Ernest Germain

In Defence of Leninism:
In Defence of the Fourth International

II. The Danger of Opportunist Tail-Ending

13. Is Ultra-leftism Today the “Main Danger” Inside the Fourth International?

The rationale of the tendency struggle which the minority started in the Fourth International is that the world Trotskyist movement is threatened by the universal danger of “ultra-leftism.” Starting with the “guevarist” concept of “rural guerrilla warfare,” the FI majority is said to be rapidly turning away from orthodox Trotskyism in one field after another, supporting and extending “terrorism” into more and more countries, covering up for the “ultra-left” IMG (British section), turning its back upon the struggle for democratic demands in more and more countries, refusing to apply the transitional programme, etc., etc. The fact that these accusations are completely unfounded, does not need to be developed here in detail. “Rural guerrilla warfare” is neither the line of the 9th World Congress document, nor has it been applied up to now by any of our sections (including the Argentine section). Our support for the transitional programme and “Leninist combat party building” is a bit firmer, more principled and more applied in practice than that of some of the most prominent supporters of Comrade Hansen, as we shall have occasion to prove very soon. But what about the central thesis of “ultra-leftism” as a universal, or in any case the “main danger” facing the world Trotskyist movement?

There is no reason to deny that a sudden influx of thousands of new members – many of whom are of student origin – into revolutionary organisations, in a period of rising and not declining revolutionary tide certainly carries with it several political dangers, of which a mature leadership should be conscious and to which it should react in an appropriate way. Ultra-leftist tendencies are certainly one of these dangers. Wherever they manifested themselves – e. g., in the attitude of some British comrades to the slogan “Vote Labour” at the 1970 general elections; in the attitude of the Spanish comrades towards the struggle for democratic demands – the International leadership has reacted quickly and firmly. We shall certainly react in the same way in the future, if sections or groups inside sections want to revise in an ultra-left sense the programmatic, strategic or tactical legacy of revolutionary Marxism.

But ultra-leftism is by no means the only danger for groups which are in the process of rapid growth – especially not in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary situations. The large influx of new members into the Comintern after its first year of existence did not create exclusively or even mainly ultra-left, but rather opportunist deviations. There is a general logic about this, which Comrade Cannon has expressed admirably in his Letters from Prison:

“There is a somewhat disturbing consistency in the various issues raised or adumbrated by the opposition. In addition to the differences over perspectives, masked as a dispute over democratic demands, we hear the astonishing contention that the Fourth International must be on guard against the left danger. If the perspective is revolutionary, if we are witnessing the beginning of a great revolutionary upsurge, we must rather expect manifestations of the right danger in the sharpest form. That is a historical law.

“Leaving aside individual aberrations and judging by main currents, we see this law demonstrated over and over again in every new crisis. ‘Leftism’ is fundamentally a sickness of the labor movement at ebb tide. It is the produce of revolutionary impatience, of the impulse to jump over objective difficulties, to substitute revolutionary zeal and forced marches for the supporting movement of the masses. Opportunism, on the other hand, is a disease which strikes the party in the sharpest form at the moment of social crisis.”

And in an even sharper way, Comrade Cannon writes:

“In the light of historical experience, it seems incredible that anyone should see ‘leftism’ as the main danger at the beginning of the revolutionary crisis. If history teaches us anything, such a posing of the question must itself be characterized as an opportunist manifestation.” (James P. Cannon: Letters from Prison, Merit Publishers, 1968, pp.309-310).

The history of the FI during the last decade or more bears out this analysis. When the movement was isolated and stagnating, or growing very slowly, ultra-left tendencies came to the forefront. Most of the splits (Healy, Posadas) took place on an ultra-left basis. But as soon as the climate changed, as the isolation of the movement ended, the opportunist danger of adapting to the mass movement and tail-ending it, came to the forefront. Even the ultra-lefts of yesteryear – like Lambert and Posadas – turned into right-wing opportunists of the tailist variety. Likewise the big political betrayals by people claiming to be Trotskyists occurred in Ceylon (by the reformist LSSP) and in Bolivia by Lora not in the direction of ultra-leftism, but of right-wing opportunism and capitulation in the face of reformism and Stalinism.

The record, therefore, does not bear out the assessment of Comrade Hansen, of ultra-leftism being the universal danger menacing the Fourth International against which a merciless crusade must be organised. And if we look somewhat closer into the record of several tendencies, groupings or individuals who appear to be the staunchest supporters of Comrade Hansen’s crusade, we shall discover that they are guilty of not a few examples of crass right-wing opportunism and tail-endism, in direct opposition to some important principles and traditions of Leninism. And we shall find that Comrade Hansen, moved by his all-consuming passion to root out “ultra-leftism” has kept strangely quiet about these right-wing opportunist deviations, has not raised them at all in the international debate, has covered up for them and has entered, for all intents and purposes, into an unprincipled bloc with those who are guilty of them, against the “main sinners” who want to transplant “rural guerrilla warfare” into the factories of Paris, Turin, Liege or Birmingham.

