This is a collection of the English-language issues of the review Echanges from 1975-1996.
Introduction of Echanges
What 'Echanges et Mouvement' is
Echanges et Mouvement is not a group in the traditional sense of the word in the leftist milieu, but a network ; some elements of its history will allow us for a better understanding of its present positions. The Echanges network was established in 1975 by leftwing militants coming from various groups :
– several members of "Solidarity" the English group which were close to Joe Jacobs - expelled from this group for his defence of the importance of class struggle against the political line of the majority close to the positions of Castoriadis.
– some members of "I.C.O." (Informations Correspondance Ouvrières) the French group which disappeared in the aftermath of 1968 among discussions raising the same questions of the nature and the importance of class struggle.
– some members of "Daad en Gedachte" (Action and Thought) the Dutch council communist group
– a small group of militants in Belgium who had a publication called Liaisons.
All these militants were in contact for a reasonably long time and other scattered individuals or groups were connected to this core. The link between them was not only created on the groups’ publications or exchange of correspondence but also by relatively regular international meetings. One of these meetings provided the ideas and material for a pamphlet detailing their common position – The New Movement (december 1974). To keep alive these exchanges which had been built over years, these various groups and individuals decided to publish a bulletin giving information on class struggle and of the activities of leftwing groups in all countries : Echanges. The initial network was made up of all the contacts previously existing and gave everybody the opportunity to launch and to follow discussions on the evolution of capitalist society and of class struggle.
How is the Echanges bulletin created and for what purpose ?
At the beginning, those who participated in this project decided not to bother with the clarification of common standpoints (which usually accompanies the birth of a new group). It is the evolution of the project which revealed a sufficiently unified common approach.
This community expressed itself in the analysis of various class struggle phenomena which take place everyday. These were placed in the context of a more general understanding of the world (the phenomena included what many other people think of as individual forms of struggle or refusal which are in fact part of a collective movement : absenteeism, turnover, refusal to work, etc.
To achieve this aim, we have to be well informed on the conflicts and on the theories connected to them :
– the raison d’être of the bulletin is determined by the inadequacies of the official means of information regarding class conflicts and the exaggeration of the importance generally given to political and economic information (two ways of concealing and hiding the reality) ;
– we therefore have two major tasks. We must look for information concerning class struggles and make an informed choice amongst a mass of political, diplomatic and economical news ;
– we have few preconceived ideas which could limit our gathering of information and analysis. It is not what we think – including our opinion on class struggle – that matters, but what people actually do and the real meaning of these actions. We think we have to learn from these struggles and are reticent towards offering "advice" or "lessons". We consider such an attitude as an elitist concept created by those who seek to use and dominate workers struggles ;
– the Echanges bulletin aims to be more than just a means of spreading information. It is put together more like a collective letter to which each reader can contribute, according to his/her own possibilities and needs, in exchange for what he/she expects in return.
The basic principles of Echanges
A network, like any group or collectivity, is an organism which has its own life and evolution relative to society. Since 1975, people have left Echanges for various reasons and others have joined it (who did not have the same approach as the first participants). In 1980, some of us suggested that a text expresses the common positions of Echanges more clearly. The resulting theses cannot be considered as the Echanges platform but rather as an introduction to a debate. What follows is not the original text but the latest version updated at the end of 2002 :
1) In a capitalist society, the true contradiction is not one of ideas (revolutionary, reformist, conservative, reactionary, etc.) but one of interests. There is no kind of will or desire that can overthrow the production of commodities or abolish the wage system ; the system will only break down as a result of class struggle arising from the very position of the working class in the system of capitalist production.
2) According to a widespread opinion, the essential and necessary condition for what is defined as revolutionary behaviour or as a working class action is the existence of "class consciousness" and "unity" among workers. This view overlooks or misinterprets how action and consciousness influence each other. Workers don’t act as a "revolutionary class" because, first of all, they are or become "conscious" and "united". Consciousness and unity are not a pre-condition for struggle, but are created through struggle and are a result of this action. Social struggle itself transforms the mentality of the people involved. Their position as a class within capitalist society means that it is the mere defence of their own interests which will inevitably bring them into direct opposition with the fundamentals of the existing order. Such struggles are fought continuously and they are potentially revolutionary.
