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International Socialism, Autumn 1979


Tariq Ali, Brian Grogan and John Ross
of the United Secretariat of the FI

Reply to the central committee
of the Socialist Workers’ Party

(Autumn 1979)


From International Socialism, 2:6, Autumn 1979, pp. 113–22.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up for by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The decision to invite the Socialist Workers Party to attend the eleventh World Congress and to comment on our discussion has already proved fruitful. The fraternal response by Pete Goodwin and Alex Callinicos means that a dialogue could result, at the very least, in political clarity and at best by a narrowing of the differences and a drawing closer between the Fourth International and the SWP.

However throughout the comrades’ reply runs a consistent theme that should be rejected if the discussion is to make rapid progress. They maintain that the errors of the Mao-centrist tendencies are equivalent to what the comrades detect as a drift to ‘right-wing dogmatism’ in the Fourth International. This justifies the comrades eventual conclusion that two revolutionary currents exist today in Western Europe and that they are entitled to keep a foot in both camps.

Our argument is that the Fourth International is the only international current which has not been disorientated by the major convulsions of the decade since 1968 and that the comrades of the British SWP, who likewise have retained their bearings, should enter into serious discussions with the aim of establishing what obstacles prevent them joining our international.

The Mao Centrists: A scratch or gangrene?

The decade since 1968 provided very favourable conditions for the building of left organisations. All forces inside the workers movement, not excluding the mass reformist parties, experienced rapid growth. However that decade was intersected by the most serious economic crisis since the 1930’s, not only in its depth, but also in its world-wide synchronised character. The reformist leaderships in Western Europe sprang to the aid of their embattled ruling classes. Sophisticated policies of class collaboration mushroomed; the Social Contract in Britain; the Union of the Left in France, the Moncloa Pact in Spain; the Historic Compromise in Italy were the most celebrated examples. All the left organisations grappled with problems of political strategy that coincided with the recession. It was the inability of the centrist and the Mao-Stalinist forces to respond to these problems that created repercussions in their organisations which have not ceased today.

The scale of the crisis meant that the working class started to look with a new urgency for solutions on a national, state-wide basis. In the first instance this meant at the level of government. Solutions at the level of the shop floor were not adequate. The mass working class parties experienced a renewed spurt of growth and put forward their programmes and alliances.

In Italy the Communist Party extended a hand towards Christian Democracy under the pretence of drawing the conclusions from the Chilean coup the year before. The centrist organisations, who had in tune with with pre-occupations of the majority of the militant workers confined their attentions to the problems of shop floor organisation, found themselves with the necessity of advancing their own solution.

Instead of rejecting the class collaboration of the PCI. these organisations (Lotta Continua. Avanguardia Operaia and Manifesto-PdUP) advanced their own programme of collaboration. Under the slogan of ‘a government of the left parties’, the alternative to alliance of the CP and SP with Christian Democracy was an alliance of the CP and the SP with ... the Republican Party! An alliance with a party which represents a not insignificant section of the Italian bosses was motivated by these organisations on the necessity of achieving a parliamentary majority. Certain of these organisations refused even to entertain notions of a united front with the reformist parties in the previous period. Now they embraced the very parliamentary opportunism which provided the grounds for their sectarian attitude to the Communist Party and Socialist Party.

In Spain the pattern continued. The political crisis engendered by the ailing Franco meant that organisations like the PT, ORT and MCE were faced with problems of equal magnitude. The reformists started to form coalitions with bourgeois forces as a springboard into the government that would be established after the Caudillo’s death. Two main formations emerged. The Democratic Junta and the Democratic Convergence, eventually resulting in the Democratic Coordination. The centrist organisations participated energetically in the local coalitions which were to form the eventual bloc.

