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Ian H. Birchall

The Revolutionary Left in Europe

(February 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.86 (wrongly numbered No.85), February 1976, pp.9-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As the international crisis deepens, the need for international cooperation and debate between revolutionary organisations gets ever greater. Yet the sheer number of organisations and tendencies gives an appearance of bewildering complexity to the task. The following article attempts to give an outline of the development of the revolutionary left in Western Europe [1] over the last 15 years, and to evaluate the experience of the main tendencies

The Trotskyist Inheritance

For nearly 20 years after the Second World War the only revolutionary current existing was Trotskyism. [2] But the forces of Trotskyism were small and fragmented. The Fourth International underwent a major split in the 1953-54 period, and many minor splits before and after. Isolation and demoralisation bred factionalism, for to split an organisation numbered in hundreds or even tens was a decision that could be taken relatively lightly.

The Trotskyists could not be blamed for their isolation. In the forties the mass reformist parties had headed off the revolutionary challenge; and in the fifties the post-war boom allowed the system to stave off any real threat. But the long period in the wilderness was accompanied by a political degeneration. [3] It is impossible here to trace the various twists and turns taken by different organisations. It is enough to note the main features that characterised most ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ groupings in this period.

  1. An ambiguity about the role of the working class as the agency of socialist transformation. This ambiguity can be traced to the decision, in 1951, to characterise Russia’s East’ European satellites as ‘workers’ states’ even though the working class had played no role in their establishment. In the fifties and early sixties it was manifested on the one hand in a tailing of leftist currents in the social-democratic parties and trade-union bureaucracies; on thf other in the giving of more or less uncritical support to such regimes as Castro’s Cuba and Ben Bella’s Algeria. The rise of the student movement in the mid-sixties saw a sharp turn to an orientation on the ‘youth vanguard’.
  2. A fetishism of the revolutionary programme in itself as a substitute for any effective mobilisation around the programme. The Transitional Programme of the Fourth International (1938) was given an apparently timeless value, and certain demands (‘open the books’, ‘the sliding scale of wages’) were lifted out of context to acquire an almost magical significance.
  3. The development of the strategy of ‘entrism’ into the mass reformist parties – social-democratic (Britain, Belgium, etc), or Communist (France, Italy) – as a long-term strategy.

The inevitable result was that small groups of Trotskyists became so deeply submerged in mass reformist parties that their identity was distorted and in many cases individuals were absorbed.

The combination of objective factors and political deformation was such that the possibility for political intervention by Trotskyists during this whole period was minimal. To their credit, it must be said that the Fourth International, virtually alone amid the apathy and opportunism of the French and European left, attempted to give material support to the Algerian liberation struggle (two leading Trotskyists, Pablo and Santen, were imprisoned for this). In France, entry work on the Communist Party student organisation bore some fruit in the mid-sixties with the creation of the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth), which was to play a significant role in the events of May 1968.

Perhaps the most significant results of entrism were to be seen in Belgium, where the Trotskyists – notably in the person of Ernest Mandel – had considerable influence in the left of the socialist party, grouped around the paper La Gauche, which, together with its Flemish sister paper Links, had been able to win the support of up to a quarter of the delegates at the Socialist Party Congress in 1960. But during the Belgian General Strike (December 1960-January 1961), La Gauche was so enmeshed in the Socialist Party machine that at a crucial point it withdrew its support for the demand for a ‘March on Brussels’ which might have prevented the collapse of the strike. [4]

Mention must also be made of one European Trotskyist grouping with significant following that systematically attempted to avoid the errors listed above. This was the Voix Ouvrière group in France (banned in June 1968, its heritage was taken up by Lutte Ouvrière). Tracing its descent to a grouping which had refused any concession to nationalism during the German Occupation, and which had played a key role in the historic Renault strike of 1947, VO differentiated itself by a stress on the working-class as the agency for socialist revolution. This meant, on the theoretical level, a refusal to characterise the Eastern European satellites as ‘workers’ states’; and on the practical level an exclusive concentration on systematic implantation in the factories by means of regular factory bulletins, a refusal to get involved with the struggles of such groups as students and teachers, and a moralistic conception of party building, in-volving a vigorous selection of militants on the basis of total dedication and a complete break with ‘petty-bourgeois’ habits and life-style. As a result, VO combined a working-class base superor to that of any Trotskyist organisation in Eurppe, with a high degree of organisational routinism and theoretical sterility. [5]