14. Tail-Ending Reformism

The position which the LSA/LSO (Canadian section) leadership – and staunch supporters of the minority position on Latin America – has adopted towards the reformist social-democratic party, the NDP in its country, and its position on the October 30, 1972 general elections in Canada in particular, expresses a clear tailist deviation from Leninism. In a leaflet distributed on a large scale before these general elections, we can find the following gems:

“In order to bring about positive changes, we need a party that acts in our interests. The New Democratic Party is the only one that speaks for the majority – the working class and the other oppressed of society. It does not get any support from the E.P. Taylors. In fact, big business hates it. It is financed and supported by working people. It has been built by working people, struggling for a better life.

“The NDP is the only alternative to the status quo in this election. The Lewis attack on the ‘corporate welfare bums’ shows whose side the NDP is on. Because it is a party of the working people, the NDP has been deeply affected by the ongoing struggles of students, women, antiwar activists and other people fighting for a change. Its program includes free tuition for students, US out of Vietnam and an end to Canada’s complicity in the war, repeal of all anti-abortion laws, free community-controlled daycare centres.

“The Liberals and Tories can only block our struggles. The NDP can propel them forward. An NDP victory would inspire and intensify the different movements of the oppressed. A Labor government could win concrete gains for the working people, and open the way for fundamental social change.

“This is why we’ve got to campaign for an NDP government and use the 2.8 million new votes we hold to bring it about.

“The NDP has limitations. Its conservative leadership wants to reform this profit system, not end it. The leadership also sees the parliamentary road as the only way for change, and they sometimes even oppose demonstrations, mass meetings, strikes, etc.

“But you don’t get anything ready made. You can either stand on the sidelines and complain that even our party, the NDP, isn’t what it should be, or you can join the struggle to make it effective. In order to change the world, we must organise to see our needs fulfilled.” (my emphasis – E.G.)

It is true that this astonishing prose is only published in the name of the Canadian Young Socialists, and not in the section’s own name. But the prose of the Canadian section itself is hardly more edifying. Here is what we can ready in its central organ’s editorial on the general elections, entitled For the labour Alternative: Vote NDP Oct. 30!

“The NDP is a class alternative to the capitalist parties. Its election to power promises not only many needed reforms for working people and the poor; not only class legislation aiding the organisation of the unorganised workers and the bargaining struggles of the organised; not only legislation repealing discriminatory laws – but the election of NDP governments to power constitutes big strides in the path that the working class of this country are going to take towards breaking not only from capitalist electoral politics but from capitalism as a system.

“The working class and the oppressed in Canada, organised politically in a Labour Party based on the trade union movement is a powerful potential force against capitalism. Through the NDP, the lessons of the radi-calisation among youth, in the women’s liberation movement, the lessons of the Quebec and Native liberation struggles, are being transmitted to, discussed and debated among the advanced workers of the country. It is through the NDP that the political consciousness of the working class in Canada is being forged and shaped.

“That is what the profiteers and the bosses of this country fear. And that is what socialists support. Vote class. Vote NDP on October 30. Build the NDP.” (Labor Challenge, Sept. 27, 1972 – my emphasis – E.G.)

In a certain sense, the LSA/LSO appeal is even worse than the YS one. For while it prudently leaves out the most extreme pro-reformist formulations of the leaflet, it doesn’t even include the pious reference to the “conservative leadership” of the NDP and its parliamentary illusions. In fact, it doesn’t contain a single word of criticism of reformism and electoralism, not a single word of differentiation from social-democracy!

We are not dealing here with a hypothetical Labor Party, arising from a young rebellious and still partially democratic trade-union upsurge, similar to the one Trotsky projected in the late Thirties for the USA in relation to the rise of the CIO. We are talking about a social-democratic party, with a programme well to the right of even British social-democracy, not to speak of the French and Italian socialist parties. We are talking about politicians who abhor revolution, extra-parliamentary struggles for overthrowing capitalism, and whose horizon is totally limited to that of winning reforms within the framework of capitalist economy and the bourgeois state.

We are talking about people who are 100% in favor of class-collaboration politically, economically and socially. In the best of cases, a coming to power of the NDP would lead to what Trotsky called a miserable comedy, like the first MacDonald governments in Britain. If things go worse, it could lead to big defeats and demoralisation of the working class, if a powerful revolutionary party does not exist to lead the workers’ struggle beyond social-democratic reforms and towards socialist revolution.