This process continued with the transition towards bourgeois democracy in Spain. The CP and SP continued their line of national unity of all democratic forces, which included the austerity measures proposed by the Suarez government and agreed by them at the Moncloa Palace. All the organisations mentioned above put forward political slogans that tied in with this perspective. For the PT it was the slogan for ‘a government of democratic salvation’. For the ORT ‘a government of workers and peoples forces’. For the MCE ‘a government of left unity’. All, like the CP slogan of a government of ‘democratic concentration’ envisaged a parliamentary alliance with the bourgeoisie.

In France the right-centrist PSU gave virtually uncritical support to the Union of the Left, the alliance of the Communist Party, Socialist Party and bourgeois Left Radicals and Fringe Gaullists. Neither did the OCT hesitate in calling for a vote for the candidates of the bourgeois component of this bloc. Both these groups subsequently were thrown into disarray despite their contempt for ‘dogmatic principles’.

The adaptations which these groupings made on the question of government was not limited to this issue, nor was that the ‘original sin’ which began their decline. But these positions in some cases provoked others.

The expectations that these tendencies had of working class breakthrough were disappointed by the events of November 25 1975 in Portugal, the events after the 1976 general elections in Italy and the electoral defeat of the Union of the Left in France in spring of 1978. Some of these organisations retreated from the political terrain – from issues effecting the state – and started to concentrate their efforts exclusively on the ‘movements’. It was a short step from this to conclude that parties were secondary or, the extreme case of Lotta Continua, obsolescent.

Other tendencies moved sharply to the right. The set-backs encountered by the workers movement in the period of 1974–78 were laid at the door of the extreme strength and recuperative power of bourgeois political institutions, without specifying that the central pillar of these institutions is the labour bureaucracy. The logic of this position became clear in this year’s elections in Italy. If these institutions of the bourgeois state are so powerful then it is necessary to have a strategy of ‘introducing contradictions’ into the state apparatus. This strategy is firmly embraced by the Radicals in Italy. The far left lost ground to the Radicals as young people voted for the ‘real thing’ rather than the far left variant.

Chris Harman has drawn out these negative features at great length in his article on the far left in Europe. The reason why we repeat and add to this sorry catalogue is to make one basic point. Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, the comrades point that the European sections of the Fourth International is undergoing a drift towards ‘dogmatic orthodoxy’ can this be put in the same balance as the zig-zag between reformist and spontaneist positions of the Mao-centrists? Can the comrades show where any European section of the Fourth International has maintained positions that entail collaboration with the bourgeoisie? The reason that they cannot is that it hasn’t happened. The two deviations can in no way be judged equivalent. But before considering the practical implications of such a judgement we will examine the question of whether the comrades are correct in saying that the positions and activity of the Fourth International today represent a drift towards ‘right wing propagandism’.

The Transitional Programme

The major questions of strategy that arose in Europe did not find ready-made answers from any section of the far left. In grappling with these problems sharp internal debates arose in most organisations and, for the first time in six years nearly all organisations experienced a slowing of growth, not excluding the sections of the Fourth International or the SWP.

But increasingly the need was expressed to fight for a credible socialist alternative. This tied into the preoccupations of many militant workers faced by the big austerity offensive throughout Eastern Europe. This offensive threatened to roll back the gains that had been made in the period since 1968. Those gains were shown to be fragile while the bourgeoisie continued to control without challenge the means of production and the state machinery.

It was where this control was most seriously threatened – in Portugal – that the bourgeoisie mobilised the most powerful weapon in its armoury: the allure of bourgeois democracy as compared to the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe. Despite the very advanced character of the struggles at the point of production in Portugal, the bourgeoisie, speaking through the mouth of Mario Soares the Socialist Party leader, was able to convince a sizeable section of the masses of the fundamental choice facing them was ‘democracy or dictatorship’. The far left did not succeed in countering Soares demagogy. They were unable to pose the real matter – ‘the limited and repressive character of bourgeois democracy versus the massive extension of economic, social and political freedom that would be guaranteed by the social revolution and workers democracy’. With the partial exception of the LCI, the Portuguese section of the Fourth International, other far left groups did not fight for the sort of workers democracy that could convince the masses in practise that workers democracy was superior to that of the bourgeoisie. Instead non-party councils were proposed that in reality became one-party councils. The general significance of the fight for socialist democracy was not appreciated or acted on.