The Rise of Maoism

The split between Russia and China, which from the middle of 1963 was to become open and increasingly bitter, led to a transformation of the face of the European left. The Chinese did not attempt to create a new International. But the creation of splits from existing Communist Parties and of pro-Chinese propaganda groups

was certainly useful to them in their struggle against Russia. [6] The way in which ‘Marxist-Leninist’ parties, groups arid circles sprang up in different countries from June 1963 onwards certainly suggests coordination from Peking, though no serious effort seems to have been made to unite the various competing grouplets in any given country.

It is hard to define Maoism as a coherent political doctrine, but its very incoherence helped to win it support from a variety of quarters. Mao’s praise of Stalin as against the ‘revisionist’ Khrushchev attracted CP members who felt the Parties had become soft since the death of Stalin; at the same time the model of the Chinese revolution and China’s rhetoric of support for ‘Third World’ struggles attracted many radicalised youth unable to identify with the working class at home.

Quite naturally, Maoism developed unevenly according to national circumstances. In Italy, the combination of a CP moving rapidly rightwards, a large peasantry in the South and the extreme feebleness of the Trotskyist tradition meant that Maoism made rapid gains. In France, where the CP was reluctant to ‘deStalinise’ and where Trotskyism had some small implantation, Maoism had much less political space to develop in. In Germany, where the political level was much lower, Maoism had to percolate slowly through the student movement but eventually became the biggest component of the far left. And in Britain, where Trotskyism had some base within the labour movement, Maoism never effectively got off the ground.

Politically, the main features of Maoism were as follows:

  1. Voluntarism. Official Chinese ideology, especially in the periods of the Great Leap Forward (1958) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 onwards) laid stress on the possibility of developing the Chinese economy by will alone, despite objective factors. Transposed into revolutionary strategy, this meant an emphasis on revolutionary will and initiative, and an underestimation of objective factors. This was a valuable corrective to the routinism and passivity which afflicted most pro-Moscow CPs; at the same time it meant a dangerous underestimation of the grip of reformism on the working class. Most Maoist tendencies took ultra-left positions, both on the question of electoral support for mass reformist parties in the absence of an alternative, and on the question of a serious strategy for fighting the trade union bureaucracy within the existing trade union machine.
  2. Populism. The experience of the Chinese revolution, where the working class played a very minor role, together with such Maoist theoretical constructions as the ‘bloc of four classes’, led the Maoists to dissolve the working class into a much broader and vaguer notion of the ‘people’. Once again this had a positive side. When certain intermediate groups – notably students – were taking the lead in struggle, the Maoists were quicker to adapt to the fact than the CPs or some Trotskyists. But the dangers of class-collaborationist politics are profound. At times of a low level of struggle these are merely grotesque – for example those French Maoists in 1965 who wanted to support de Gaulle for President (against Communist and Socialist backed Mitterand) in the name of a ‘National United Front’ with the ‘anti-American’ bourgeoisie. But as the struggle rises, the danger gets deeper: thus in Portugal, all the Maoist tendencies adopted a ‘stages’ theory of revolution which obscured the central question of workers’ power as an immediate task.
  3. Stalinism. Since they took their critique of Russia and the CPs from China, the Maoists had no criticisms going back before the 1953-56 period. This meant an uncritical adoption of political ideas from earlier periods of the Communist movement – for example, the characterisation of reformist parties as ‘social fascist’. It also meant an uncritical adoption of the Stalinist form of party – what had been, in a mass movement, a gross distortion of democratic centralism, became, in the case of tiny groups, a ludicrous application of bureaucratic and hierarchical rigidity.