All this is ABC for any Leninist, and any supporter of the Fourth International. Obviously, it is ABC for the leadership of the LSA as well. Why then do they write the exact opposite of what they believe on these questions? For “tactical” reasons? Is it part of Leninist “tactics” to hide the truth from the workers (leave alone the radicalised vanguard whom you can’t fool for a minute, and who don’t believe that reformist rubbish anyway)? Where did Lenin ever advise revolutionary socialists and communists to call social-democracy an “alternative” to the bourgeois status quo? Where did he ever say that big business hates social-democrats (does British capital “hate” Wilson, not to mention Roy Jenkins)? Did Lenin ever say that a social-democratic government would open up “the way for fundamental social change”? What is this strange animal anyway, supposedly different from a socialist revolution, in the epoch of imperialism? Did Lenin ever consider that political class consciousness grows inside the working class through a strengthening of the reformist mass parties? Isn’t it a serious deviation for a revolutionary socialist to seriously write that the election of a reformist government, which will manage bourgeois society and capitalist relations of production like all its counterparts have done since 1918, “constitutes big strides in the path of the working people ... towards breaking ... from capitalism as a system”? What has any of this in common with Leninism?

Of course, our criticism does not imply that it would be incorrect for Canadian revolutionary Marxists to call upon the workers and other oppressed layers of society to vote NDP. Lenin taught us to support social-democratic candidates in elections under certain conditions “like the rope supports the hanging man.” He specified that this task poses itself especially when it is a question of winning a majority of the workers to a communist party which has already set itself upon the road to such a conquest. He underlined that before setting upon that course, it is imperative to assemble, steel and educate the vanguard. And he specifically lay down the conditions for denouncing reformism which had to accompany any such electoral support, lest it lead the masses closer to the reformist fakers, the labor lieutenants of capital (to whom our comrades in Canada now refer to, for shame, as “the party of the working people”!) instead of helping them to free themselves from reformist illusions and traitors:

“If we are not a revolutionary group, but the Party of the revolutionary class, if we want the masses to follow us (and unless they do, we stand the risk of remaining mere tallers) we must first help Henderson or Snowden to beat Lloyd George and Churchill (or to be more correct: to compel the former to beat the latter, because the former are afraid to win); secondly, help the majority of the working class to become convinced by their own experience that we are right, i.e., that the Henderson’s and Snowden’s are utterly worthless, that they are petty-bourgeois and treacherous and that their bankruptcy is inevitable; thirdly, bring nearer the moment when, on the basis of the disappointment of the majority of the workers in the Hendersons, it will be possible with serious chances of success to overthrow the government of the Hendersons at once ...

“... The Communist Party should propose to the Hendersons and Snowdens that they enter into a ‘compromise,’ an election agreement, viz., to march together against the alliance of Lloyd George and the Conservatives ... while the Communist Party retains complete liberty to carry on agitation, propaganda and political activity. Without the latter condition, of course, no such bloc could be concluded, for that would be an act of betrayal; the British communists must insist on and secure complete liberty to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years, 1903-1917) the Russian Bolsheviks insisted on and secured it in relation to the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.” (V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Coop Publishing Society of Foreign Workers, Moscow 1935, p.84.)

And further:

“If I as a Communist come out and call upon the workers to vote for the Hendersons against Lloyd George, they will certainly listen to me. And I will be able to explain in a popular manner not only why Soviets are better than parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (which is concealed behind the signboard of bourgeois “democracy”), but I will also be able to explain that I wanted to support Henderson with my vote in the same way as the rope supports the hanged – that the impending establishment of a Henderson government will prove I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will accelerate the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens as was the case with their friends in Russia and Germany.” (Ibid., pp.86-87.)

In other words: while Lenin posed as a condition for a call to vote labour the simultaneous denunciation of their leaders as worthless, petty-bourgeois and treacherous, moving towards inevitable bankruptcy; while he called upon the British Communists to use the hearing they could get from Labour workers to make communist propaganda in favor of workers democracy and Soviets, against parliamentary and reformist illusions, the Canadian section of the Fourth International, while calling on the workers to vote NDP, abstains from any such revolutionary propaganda, and indeed increases the hold of reformism upon the workers by presenting things as if a “fundamental social change” and “breaking from capitalism as a system” could be conquered by the masses through an electoral victory of the NDP. How, under such circumstances, these same masses could be capable of breaking with reformism after their experience with the bankruptcy of an NDP government, and how they could be won over to revolutionary Marxism remains a mystery.

The trend of the electoral policies of the LSA/LSO is clear. It can be summarised in one formula: tail-ending reformism.