If the constant fight for a school of workers democracy and its militant defence is a necessary ‘school’ for the tasks of taking state power and establishing a socialist democracy, then this ‘training’ is no less necessary in relation to the economic and social crisis and the goal of the nationalisation of the means of production under workers control.

The urgency of this problem was sharpened by the onset of the recession: Under these conditions a strategy limited to gradually improving the conditions of the working class by fighting for a succession of immediate demands on a factory-by-factory basis – what the SWP in Britain has tagged ‘the reformism of the shop floor’ – proved decisively inadequate. What the bosses gave with one hand (wage increases, in certain cases the reduction of the working week) they took away with the other (inflation, cuts in social services, speed-up).

Such an impasse can give rise to class-collaborationist solutions – workers participation in management, certain aspects of ‘alternative production’ plans and so on. But to denounce these solutions is not adequate. The revolutionaries must be able to put forward demands and a strategy which are able to come to grips with the scope of problems which are being raised. In this respect we of course support comrades Callinicos and Goodwin’s endorsement of the necessity for transitional demands. We share their hostility to mechanically extracting such demands from ‘the programme’. But the comrades do not indicate what demands they think are appropriate utilising the transitional method.

We think that the women’s movement and the anti-nuclear movement have added indispensable weapons to the programmatic gains of the revolutionaries. But we also think that many of the policies outlined in the Transitional Programme retain their effect and anti-capitalist dynamic. So we would like to discuss with the comrades on the basis of their experience which demands of the Transitional Programme are obsolete, which retain their force and which new ones should be added.

Most importantly we should examine other elements of the Transitional Programme endorsed by the comrades like permanent revolution and those which they view critically. This bring us to the united front and the workers government.

The fight against reformism

Some of the more simple-minded approaches to the continuing hold of reformism over the masses have been dealt severe blows over the last ten years. In particular the view that social democracy would wither away as the capitalist crisis removed the material basis for reforms has been confounded by the growth of most of these organisations and their accelerated growth in the period of the most pronounced economic recession.

More particularly the reformist and Stalinist parties have been instrumental in defusing the revolutionary situation in Portugal and ensuring the smooth transition from one form of capitalist rule to another in Spain

The reasons for this growth are not hard to determine; the economic offensive of the bourgeoisie poses the need for widespread mobilisations of the working class to defeat it, likewise the attacks on democratic rights have made large numbers of workers turn to these parties that at least have the organisational capacity to launch such mass mobilisations.

At the same time one of the chief tactics for demobilising the masses, the policy of division, has been utilised by the labour bureaucrats in order to blame their unwillingness to lead mass actions on the policy of other workers organisations.

The reasons for workers orientating to these parties in many countries of Western Europe are by no means illusions. They are right that the most powerful and most united response from the working class is needed to win over the hesitating ranks amongst the working class and to attract the middle layers in society to the side of the working class and to defeat the bourgeois offensive.

It is this situation that poses the necessity for the united front of the working class. Revolutionaries who dismiss this objective need of the working class as an irrelevance do so at their peril.

The comrades rightly attack the notion of a united front which excludes the traditional leaderships of the working class, but then confine the fight for the united front to those issues where revolutionaries can be guaranteed, in advance, to compel the working class leaders into action.

Of course the comrades are correct to emphasis the small size of the revolutionary left in comparison to these tasks. But the comrades choose to reserve for their final comments, the fact that while the revolutionary left remains small it is capable of influencing a minority of workers who are prepared to go much further in fighting the capitalist offensive than the leaders of the working class.

One of the chief issues on which these workers have proved they will fight is on the necessity of the broadest possible action and against sectarian divides introduced by their leaders. In this sense the fight for the united front neither falls on deaf ears, nor is dependent on the small forces of the revolutionary left to fight alone for its implementation by the reformist leaders.