Before 1968, the ability of the Maoists to intervene politically was very limited. Perhaps their most important intervention was in the building of Vietnam committees, clearly opposed to the pacifist and lobbying orientation of the CPs, in both France and Italy. In France the UJCML (Union of Marxist Leninist Communist Youth) tried to adopt a proletarian orientation by sending its student supporters to work as propagandists and agitators in the factories. Its populist orientation was summed up in the name of its paper Servir le Peuple (Serve the People).


The third political current that gained some significant support in Europe in the mid-sixties can loosely be described as Guevarism. It took its inspiration from the Cuban revolution, and especially the left turn in Cuban policy embodied in the creation of the Latin American Organisation of Solidarity (OLAS) in summer 1967; and from Che Guevara’s unsuccessful attempt to establish a guerrilla base in Bolivia, culminating in Guevara’s death in October 1967. The main theoretical reference points were Guevara’s various writings on guerrilla warfare and Regis Debray’s book Revolution in the Revolution? [7]

As with Maoism, the main impact of Guevarism was not its particular tactical conceptions (the guerrilla foco, etc.), as its general voluntarism. Guevara had dismissed the whole problem of ‘objective conditions’ with the assertion: ‘It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making the revolution exist; the insurrection can create them.’ [8] But whereas Maoism insisted on its historical credentials – Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao – Guevarism challenged the very idea of ‘revolutionary legitimacy’. In Cuba, Castro had made the revolution first, and discovered he was a Marxist later. Guevarism confronted the traditional problems of revolutionary politics – which is the revolutionary class, the relation of party and masses, the content of the socialist programme – not so much by solving them as by dismissing them as irrelevant.

The heirs of Guevara are the urban guerrillas who make their own heroism a solution to their impatience with the working class’

In some senses this insistence on ‘making the revolution’, as distinct from the arid theoretical arguments into which both Trotskyist and Maoist groups often lapsed was healthy and refreshing. It played a valuable role in attracting new layers of youth and students towards revolutionary politics. In Spain, for example, the FLP (Popular Liberation Front), founded in the late fifties, can be roughly characterised as Castroite or Guevarist. By the mid-sixties a Marxist current within the FLP led to the establishment of Accion Comunista, which developed a working class orientation.

In a period of rising struggle Guevarist ideas could be a valuable stimulus to initiative. But in a period of decline the same ideology leads to the dead end of individual terrorism; the last heirs of Guevara are the various urban guerrillas who make their own heroism a solution to their impatience with the working class.

The Rise of the Student Movement

Before 1968 none of these tendencies – Trotskyism, Maoism or Guevarism – had made any serious impact in the working class. Though the level of struggle was slowly rising from 1963, when there were big strikes by French miners and Italian engineers, working-class militancy was still predominantly economic and firmly in the grip of the reformist parties and unions.

But the student movement offered a fertile field for the development of revolutionary ideas. The student movement that began to develop throughout Europe from the mid-sixties represented a coming together of two themes. Firstly, the changing nature of the Universities in bourgeois society. The massive increase in the number of students admitted to higher education meant that a degree was no longer a passport to privilege in later life; at the same time the antiquated syllabuses and structures of the Universities clashed sharply with the interests and aspirations of the students.

Secondly, students were the first sector in society to become widely involved in mass anti-imperialist campaigns, especially against the war in Vietnam. The two issues – bourgeois education and imperialism – became inextricably combined through such questions as University involvement in military research and students’ democratic right to political organisation.

By 1968 a mass student movement had grown up in several European countries. The danger was, in the absence of any movement on the part of the working class, the evolution of theories that overestimated the role of students in the total revolutionary process. The populism and lack of clarity about the agency of revolution which, to a greater or lesser extent, affected all the main political currents on the revolutionary left, accentuated this problem.