15. Tail-Ending Electoralism

We have already dwelt, in the first section of this document, on the ways in which the military dictatorship of General Lanusse decided to switch from a policy of increased repression to a policy of diverting the mass movement towards electoral goals, and the way in which it tried to use the Peronist union and party bureaucracy, as well as the personality of Juan Peron itself, to eliminate the one threat which was uppermost in its mind: that the toiling masses would in increasing numbers take to the streets, that the general strikes would become semi-insurrectional or even insurrectional general strikes, and that in this way the overthrow of capitalism and of the bourgeois state would become an immediate possibility.

In that precise situation, the group of Comrade Moreno choose to make participation in the elections called by the Lanusse regime its main immediate goal and the main line projected before the mass movement. There is of course nothing wrong on principle in participating in bourgeois elections, even under dictatorial regimes, under rigged election laws and under conditions where real power – even formal political power – remains firmly in the hands of the military. After all, the Bolsheviks also participated in some of the Duma elections under conditions of Tsarist autocracy. Nor is such participation in itself a matter of principle either. Whether to participate at all, under which conditions to participate, is entirely a matter of tactics depending on the concrete analysis of the concrete situation in the country, the relationship of forces between the contending classes, the needs of the mass movement, etc.

But in order to be principled, participation in such elections must be used as a means of telling the truth to the toiling masses. Telling the truth does not mean advancing only some economic demands and making general propaganda for socialism, but also to denounce the very existence of the dictatorship and to denounce the fake character of the “elections” being organised by the military dictatorship. To remain silent about the existence of the dictatorship – under the pretext that in this way you ‘gain’ the possibility of legal propaganda – is an unacceptable concession to electoralism. Marx and Engels denounced it in German social-democracy, when that party, in order to comply with reactionary legislation kept quiet about the undemocratic imperial structure of the German Reich. The Bolsheviks – in contradiction to the Mensheviks – did not simply demand a constitution, but when they participated in the elections for the Fourth (1913) Duma, raised as their first slogan: “Down with tsarism. Long live the democratic republic.”

When the Verdad group absorbed the skeleton “Socialist Party” of Corral, which was entirely without mass influence or even membership, with the only purpose to get a legal basis for participation in the Lanusse elections, it published several platforms both for its own campaign and its proposals for the mass movement. In none of these was the fraudulent character of the elections – which violate on many counts even the official reactionary bourgeois constitution of Argentina – denounced. This led to the sad spectacle of Avanzada Socialista interviewing the trade-union leader Tosco, just released from prison, asking him what he thought about the idea of a workers slate in the elections, and receiving the answer from Tosco that first of all one had to say that these were fraudulent elections. Trotskyists being taught such an elementary lesson by a CP sympathiser. What a humiliating experience for comrade Moreno!

The key question on which Avanzada Socialista has been harping incessantly since the takeover of the Corral PSA by the Verdad group (now known as the PST) has been the need for independent working class candidates in the coming elections. Again, there is nothing wrong in principle with such a propaganda theme. But whether it should or should not be the main axis of the political activity of revolutionary marxists depends entirely on the objective situation and the dynamics of the class struggle. The Communist International did not dream of making that the main issue in Germany or Italy 1919, because the central question thrown up by the stage reached at that time by the class struggle in these countries was not independent working class politics as against workers supporting bourgeois parties, but it was socialist revolution, i. e., revolutionary as against reformist policies. One can hardly visualise Trotsky explaining to the French workers in April 1936 or to the Spanish workers in January 1936 that the key solution to their problems was the setting up a “workers and socialist pole” in the coming elections (which were held under conditions of bourgeois democracy much freer and more advanced than those of Argentina today). The task of revolutionary marxists under such conditions is to increase the distrust of the masses towards bourgeois elections and bourgeois parliaments, is to explain to them that their key orientation should be towards extra-parliamentary mass actions not only for immediate economic demands but also for solving all their political problems.

In our opinion, the misjudgement of the objective situation in Argentina and the dynamics of the class struggle which comrade Moreno’s fraction and later his independent organisation have been guilty of in 1967-1968 shows itself rather revealingly in the fact that under the present circumstances – when he himself recognises the situation as pre-revolutionary – he makes the question of independent working class candidates in fraudulent elections under a decaying military dictatorship and not the question of how to overthrow the dictatorship (how to generalise the Cordobazos into an Argentinazo), the main axis of his political activity.

As late as May 18, 1970, La Verdad wrote commenting on the various concessions made by the dictatorship to the masses:

“It is certain that with these measures it tried to isolate and slow down for a few months the process of mobilisations which had reached an explosive stage. But as we warned repeatedly in our paper, far from being in retreat, the working class continued its upsurge during these months, learning from the experiences of May, June and September (1969) and started to tackle the two great tasks which have to be solved so that the next Cordobazo could become a triumphant insurrection in the whole country: to win the proletariat of Buenos Aires and the rest of the country for the mobilisation, and to fundamentally build a class leadership, to replace the treacherous bureaucrats and lead the working class and the people in its merciless struggle against the government and the employers.”