This policy of united action around definite demands and practical measures can be extended from top to bottom of the workers movement. Without this sort of fight, the revolutionaries will, contrary to the comrades strictures, find themselves either reduced to propaganda or to absurd posturings as the leadership of the working class.

This is a far cry from the comrades’ picture of the united front tactic being employed purely as a device for ‘exposure and denunciation.’ Rather it poses the need for the comrades to examine some of the mistakes they admit were made by their own party in the period between 1974–76 and their implications for the relationship between building the party and the tactic of the united front.

It would be foolish to underestimate the significance that questions of government have played in the recent past. Once again the massive votes achieved by the mass workers parties in country after country in the years since 1968 cannot be attributed solely to the illusions of the masses. Quite rightly they looked to national state-wide solutions for the burning social and economic problems they encountered. We know that the comrades agree that where the revolutionaries are not strong enough to form a government then, in general, it is both correct and necessary to call for the mass workers parties to form a government.

But do the revolutionaries have nothing to say on what solutions they fight for on a governmental level? Of course this is propaganda. But the measures that were proposed for example by the LCR in March 1978 elections had the purpose of popularising a programme to stimulate mass action. Too often in the comrades commentary does a correct polemic against propagandism topple over into a denunciation of propaganda as such, an indispensable element for the construction of revolutionary parties today.

Neither are the class collaborationist schemes put forward by bureaucratic leaderships considered a vital point of interest. The main danger of the Communist Party’s policy for the Italian working class is of course its own programme. But how better to demonstrate that fact than by reference to its proposal for a government in alliance with the main representative of the Italian bourgeoisie – the Christian Democrats. Having explained this fact, is it not also necessary to state forcibly the view that such a government of class collaboration would signal an all-out offensive against the working class and therefore urge the need to oppose it?

We agree that in the British context for example, to make the whole target of our agitation during the period 1976–78 the Liberal-Labour pact, or the parliamentary deal with the Ulster Unionists, would have concretely covered up for the Social Contract policies of the Labour government. But this is quite a different proposition from the Italian case, and at any rate it would have been equally incorrect not to expose the lengths to which the Labour government was prepared to go in order to force though their social contract policies.

Accordingly for the SWP the conditions under which the call for workers government is correct appear very restrictive. By the comrades previous criteria, only when the revolutionary party itself is capable of forming a government should the demand be advanced. Such a view would critically disarm revolutionaries and render them practically speechless on the political crisis that continues to rock the advanced capitalist countries.

The Trade Unions

One of the striking advances of the far left in Western Europe is the fairly rapid fashion in which it succeeded gaining an audience within the trade unions. However the debate on how to organise that audience for struggle and to what end has, as yet been relatively underdeveloped.

The ‘rank and file’ strategy of the Socialist Workers Party is well known and has a long history within the workers movement in Britain. In particular the formula of ‘complete organisational and political independence’ echoes the shop stewards of the Clyde Workers Committee of the First World War who declared: ‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent us.’

There is another tradition in Britain associated with the intervention of the Red International of Labour Unions. Following the collapse of the shop stewards movement after the war, the Comintern leaders suggested that the nostrums of this movement were no longer adequate to guide the small but powerful workers vanguard in their trade union strategy. Non-reliance on the union leaders was not enough. Rank and file control of those leaders had to be established and where they failed to rightly represent the workers, an alternative leadership had to be built to replace them with people who would. The pre-condition of this struggle was the fight for a revolutionary consciousness amongst the membership. The aim was to break the unions from class collaboration and turn them into a militant organisation for the class struggle. A theme echoed by Trotsky in his writings on the trade union question in the 1930s.

The Minority Movement adopted a programme spanning policy on wages, workers control and the repudiation of the Dawes plan on which imperialism was fighting to re-establish itself in Western Europe. Its trade sections added demands appropriate to their industry.

This strategy met with opposition within the ranks of the British Communist Party and elsewhere. ‘A red man in a pink cloak’ was one epithet.