3) The development of class struggle with all its changing forms is therefore far more important than the development of so called revolutionary movements, regardless of the meaning given to the word "revolutionary".
4) Political practice or thought which opposes any form of exploitation is not a question of theoretical discussion and concepts but a question of class struggle and workers‘ action, actions which are the direct result of their daily exploitation.
5) Trade unions are institutions in capitalist society, and their function is to regulate the labour market. In order to do so, they have to keep a balance between workers‘ interest on the one hand in order to keep the workers‘support and the interests of capitalists on the other hand so as to keep the confidence of workers as well as their usefulness for management. The evolution of capitalism pushes the unions to take disciplinary and repressive actions against the workers more and more frequently.
Calls for rejecting the unions, for their support or for reforms have no meaning. It is more important to realise what their specific and concrete role is in the development of class struggle. One has to be clearly aware of the fact that the same rank and file workers who at one time support the unions, because they can use them due to these functions in the system, will oppose them in practice when their own interests force them to go against the present social order.
In general, we can say that, the development of class struggle has greatly reduced the possibility of mediation that unions pose and has created situations where workers find themselves permanently opposed to the unions, particularly in the highly developed countries. The same development of class struggle has rendered obsolete any kind of syndicalist project.
6) For similar reasons, it is useless to call for the rejection or support of parliamentarism. The fate of parliamentarism in the capitalism system depends exclusively on class struggle. Whatever the reason for those who want to call themselves revolutionaries not to participate in parliamentary work, or not to vote in an election, workers have other reasons for not going to go to vote. If they stay at home on election day, they do so because parliaments, parliamentary parties and politicians don’t have anything to say to them, because they have understood that none of the political parties are defending their interests, and that it does not make much difference to them if this party or that party is in office. On the other hand, workers who go to the poll and share parliamentary illusions will take part as readily as the absentees, in wildcat strikes or factory occupations. Both categories of workers behave the same way in practice, irrespective of their opinions and attitudes in elections and will do so without refering to a revolutionary theory concerning parliamentary activities.
7) The so-called revolutionary movements and revolutionary groups tend to be weaker and weaker and increasingly atomised. They are weak because workers are acting more and more for themselves and by themselves. They don’t want that their means of action and methods of struggle be dictated or taught by any sort of movement or group formed for this purpose, outside, or even inside, the working class. Class struggle exists and develops independently of revolutionary groups or movements. The level and size of the so called participation of revolutionary groups in individual struggles never determines or fundamentally influences the level and size of those struggles. We are individually involved in such struggles because we either belong to the collectivity involved in a particular struggle, or because we participate in the host of one or another of the host of temporary organisms created during a particular struggle and for that struggle alone. We consider that outside these struggles, our activity might serve through an exchange of information, discussions and the search for theoretical insights, but in no way through some uncalled for interventions.
8) If we wish to characterise the term revolution, we could say that the overthrowing of capitalism will only be the result of a total disintegration of all the organised forces of domination of the system, the formation of autonomous organisations through the workers’struggles and at the same time, the decline and disappearance of all kinds of practical form of organisation aimed at representing workers’interests and of all attempts to give these organisational forms an ideological expression.
What is Echanges today ?
We are not interested in conquering any organisation or being anyone’s "leadership". We are a small number of scattered participants located in many different places who write and distribute publications to 300-500 readers. Among them there are certainly not that many workers and many of our readers disagree with the various points developed in this political introductory presentation text.
The fate of Echanges will not only be the result of our involvement or of our activity, but also of the evolution of class struggle. Trying to build something else, using our will power alone, would be inconsistent with our view. A frequent criticism is that we would be mere spectators of class struggle. What we have said about ourselves contradicts this assertion ; we will add that being constantly involved or not in the development of class antagonisms is not a matter of our own choice.
Presently the most active in Echanges are located in Belgium, France, Netherlands, Italy, Spain and the USA