Although the formulations are incomplete, they give a much more correct orientation than the turn towards a “workers and socialist pole” in the elections. How was Argentina ripe for generalised insurrection in May 1970 and not ripe in the beginning of 1972?

Nevertheless it is a matter of principle to educate the working class on the necessity of organising independently from all political parties and machines of the bourgeois class. Proclaiming that correct principle can only be welcomed. One therefore would tend to agree with the draft minority document written by comrades Moreno and Lorenzo where it states:

“At the same time the illusions among the masses concerning Peron and Peronism constitute a standing danger to our own movement, since our own ranks cannot be sealed off from the milieu in which they work. This requires absolute clarity on the nature of Peronism and constant alertness to its invidiousness. “This problem is well understood by the PRT (La Verdad) in view of the rich experience in mass work in organisations dominated by Peronism. The PRT (La Verdad) teaches its members in the Marxist tradition of insisting on the independence of the working class movement against any and all blocs with the national bourgeoisie. Precisely because of the opening which has been developing on the electoral front, the PRT (Verdad) has been stressing its opposition to any populist, nationalist or popular-front formation that seeks to induce the workers into turning away from independent action and voting for bourgeois candidates as in the case of the Frente Ampilio in Uruguay or the Unidad Popular in Chile.” (International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Jan. ’73, pp.38-39)

But hardly had the ink dried on the mimeographed copies of comrades Moreno and Lorenzo’s draft presented to the December 1972 IEC, when briefly, Peron, returned to Argentina and was greeted by a big wave of mass enthusiasm as could easily have been foreseen. The Verdad group immediately bowed under Peronist mass pressure, contrary to all its lofty and principled proclamations. The November 15th, 1972 issue of Avanzada Socialista appeared with a headline covering the whole first page: “GENERAL PERON: Let Him Propose a Plan of Struggle and 80% (sic) workers’ Candidates.” The main article in the paper, under this headline, ended as follows:

“There are peronist comrades who, while accepting this danger [that Peron aligns himself with the right-wing bureaucracy of the CGT under Ricci – E.G.] say that Peron has been forced into that position, he has been encircled by trade union bureaucrats and by Campora and Osindi. We believe that unfortunately that is not true, and that fundamentally Peron defends the employers and accepts the agreement consciously. But even if these comrades were right and we were wrong, the way out for the labour movement can only be the following one.

“Let us demand from Peron a plan of struggle for a wage increase of 50.000$ and a minimum wage of 120.000, readapted every two months, and against unemployment!

“Let us ask him that he keeps open 80% of the candidates of the Partido Justicialista [Peron’s party – E.G.] so that the workers can themselves elect their candidates!

“If the fault doesn’t lie with Peron, we shall thereby help him to break the encirclement by the bureaucrats. If unfortunately things are like we believe them to be, the workers themselves should impose the plan of struggle and the workers candidates.”

So it was sufficient only for Peron to make a brief trip to Argentina for all the big pledges in favour of working class independence to be forgotten and for the presentation of 80% workers candidates by the bourgeois Justicialista Party, which stands for class collaboration and class peace, and never had any Marxist, socialist, not to say revolutionary, communist plank in its programme, to be presented as the “only way for the Argentine labour movement.” The logic of tail-ending, and of tail-ending electorism, is harsh indeed!

This is no isolated accident in the history of the Moreno group. There is another example of Comrade Moreno dabbling in electoral popular fronts: the case of the Uruguayan grouping (PRT–U) participating in the ill-famed Frente Amplio during the 1971 general elections. The minority draft presented to the December 1972 IEC publishes a couple of embarrassed paragraphs on this subject, which can only be called distorting facts by omission.

While the authors of that draft correctly remind us that comrade Hansen wrote – a rather mild – criticism of that opportunist manoeuvre, they fail to mention:

  1. that the United Secretariat of the Fourth International condemned outright this form of class collaboration, which implied calling upon the Uruguyan workers to elect bourgeois general Serengi as President of the Republic.
  2. that the PRTU is led by a member of the central committee of the Verdad grouping – a “cadre of long standing” of the organisation led by comrade Moreno as was stated by the latter at the December 1972 IEC.
  3. That La Verdad had publicly supported that opportunist maneuver before, during and after the event and, to our knowledge never corrected that mistake in public.
  4. that the chief justification for the participation of a group claiming to be Trotskyist in a popular front with one of the main bourgeois groupings of Uruguay was the excuse that without supporting the Frente Amplio slate it would have been “technically impossible” to present “Trotskyist candidates” in the elections. This is, once again, a typical case of tail-ending electorism, where the participation in the elections becomes a goal in itself, blown up to the point where it takes precedence over matters of programmatic principles. In fact this very same argument of electoralist expediency was used by the POUM in 1936 to justify its participation in the Spanish Popular Front – we all know with what disastrous effects.