Leading left reformists associated themselves with the minority movement and indeed were encouraged to do so in this sense it was not a ‘rank and file’ movement. It is in this spirit that the European resolution says that the class struggle left wing that we are fighting for will include people who are union leaders now and will be won to this perspective.

The reasons for this policy acquire a new freshness in the light of the decline of workers struggle which characterised many countries, but especially Britain, in the three years after 1975. Many discussions have taken place at to the reason for this decline. Some including a top leader of the SWP, Tony Cliff, have advanced the thesis that the material interests of the bureaucracy not only guided the actions of the union leaders but also decisive numbers of the shop stewards.

Others have contended that the shop stewards movements had run into a profound political impasse given the scale of the problems they had encountered and that what was needed was a fight for a new political direction that would arm a strong working class with a strong political programme.

This is what we see as the main question. The material interests of the bureaucracy lie in the fact that it exists to negotiate between the classes. Defending their material interests mean defending capitalism. Mass mobilisation which threaten this role are resisted, and if irresistible the ‘lefts’ attempt to lead them and head them off.

Their defence of capitalism gives rise to their political character – reformism. It is the need to fight against class collaboration that necessitates complete political independence from the bureaucracy, which will mean that in this period such an organisation will be based almost exclusively on the rank and file.

But it also entails the building of a serious alternative leadership within the union, within the context of the fullest workers democracy reflected within the unions structures.

The end result of this process – its long term aim – must be the fight to transform the unions from vehicles of class collaboration to weapons in the revolutionary struggle – a school for workers control. It is not immediately attainable because of our weakness, but we must find a bridge to this goal and footpaths to this bridge!

The absence of clear political objectives in the way that the comrades explain their rank and file strategy and the substitution of what appears to be an organisational solution to the problems of trade union strategy ultimately leads the SWP to a dead end.

Movements of the oppressed

One of the features of the decline of the Mao-centrist currents is the collapse of sections or even of whole parties into the movements of the oppressed. This has expressed itself most sharply with the women’s movement. In our opinion the comrades make a parallel error which we believe will have a tendency towards the same results – the attempt to collapse the movements into the party. This is done under the rubric of revolutionaries ‘striking out on their own.’

The Fourth International has supported the autonomous women’s movement since its rebirth in the conditions of late capitalism in the 1960s. We fought against all those supposed ‘orthodox’ currents like the Healeyites who denounced it then and now as a ‘diversion’ from the class struggle.

That movement has gone through many transformations both in its social composition and its outlook. But we believe that it will remain a permanent feature in advanced capitalist countries and in time the semi-colonial world before, during and after a socialist revolution. We believe that any consistent fight for the rights of women will take on an anti-capitalist direction.

In most countries this movement has the fragmented character which the comrades refer to. But one tendency is becoming more and more pronounced. That is the increased involvement of working class women in the fight for women’s rights and the consequent role which the labour movement is beginning to play in such movements. Such evidence for this is provided by the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA and the fight against restrictions on abortion rights in Britain. This is why we think that defending the conception of a unified women’s movement remains a vital part of our programme today, around definite demands and an orientation towards working class women.

Within, this movement we will of course attempt to organise currents around our own opinions. But to limit the intervention of revolutionaries to small currents around the party programme firstly ignores the potential within the women’s movement as a whole and secondly has a dangerous tendency towards the idea of a women’s revolutionary organisation.

On sexism within the party we would urge the comrades to remove the beam in their own eye before helping us with our mote, but would also point out that comrade Marlene’s contribution does not pretend to the the last word in a debate that will undoubtedly continue inside the Fourth International and in which we would be glad to hear the contribution of the SWP.