The development of the student movement took different forms in different national contexts. In Germany, the SDS (Socialist German Student Federation) had its origins as the student section of the German Social-Democratic Party. The SDS was expelled from the party following the sharp move to the right at the Bad Godesberg conference: in 1959. The SDS built up its strength mainly around anti-imperialist campaigns, which led to it being largely isolated from the working-class movement, and hence a target for repression and victimisation by the right. In June 1967 a demonstration against the Shah of Iran led to the murder by police of a student demonstrator, Benno Ohnesorg. His funeral was a demonstration of 20,000 people, and for the next year the SDS grew rapidly. In April 1968 a fascist attempted to murder one of the SDS’s leaders, Rudi Dutschke, and there was a period of almost insurrectionary struggle, still, however, in almost complete isolation from the working class.

In France it was the rightward moves by the CP from 1965 onwards, as they sought electoral alliances with the Socialists and Radicals, which led to splits among its student organisation, with the emergence of both Maoist and Trotskyist currents.

In Italy the movement developed later than elsewhere in Europe, and only erupted with the occupation of Turin University late in 1967. But from then on it expanded rapidly – partly because the Italian CP, having observed the danger), of the dogmatic attitude to the student movement shown by the French CP, showed a much more conciliatory attitude to student radicalisation.

May 1968: The First Test

But the key turning-point for the European revolutionary left was the events of May-June 1968 in France. At the beginning of May student struggles in the University of Paris led to bitter battles between students and police. The students were clearly under the leadership of various revolutionary groups – Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist – and were sharply denounced by the Communist Party. The political crisis provoked by the students spilled over into a general strike with factory occupations involving ten million workers. But in the working class the CP still had an almost total grasp, and was able to divert a potentially revolutionary movement into economic demands and parliamentary elections. As the right regained control it outlawed all the main revolutionary organisations; most rapidly regrouped under new names.

The significance of the French events was that, for the first time for many years, the revolutionary left had won an audience beyond its immediate periphery. The CP was forced to polemicise, albeit in the most scandalously dishonest terms, with the ideas of the ‘ultra left’; the right launched a witchhunt against the threat from the extremists; and the mass media seized on the ideals of the revolutionaries as a trendy new topic to be distorted, and trivialised. All this posed the challenge, for the revolutionary left, of finding ways of speaking to a much wider audience.

The general strike had been a crucial test for the various currents on the revolutionary left who, for the first time had to try and live up to their pretentions to be mass leaders. Basically the various tendencies fell into two categories – those who operated primarily in the student milieu, and those with a working class orientation. The more or less anarchist Movement of the 22nd March, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was initially the main organising force among the students. However, as the situation developed, it had little to say beyond denouncing repression and in effect disappeared by the end of the strike. The Trotskyist (Mandel variety) JCR, while in theory having an orientation to the working class, in practice adopted the strategy of building a base among students before attempting to build seriously in the working class.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Trotskyist (Lambert variety) OCI [9], which took an abstentionist attitude to the student struggle, withdrawing its members in the middle of a crucial confrontation with the police. At the same time it must be said that the OCI were influential in launching the factory occupation at Sud-Aviation, which was to snowball into the general strike. The main Maoist groups likewise turned their back on the student struggle, even though their main source of membership was students, in order to propagandise at the factory gates.

The main lesson of the French events was the need for a revolutionary party which could have drawn together the fragmented opposition to the CP sell-out, and attempted to develop the mobilisation of the working class. In the short term, not surprisingly in view of their small size, none of the groups was up to this task. But the question now posed to all revolutionary groups in Europe was how to prepare for the next time.

The Rise and Fall of Spontaneism

The May events had also, of course, demonstrated the spontaneous revolutionary potential of the working class. The onesided assimilation of this experience led to the emergence of yet another current on the European left, which can best be labelled as ‘spontaneism’.

The theoreticians of spontaneism had nothing startlingly original to say. [10] They drew heavily on existing anarchist and syndicalist writings; Cohn-Bendit in particular took many of his ideas from the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, a libertarian split from French Trotskyism in the fifties which had produced some interesting studies on bureaucracy and alienation.

