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.