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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

The Fourth International

NOT the least of the complications in understanding the divisions on the British left is the international allegiance of many such groups to rival bodies which all confusingly describe themselves as the Fourth International.

The original Fourth International was established in 1938 by Trotsky and his supporters, in the expectation that the approaching war would produce a revolutionary upsurge on the scale of that which followed World War I. Trotsky had shared Lenin’s regret that they had done so little to build an international movement prior to 1914. Next time, he was determined that such an organisation, however small, would be there to connect with the coming struggles. By 1947, it was clear that the outcome of the war had been very different from that following the previous conflict, and that a new analysis was necessary. The capitalist world was embarking on the biggest boom in its history, and Stalinism had extended its boundaries to include much of Eastern Europe. Even Communist Party writers now accept that the ice-pick wielded by Stalin’s agent Ramon Mercador stopped Trotsky’s brain from functioning, but opinions differ on the reasons for the malfunctioning of his followers’ brains.

Some of the best of them, such as Marcel Hic and Abram Leon, were murdered by the Gestapo or perished in the concentration camps. Others, dismayed by the bleakness of the prospects for socialism, fell away. The strongest remaining section of the International, the (American) Socialist Workers Party, was already highly bureaucratic and convinced that the coming American revolution would soon sort out the movement throughout the world. Its influence secured the leadership of the International for Michel Raptis (Pablo), a capable underground organiser during the German occupation, whose contribution to political theory consisted of spraying a dense fog of sub-Marxist language over whatever opportunist practice was convenient. The young Ernest Mandel played Burke to his Hare, and the Fourth International enjoyed a peaceful existence for a few years, with an influence confined mainly to Paris.

Pablo eventually tired of his sleepy existence, became resentful of his American puppet-masters, and tried to dance on his own. He reacted to the geographical expansion of Stalinism and the continuing strength of the communist parties in Western Europe by arguing that the Stalinist regimes, with all their defects, were revolutionary and that Trotskyists should moderate their opposition and function as a discreet opposition within the communist parties. In the early 1950s, Pablo’s schemes seemed to offer a reasonable prospect of survival for European neo-Trotskyism. He was not to know that Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s denunciation of his crimes were to make capitulation to Stalinism unprofitable as well as unprincipled. His more immediate problem was that his notions, however serviceable for his own purposes, were unenviable for the American SWP and its lider maxima James P. Cannon, trying to survive in the virulently anti-communist United States by bending to other winds. Cannon, supported by his British acolyte Gerry Healy, broke with Pablo in 1953 and joined up with Pierre Lambert in France, who had already fallen out with the International.

The polemical literature denouncing their rivals revisionism produced by both sides in the split makes little sense, even to addicts of that neglected art form, the internal bulletin. However, the practical reasons for the split were never in doubt. If you decide to become a fellow-traveller, it is advisable to journey with someone in the first-class compartment. Supporting Russia in the United States in the 1950s was downright foolhardy, Healy was keener on the Tribune group than the struggling British Communist Party, and Lambert had found a comfortable slot with the American-funded trade union federation, Force Ouvrière.

The Pablo/SWP split was the first of many, so that now claimants to be the genuine Fourth International all possess intricate charts, like the genealogies of rival claimants to a medieval throne. We do not have nearly enough space to describe the intricacies of the disputed lines of succession, but if you are interested you can read The Death Agony of the Fourth International by Workers Power, a group which by denying the doctrine of the Apostolic Succession, has ruined its chances of obtaining the British franchise from any of the rival internationals. Most Fourth Internationals are in reality simply the foreign branch offices of one of the larger national groups. For example, Posadas, the leading Argentinean Fourth Internationalist until he fell out with Mandel in the early 1960s, started up tiny groups throughout the world, which did little apart from translating and disseminating his speeches. The British branch was known as the Revolutionary Workers Party, publishing Red Flag, and need not take up much of our time as it never reached double figures. Posadas speculated that the reported sightings of flying saucers were evidence that there were superior, socialist, civilisations on other planets. This insight was exaggerated by some of his sections into the doctrine that there could not be socialism on a single planet.

Most claimants to be the genuine Fourth International are less bizarre, but the phenomenon is always harmful: a political equivalent to AIDS. A national section of any Fourth International sees the world through the distorting prism of its affiliates elsewhere, so that accounts of events in any other country from one group will not mention the activities of the sections which, according to its rivals, are leading the struggle for socialism. Fourth Internationalists are aware of the nasty things that their rivals say about their international affiliates, but choose to treat them with the contempt which American evangelical protestants have for the allegations of scandals by their religious rivals. They claim, correctly, that a purely national group will be unable to achieve a correct perspective on the world. Their mistake is in thinking that their International leadership can provide such a perspective in the intervals they can spare from petty factional intrigues.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007