The basis of spontaneist politics was an underestimation of the grip of reformism and the ability of bourgeois society to reintegrate workers even after they had been through a high level of struggle. Amid the euphoria of May 1968 it was indeed hard to imagine that workers would return to their old ideas and patterns of life; but the next year or two were to show that this was indeed the case.

The logic of this was, first, the rejection of any need for a revolutionary party, which was seen as simply reproducing the bureaucratic structures of bourgeois society inside the revolutionary movement.

Secondly, in the short term a more serious error, spontaneism meant turning one’s back on the trade union organisations. The unions were seen as wholly conservative bodies which simply served to integrate workers into capitalist society (this was often coloured by a middle-class disdain for the ‘economistic’ concerns of the unions). But by trying to bypass the union machine, leftist groups were in fact opting out of the task of waging a political fight against the union bureaucracy.

Spontaneism was put to the test in Italy in the summer and autumn of 1969, when a wave of strikes, sometimes assuming a near-insurrectionary character, broke out, with the movement, for a time at least, clearly out of the control of the CP. Two spontaneist groupings, Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power), and Lotta Continua (Continuous Struggle) had some significant intervention in this period. While for a time the sort of demands they were raising – a workers’ and students’ assembly at FIAT, a rejection of delegate committees (‘we are all delegates’) and even, in the case of PO, the incomprehensible slogan ‘refusal of work’ – related to the high level of struggle, in the longer term their importance declined rapidly.

‘The question posed by the 1968 events in France to all revolutionary groups in Europe was how to prepare for the next time.’

The student movement, which in 1968 had seemed to be of impressive dimensions throughout Europe, was, by 1970, in a clear state of decline. The German SDS disbanded itself, giving birth to a number of Maoist sects. And as the real nature of the task ahead, the prolonged struggle against reformism, became clear, spontaneism as a political tendency began to fade. The major spontaneist tendency still with considerable influence is Lotta Continua in Italy. The opportunist dangers inherent within spontaneist politics have begun to show themselves in some of Lotta Continua’s more recent positions, which seem to show considerable illusions in the possibilities of such forces as the MFA in Portugal and the Italian Communist Party being pushed to the left.

Centrism in Crisis

But even if the spontaneist euphoria had dispersed, the crisis remained profound. In France in 1968 and in Italy in 1969, the working class had shown its strength and emerged undefeated. This posed an ominous threat to capitalism in a period when the post-war boom was showing its first signs of coming to an end. And the effects of the crisis began to make themselves felt in the existing centrist organisations and, to a lesser extent, in the mass reformist parties.

In both France and Italy the sixties had seen the development of centrist parties of some significance – the PSU (Unified Socialist Party) in France, and the PSIUP (Italian Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity) in Italy. Both were born from splits in the social democratic parties – in France over Socialist support for the Algerian war, in Italy over Socialist entry into a coalition government. Both had some parliamentary representation and membership numbered in thousands (far more than any revolutionary groups). Both existed on the uneasy frontiers between the horse-trading of the respectable left and dialogue with Marxism. Both fell prey to the crisis. In 1972 the majority of the PSIUP decided to liquidate into the CP, which it had been tailing for some time. And in the early seventies the PSU was riven by splits, losing its right wing to the newly reconstructed Socialist Party of Mitterand, and some of its left to the Ligue Communiste (Mandel Trotskyists) and to Revolution!

In Denmark there were somewhat similar developments. The VS (Left Socialists) had come into existence in 1967 as a split from the Socialist Peoples Party (itself a centrist anti-Moscow split from the CP) when the latter supported anti-working-class economic measures imposed by the Social Democrats. The VS soon became an arena for a variety of competing tendencies from Maoists to anarchists, and was inherently unstable. A Leninist current which developed within it gave birth to the KF (Communist League), which has subsequently tried to develop a factory-based organisation.