16. Tail-Ending a New “Stage-Theory” of the Revolution

The tendency towards opportunist tail-ending has manifested itself in the Canadian section not only through its attitude towards social-democracy but also via its attitude towards the national question in its own country. In the September/October 1972 issue of Liberation, the organ of the LSO, we find the following statements signed by Comrade Alain Beiner, in relation to a recent split which occurred within the LSO:

“Au contraire des positions de Lénine et Trotsky sur la lutte nationale d’un peuple opprimé, la tendance refusait de soutenir inconditionellement le nationalisme québécois. La tendance n’acceptait pas la théorie de la Révolution permanente formulée par Trotsky et confirmée par la Révolution russe; selon laquelle la bourgeoisie nationale d’une nation opprimée (comme le Québec) est incapable a cause de sa dépendance de 1’impérialisme mondial, de rompre tout lien avec lui pour diriger une lutte de libération nationale a bonne fin centre 1’oppression étrangère. Pour la tendance les ‘dangers’ d’une ‘récupération facile’ du nationalisme et des luttes nationales au Québec par la bourgeoisie et ses partis (comme le PQ) primaient sur la portée tout à fait révolutionnaire de la lutte d’émancipation nationale.” [1]

We shall deal furthermore with the completely non-Leninist identification of “national liberation” or “the right of self-determination of nations” on the one hand, and “nationalism” on the other hand. Let us first of all clarify what is programmatically wrong in Comrade Beiner’s summary of what he thinks to be Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution, and what is in reality a revision of that very same theory.

Is it true that, because the national bourgeoisie is dependent upon imperialism, it is unable to break all ties with imperialism and therefore cannot lead a victorious struggle against foreign oppression? This is completely wrong. The struggle against national oppression is not an anti-capitalist struggle. It is a struggle for a bourgeois-democratic demand. The existence of the world capitalist system is not an absolute obstacle to the overthrow of national oppression, under conditions of imperialism. Indeed, in the very debate with Rosa Luxemburg in favour of the support for the right of self-determination of oppressed nationalities, Lenin pointed out that it was not impossible for this right to be gained in the struggle, before the overthrow of world imperialism. In fact, from the case of Norway cited by Lenin, to that of Poland and Finland who conquered their national independence in 1918, to that of most of the former colonial countries of Asia and Africa who conquered independence after 1947, the history of the 20th century has confirmed that it is not necessary to “break all ties with imperialism” in order to eliminate foreign national oppression.

Of course, under imperialism – especially in its epoch of decay – the struggle against national oppression becomes more and more difficult on a global scale. New forms of national oppression arise constantly, even when old ones are partially eliminated. Where foreign national oppression is eliminated, foreign economic exploitation remains and increases. The inability of the national bourgeoisie to start a process of cumulative industrialisation makes it in many cases impossible to create a national market and thereby to bring to an end the process of formation of a classical nation in the historic sense of the word. But all this raises questions which are far beyond the realm of “foreign national oppression.” To say that India, Indonesia or Nigeria, not to speak about Brazil, Argentina, Finland or Turkey, are today countries in which foreign national oppression by imperialism reigns would be obviously misleading.

Trotsky never stated that in the epoch of imperialism, the “national” bourgeoisie in a backward country is unable to begin waging a struggle for some of the historical demands of the bourgeois democratic revolution. On the contrary, he stressed time and time again that the beginning of such a struggle under bourgeois or petty-bourgeois leadership was nearly inevitable. Such was the case not only in Poland and Finland, but in nearly all the colonial countries of Asia and Africa. Where he opposed himself sharply to “marxist orthodoxy” as it had been represented up to 1906 by the whole of international social-democracy was in his understanding that it was basically wrong to separate different revolutionary tasks as if they presented themselves in different successive stages of mass struggle. The theory of the permanent revolution was born from the discovery of the law of uneven and combined development, i.e., of the combination of tasks with which the masses in a backward country are simultaneously faced under conditions of imperialism.

The discovery of this law of uneven and combined development results from an analysis of the sum total of social and economic relations which prevail in these countries in the 20th century. The national bourgeoisie is not only tied to imperialism but also to the landlord-moneylender-compradore class. The national question is not the only key question of the bourgeois democratic revolution which remains unfulfilled in backward countries in the 20th century. Apart from the question of democratic political rights of the toiling masses and of initiating a process of cumulative industrialisation, there is the decisive question of the agrarian revolution. But when the peasant masses rise to overthrow the landlords-usurer-merchant alliance, they not only often attack direct property (capital investments) of the “national bourgeoisie” too, but they also create in the country a revolutionary situation which challenges the rule of propertied classes in general, thereby assisting the challenge of the proletariat against the private property of the national bourgeoisie itself.

