struggle itself will provide the answer. Provided we pay attention. Our presence in the workplaces is limited, even if it is widened a little more by caravans and local activities. Social anxiety is pushing a few more people to look for solutions. We need to take advantage of it to create more numerous links.

We’ve said on several occasions over the last two or three years that the resurgence of inflation has brought demands such as the sliding wage scale and price indexation back into sharp focus. And the actuality of war is already updating the chapters of the Transitional Program dealing with the expropriation of war industries. On the other hand, we must be aware that the trend toward the militarization of all regimes will inevitably accelerate. We have to be ready for it.

And we need to recruit, as we say every year. Survival means surviving as Marxists, without abandoning our ideas, without putting water in our wine. The horrors of the situation mean that we are sensing a certain interest among young people for social transformation. We need to find them and win them over. But more importantly, whether they come from proletarian or intellectual backgrounds, they need to become cadres, capable of transmitting revolutionary communist ideas, acquiring them and implanting them in the proletariat.

In 2024, we’ll have the European elections. Given the speed with which events follow one another, we’ll be discussing our formulations in greater detail as we get closer to the deadline. As for our axis, it will be that of our proposed motion: an affirmation of our revolutionary communist identity. We will denounce capitalism, its crises and wars, and the impasse in which big business is trapping society.