But if old centrist groupings were in crisis, new currents were emerging. Conflicts in the Italian CP over the class struggle at home and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia led, in 1969, to the emergence of the Il Manifesto group. This was able to launch a daily paper in 1970, and after merging, in 1974, with the PDUP (the minority of the PSIUP which did not enter the CP) it became clearly the biggest force to the left of the CP in Italy. While having certain pro-Chinese sympathies, Il Manifesto could not be characterised as Maoist. More important is its use of certain spontaneist formulations. While having a certain ultra-left appeal, these also indicate an opting out of the task of building a mass revolutionary party which could challenge the present power of the CP; this could, of course, make an eventual coming-to-terms with the CP easier. In the long term, the new centrism is unlikely to prove more stable than the old.

The Decline of Maoism

The events of 1968-69 were a spur to ultra-leftism, and Maoism as well as spontaneism profited greatly from the upsurge. At the beginning of the seventies Maoism was clearly the dominant tendency on the West European left in almost every country except Britain and France.

But Maoism has subsequently seen a downturn in its fortunes. A number of reasons can be given:

  1. Chinese foreign policy has become increasingly difficult for any serious revolutionary to defend. China’s support of repressive regimes in Pakistan, Ceylon, Iran, etc; its backing of the FNLA in Angola; the feting of mass-murderer Nixon in Peking – each was another nail in the coffin of dogmatic Maoism. It would seem that by 1976 only a masochist anxious to relive the experience of the Moscow trials or a trainee Jesuit could wish to be an uncritical supporter of the Chinese regime.
  2. As the crisis unfolds, the by-passing of existing mass organisations and the underestimation of reformism which characterised most Maoist groupings has been shown to be positively dangerous.
  3. The Portuguese events put the Maoist tendencies to the test and found them wanting. The worst of the Maoists (the MRPP) were led by the theory of ‘social fascism’ into objective support for the Socialist Party, while even the best (UDP) were still caught in the trap of the stages theory.

A look at the French Maoists after 1968 will illustrate some of the political limitations of the current. The 1968 crisis led to a regroupment of Maoists. The more orthodox followers of Stalin and Mao formed around the paper Humanité Rouge, which not only acted as a servile propaganda voice for China, but also neatly illustrated how ultra-leftism can come round full circle to the right. Thus in 1974 they proclaimed that the French CP leaders were ‘much more dangerous’ than Giscard d’Estaing, because of their support for capitulation to Soviet social imperialism. [11] And in 1975 it accused the CP of being the main cause of ‘subversive activity’ in the French army by ‘lulling vigilance in face of Moscow’s aggressive plans in Europe’. [12]

The more activist current regrouped around the Gauche Proletarienne (Proletarian Left) with its paper La Cause du Peuple (The People’s Cause). This tendency saw itself as reliving the Resistance to the German occupation, and borrowed some of its strategy and rhetoric from the spontaneists. As well as sending its student members to agitate in the factories, it openly encouraged acts of violence. Thus an article in La Cause du Peuple of 1969 proclaimed:

‘And when we want to, all together, we’ll kidnap you, we’ll spit in your throats and hang you – first by the feet, and if you don’t understand then, by the neck.’

Such adventurism on shaky foundations naturally invited repression, which the French state was not slow to provide. From 1973 onwards the Gauche Proletarienne went into decline, and when La Cause du Peuple reappeared after a year’s gap in November 1974, it offered self-criticism for its earlier impatience and indiscipline.

But the decline of dogmatic Maoism does not mean the end of Maoist influence in the European left. The late sixties saw the emergence of a current which can be loosely described as ‘semi-Maoist’. The most significant of these groups is the Italian Avanguardia Operaia (Workers’ Vanguard), which came into existence out of the struggles of 1968, a section of its leadership having come from the Fourth International. AO rejected the dogmatic sectarianism of the existing ‘Marxist-Leninist’ groups, and their uncritical support for every turn of Chinese policy; they also clearly rejected any identification with the Stalinist tradition. Their orientation was primarily to the working class, and to the building of shop floor committees. They grew rapidly, largely by a process of fusion with other localised groups, and by 1975 were strong enough to launch a daily paper.