All these reasons have to be added to the “national” bourgeoisie’s links with imperialism in order to understand why, while it can certainly start the struggle for some demands of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, it cannot fulfil them all, especially not the agrarian revolution and the break with the capitalist world market as a necessary precondition for a cumulative industrialisation process. More: because it fears mass uprisings of peasants and workers, and because the process of revolution, even when it starts around the demand of national independence, inevitably will bring large masses of peasants and workers to struggle for their own immediate and historic class demands, the “national” bourgeoisie will inevitably go over to the camp of the counter-revolution at some stage of the struggle. Therefore the choice before the revolution in a backward country is either the victory of counter-revolution, if the “national” bourgeoisie remains in the leadership – and in that case essential parts of the historic tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution remain unfulfilled – or the conquest of hegemony in the revolutionary struggle (i.e., over rural and urban petty-bourgeois masses) by the proletariat and its independent revolutionary party. In that case the revolution can triumph. Through the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat allied to the poor peasantry it will combine the thorough realisation of the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution with the fulfillment of the essential tasks of the proletarian socialist revolution.

This whole analysis of concrete social forces and their mutual inter-relations hinges precisely upon the refusal to separate any stage of “national liberation” from a subsequent “stage” of agrarian revolution, and a still later stage of “independent working class struggle.” The whole essence of the theory of permanent revolution derives from the understanding that all these tasks are combined and intertwined from the beginning of the revolutionary process, as the result of the class reality and the class relations prevailing in these countries.

It was the Comintern leadership under Stalin-Bucharin which formulated the theory of a “first stage of national liberation struggle,” hi which the “main” enemy was supposedly foreign imperialism, and in which for that reason the struggles of the workers against capitalist property, and the struggle of the peasants against the class alliance of their exploiters, had to be subordinated to the “common and most pressing goal” of conquering national independence. Revolutionary marxists do not reject this Menshevik theory of stages only or mainly because they stress the inability of the national bourgeoisie to actually conquer national independence from imperialism, regardless of concrete circumstances. They reject it because they refuse to postpone to a later stage the peasant and workers uprisings for their own class interests, which will inevitably rise spontaneously alongside the national struggle as it unfolds, and very quickly combine themselves into a common inseparable programme in the consciousness of the masses.

It has become the Stalinist line towards the colonial revolution that there has been after 1945 a “stage of national liberation struggles,” which is supposed to solve the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, as it remains common Stalinist theory that the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” was fulfilled in Russia in February 1917, thereby opening the stage for the “socialist October revolution.” Trotsky and Trotskyists categorically reject this theory of “stages.” The tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution cannot be reduced to national independence or the suppression of foreign national oppression, any more than they can themselves be separated into successive stages. It is because the agrarian question was not solved by the February revolution, in spite of the overthrow of the tsar, that the October revolution was objectively possible, i.e., that the proletariat was not isolated from the great majority of the peasantry. It is because the agrarian question is not solved today in any of the semi-colonial countries which conquered national independence after World War 2 that in spite of the minority situation of the proletariat, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat allied to the poor peasantry remains a realistic perspective.

For that reason, it is confusing, to say the least, to present any revolution in a backward country – be it the Algerian revolution, the Cuban revolution, the Vietnamese revolution, the Palestinian or the Arab revolution – as a “national liberation struggle.” The Trotskyist way of looking at these revolutions is as processes of permanent revolution in which the struggle for national liberation, for agrarian revolution, for full democratic freedoms for the masses, and for defence of the class interests of the working class are inextricably combined and intertwined, whatever may be the aspect of that struggle which appears in the forefront (and very often appearance and reality are at variance with each other. In South Vietnam, to take that most telling example, the liberation struggle of the peasantry against their exploiters has probably mobilised more people and covered more ground since the early fifties than the struggle against foreign counter-revolutionary imperialist intervention).