Groups of roughly similar orientation to AO also came into existence in several other European countries. In France a section of the Fourth International split to form Revolution!, in Sweden the FK (Communist League) was formed, and in Switzerland a number of similarly-minded groups were federated by the Conference of Berne. Mention should also be made of Bandera Roja (Red Flag), a Maoist split from the Spanish CP. A considerable section of this organisation rejoined the CP in 1975.

From Sects to Parties

By the early seventies revolutionary socialists had gained a wider audience than they had known for many years, and the working class was slowly re-emerging on to the stage of history. The task was to grasp the new opportunities.

For the previous 20 years or more revolutionary groupings had been judged by the formal positions they took on historical and international questions (‘Where do you stand on the Russian question?’ etc.). Now such questions, while not irrelevant, were secondary. The main test facing any group was whether it could shake off the habits of isolation and sectarianism and involve itself in mass agitational work.

One natural response to the situation was a desire for unity, to go beyond the sterile barriers that had fragmented the revolutionary left. In the days following the May events, Lutte Ouvrière proposed a unification of all revolutionary tendencies in France with possibilities of broad internal discussion. The proposal did not bear fruit; nor did the extended discussions in the next year or two towards a more modest unification between LO and the Ligue Communiste. In Italy, however, Avanguardia Operaia made some advances by mergers with other localised groupings; and in the last year there have been moves to unification between a number of groupings on the Spanish left. [13]

To some extent the ability of revolutionaries to speak to a mass audience can be measured by conventional barometers such as elections. One indication that revolutionary consciousness has not totally vanished in France since 1968 has been the fact that in two Presidential election’s revolutionary candidates have succeeded in getting a small but significant vote. In 1969 Alain Krivine of the Ligue Communiste got 239,000 votes (1.05 per cent), and in 1974 Krivine and the LO candidate Arlette Laguiller got between them almost 700,000 votes, (2.69 per cent) with Arlette alone getting 2.33 per cent. [14] Equally significant were the gains made by AO and Il Manifesto in the 1975 local elections in Italy.

Another indication of sympathy for revolutionary ideas lies in mass demonstrations. When a young Maoist, René-Pierre Overney, was murdered by factory guards at the Renault factory in February 1972, a demonstration, variously estimated at 30,000 to 100,000 strong, was called at the initiative of the revolutionary left, despite the conspicuous boycotting of the CP.

All this goes to show that there exists, in France and Italy, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, a significant current open to revolutionary ideas. Yet, for the moment at least, no group has succeeded in building a mass revolutionary party. The various revolutionary groups are not to be condemned for this; but what they will stand or fall by in the present period is their ability to build bridges between themselves and that broader movement, bridges which will enable them both to influence that movement and to learn from its experience, bridges which will be crucial when the building of mass parties becomes an immediate prospect.

The form such bridges should take must vary greatly according to national circumstances and traditions, but in most European countries two of the key forms are:

  1. a mass revolutionary newspaper, which aims not only to make propaganda, but to agitate and organise;
  2. some form of rank-and-file organisation which seeks to bring together the most militant elements in the industrial struggle.

On both counts it would seem that at present (leaving aside Portugal), Italy has reached the highest level. No less than three revolutionary groupings – AO, Lotta Continua and Il Manifesto – have succeeded in launching daily papers. AO’s activity in building CUBs (Unitary Base Committees) as a form of autonomous rank and file committees in factories of Northern Italy is one of the most important aspects of its work.

Towards a new International

The revolutionary left throughout Europe – and the rest of the world – is still diverse and fragmented. If a new International is already an objective need in the world crisis, the concrete possibilities for establishing one in no way exist. There is neither a recognised and competent international leadership, nor a mass movement which can provide real feedback as to the viability of a political line. The futility of attempting to build an International from the top downwards on the basis of small groups is once again highlighted by the Portuguese experience.

Not only does the main claimant to the title of ‘Fourth International’ have two sections in Portugal, following different lines, but one of the two main factions of the international leadership is able to publicly accuse the other of conduct liable to ‘seriously discredit Trotskyism in the eyes of advanced workers not only in Portugal itself, but throughout capitalist Europe’. [15]

There is no apostolic succession, no historical continuity embodied in one chosen tendency. The regroupment necessary for the building of a new International can only take place as a result of several years of political debate, parallel to practical international cooperation.

Who is to take place in such a regroupment? There are a few small groups which share the general political framework of the International Socialists in Britain – for example, the Socialist Workers Movement in Ireland and the SAG (Socialist Workers’ Group) in Germany. [16] Clearly we have a duty to assist and encourage such groups. The practice and orientation of such groups as Avanguardia Operaia and Revolution! indicates they will probably be important elements of a regroupment, whatever the precise scenario may be. The important thing to be clear about is that the origins and abstract positions of a group can sometimes matter less than its orientation and practice. When the Third International was founded, it drew its forces from the ranks of both social democracy and anarcho-syndicalism, which had been deeply shaken by the crisis of the First World War. It may well be that in the coming few years such labels as ‘Maoist’ and ‘Trotskyist’ will give way to new differentiations.

There can be no blueprint for a revolutionary regroupment. But there are certain clear themes which will be central to such a process: for example:

  1. clear acceptance of the need to smash the bourgeois state and of the historical role of the working class;
  2. commitment to the building of revolutionary parties which are mass organisations and not sects;
  3. rejection of any stages theory of revolution;
  4. rejection of the manipulative and opportunist politics of the Stalinist tradition;
  5. a practical day-to-day orientation to the working class as it is and not as it might be.

The Portuguese revolution, the coming crisis in Spain, and the overall rise of working-class struggle will pose these questions in ever more concrete form. The next few years will show which tendencies will make history, and which will be recorded in the footnotes of history books.


1. With the exception of Portugal, a special case which has been dealt with at length in other IS publications, notably T. Cliff’s Portugal at the Crossroads (IS 81-82)

2. Partial exceptions are the followers of Bordiga in Italy, who had some small influence, but whose sectarianism and propagandism made them in many ways akin to the SPGB in Britain; and the French anarcho-syndicalists, who had some trade-union base, but some of whom became compromised with anti-communism in the Cold War period.

3. For an account see two articles by Duncan Hallas: Building the Leadership (IS 40), and Fourth International in Decline: from Trotskyism to Pabloism 1944-53 (IS 60).

4. Cf. Xavier Mourre, Belgium: Success Beyond bur Grasp (IS 4).

5. The tragedy is that a tendency which for so long insisted on the role of the working class has been unable to respond when the working class started to move. Thus Lutte Ouvrière’s monthly Lutte de Classe states (November 1975): ‘The Portuguese working class, in its great majority, has not yet reached the point of raising the problem of power – either openly or implicitly, at the level of concrete reality.’

6. For background to the situation of the International Communist movement at this time, see Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith (Pluto, 1974), chapters 7, 9, 10, 11.

7. Monthly Review, July-August 1967.

8. Guerrilla Warfare (New York 1961), p.15.

9. At that time affiliated with the SLL in Britain.

10. A typical contribution is G. & D. Cohn-Bendit, Obsolete Communism: the Left-Wing Alternative (Penguin, 1969).

11. Humanité Rouge, 20.6.74.

12. Cited Le Monde, 17.12.75.

13. At present, these seem to have broken down. However, in general one can say that there are better prospects for unity between localised groups which have been divided by geography and the limitations of clandestine work, than between groups which have a long history of mutual polemics behind them.

14. The Arlette Laguiller campaign was certainly a positive event for the French revolutionary left, showing a widespread sympathy for revolutionary ideas. The main criticism that must be levelled at LO is for its failure to give any organisational embodiment to this sympathy; since LO rejects peripheral and rank-and-file organisations, it has little to offer those who reject as yet the rigours of LO membership. The almost obsessive use of Arlette’s name and picture in LO propaganda scarcely compensates for this.

15. Pierre Frank, Livio Frank and Ernest Mandel in International Press, 8 September 1975.

16. Also groups in USA, Canada and Australia.

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