If we reject any theory of stages even ini backward colonial and semi-colonial countries, we have to reject them all the more in advanced imperialist countries, in which unsolved problems of national oppression survive or newly arise. As Trotsky pointed out in The Transitional Programme, even in fascist countries, a revolutionary programme should base itself on the dialectics of the class struggle, and not on episodic aspects of the political superstructure:

“Of course, this does not mean that the Fourth International rejects democratic slogans as a means of mobilising masses against fascism. On the contrary, such slogans at certain moments can play a serious role. But the formulas of democracy (freedom of press, the right to unionise, etc.) mean for us only incidental or episodic slogans in the independent movement of the proletariat and not a democratic noose fastened to the neck of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie’s agents (Spain!). As soon as the movement assumes something of a mass character, the democratic slogans will be intertwined with the transitional ones; factory committees, it may be supposed, will appear before the old routinists rush from their chancelleries to organise trade unions ...” (p.44 of the 1939 edition by the SWP) (our stress)

Neither in imperialist countries with a fascist regime, nor in imperialist countries which, under conditions of decaying bourgeois democracy witness phenomena of oppressed national minorities within their boundaries, can there be any “stage” of “democratic revolution,” of “national liberation,” separate and apart from the general upsurge of the proletariat which represents the majority of the population of these countries. The “formulas of democracy” (and national liberation is a formula of democracy) becomes intertwined with proletarian, objectively socialist goals, as soon as the movement assumes a mass character. The experience of Quebec admirably bears out this prediction of Trotsky’s: As soon as a significant (although still minority) sector of the Quebecois working class was drawn into large mass actions, the nature of the mass movement took on more and more clearly defined proletarian, i.e., objectively revolutionary socialist aspects.

The public service employees organised a general strike in May 1972. Examples of workers control – probably the most advanced ever seen in North America – arose. Radio stations were seized and occupied by the workers and transformed into weapons of strike propaganda. Even a whole town was seized by the strikers for more than 48 hours. Yet prisoners of their backsliding into a new version of a theory of stages, the editors of the July/August 1972 issue of Liberation blandly present in a huge headline this issue general strike as an example of “the struggle of the Quebecois for national liberation” on the same level and in the same spirit as the “patriots rebellion” of ... 1837!

There is no justification for comrade Mill’s group’s split from the LSA-LSO. In our view, comrades who have serious differences with the majority line of their national sections should fight for their political views inside these sections.

But this being said, objectivity demands to state unequivocally that Comrade Mill has been proved right against the majority leadership of the Canadian section in both instances where he differed with it on the national question. He requested the section to take up the demand for an independent Quebec several years before the leadership came around to that position. Thereafter he requested the leadership to acknowledge the dynamics of the class struggle in Quebec, which he understood correctly to be the most advanced in North America, and to combine more and more in its propaganda and its agitation socialist with national demands. In the first instance, the leadership of the section stubbornly refused to raise the independence slogan till the very eve of the outbreak of an independentist mass movement. In the second instance, the leadership of the section stubbornly clung to the concentration on the language slogans in spite of a general strike of 200,000 workers with the appearance of workers control.

In both cases the roots of the mistake are evident: tail-endism. The majority leadership of the LSA-LSO waited till the masses had already clearly shown a given “mood” before they were ready to adapt their slogans to that mood. This is, to say the least, a bizarre application of the concept of a “Leninist vanguard party.” Should the main distinctive quality of communists inside the mass movement not be the one to understand and spell out the direction in which the movement has to develop because of its objective logic, and the historical class interests which it represents, rather than to wait until the masses spontaneously discover this logic and start to act upon it, before daring to unfold it before their eyes?

In its so-called Action Programme, of July 1972, which the LSO leadership never officially repudiated, the reversal to a new edition of the Menshevik “theory of stages” of the Quebecois revolution is pushed to its logical extreme. The programme culminates in the demand for a “democratic republic,” complete with blueprint how to organise bourgeois democracy (with a president of the Republic, a National Assembly and the like) in Quebec.

And this under circumstances where, as that same LSO leadership admits, “since 1970, the fiercest attacks on the Quebec working class’s standard of living and rights have been made by the Quebec bourgeoisie and the Quebec government” (Draft Quebec resolution submitted to the Political Committee of the LSA-LSO, Discussion Bulletin of the LSA-LSO, December 1972, p.6).

Presumably, what the Quebecois Trotskyists should concentrate their fire on, is not this fierce attack of the Quebec bourgeois against the workers’ interests, but the “inability” of those “national traitors,” the bourgeoisie, to cut themselves loose from imperialism in order to create an independent bourgeois state of French Quebec. That is the logic of tail-ending a new “stage-theory” of the revolution.


1. The following is the English translation from the French:

“Contrary to the positions of Lenin and Trotsky on the national struggle of an oppressed people, the tendency refused to support Quebec nationalism unconditionally. The tendency did not accept the theory of permanent revolution, formulated by Trotsky and confirmed by the Russian Revolution, according to which the national bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation (like Quebec), owing to its dependence on world imperialism, is incapable of breaking all imperialist ties in order to lead a national liberation struggle against foreign oppression to a successful conclusion. For the tendency, the dangers of an ‘easy cooption’ of nationalism and the national struggles in Quebec by the bourgeoisie and its parties (like the PQ) outweighed the thoroughly revolutionary significance of the struggle for national emancipation.”

Last updated on 9.10.2005