Building the Revolutionary Party

Our starting point on the building of the party starts with its international context. We have never doubted the SWP’s belief in the necessity of building a revolutionary international. However the fact that the SWP has never made any substantial progress towards this goal in its thirty years of existence as a tendency gives rise to the question of whether the correct starting point has been adopted. It is part of our programme that the building of national parties should go hand in hand with the building of a revolutionary international. The SWP doubts that we have a ‘real’ International today. We do not claim that we have a mass international similar to those which have preceded us. This is a matter of fact, not opinion. But what cannot be denied is that the Fourth International is the only serious international current that exists in the world today. Only geriatric Stalinists still make jibes on the theme ‘which Fourth International?’

We also agree that the weakest point of our international is its lack of serious roots in the industrial working class, though our largest sections compare favourably to any of the far left organisations in terms of their social composition. Most of our sections have big majorities in unions. But this is not sufficient for the class battles. This is the reason for our turn towards the industrial and manual unions. We are aware of the dangers to which the comrades alert us, neither do we envisage ex-students substituting for the alternative leadership of the working class. But we are also alive to the tremendous opportunities that have opened up to the revolutionary left since 1968 and in particular since the recession of 1974/75, during which in a completely unprecedented way. the mass organisations of the working class emerged quantitatively strengthened, despite mass unemployment and political set-backs. Because of the major strategic questions that have been raised by this recession we believe that there is a new and growing audience for our ideas and organisations.

Under these conditions we believe that the central task of all sections of the Fourth International is to gain serious implantation in the working class. In setting such a target we are taking steps to institutionalise education in a systematic way and to build revolutionary youth organisations. Special measures will also have to be taken inside the sections to ensure that this orientation is carried through consistently. Such measures were advanced by both Lenin and Trotsky to consolidate a base inside the industrial working class. In this case we think that for comrades to change their jobs will not result in the process described by the comrades. Of course there will be a tendency towards this as the result of the big pressure of economism and workerism endemic within the workplace, but we believe that the errors of the International Socialists in the USA did not come about a result of their comrades getting jobs in industry, but rather were inherent in the political line they advanced. Likewise we think that the experience of the SWP in Britain was not unconnected with the strategy of rank and filism. Let us hasten to add that we do not think our programme makes us immune to these pressures but we think that it can help to resist them.

At some other time we would like to examine the comrades’ contention that the Fourth International only embraces what, ‘even on the strictest definition,’ can be defined as revolutionaries, but let it suffice to say for now that there are major revolutionary forces which remain outside the Fourth International with which we wish to fuse.

We know that this will never happen if only those groups that claim to be Trotskyist are characterised as ‘revolutionary.’ Neither is this our position. Trotsky was of the opinion that not all revolutionaries would be Trotskyists (or revolutionary marxists) and indeed entertained the possibility that Trotskyists could find themselves a minority within the Fourth International.

In Europe this approach applies to the process of re-evaluation taking place within the Mao-centrist groups which the comrades refer to. We do not close our eyes to the possibility of groups of activists from these organisations, who draw the lessons from their organisations disorientation, being open to our explanations and approaches. But it is not triumphalism which leads us to characterise these organisations as a whole as centrist, but their actions in the class struggle. We believe that this should be the criteria of the SWP too.

The comrades detect a different approach to organisations that claim to be Trotskyist to those who don’t, like themselves. This is inevitable since, at least in theory, we share a common heritage.

But this does not mean that we ‘prioritise’ one over the other. It depends of the response that we get. Both the OCRFI and Lutte Ouvriere in France have approached the Fourth International with the proposal of talks leading to fusion. We do not assume in advance that these talks will be successful, but neither do we assume the reverse, which is what the comrades are asking us to do in relation to the OCRFI. In this way we hope to train both our own cadres and theirs in an objective approach to fusion, which we believe can only be consummated around basic aspects of programme, and the guarantee of internal democracy while joint work, agreement on tasks are necessary complements and ways to achieve a successful fusion process.

Both these organisations are serious organisations, both have emerged from ten years with strengthened organisations. The same applies to the SWP. The SWP has not undergone the vast zig-zags and disorientation of the Mao-Centrist currents with which they were once in association.

It has broken with those currents. We do not believe that the state-capitalist analysis of the SWP necessarily excludes it from the Fourth International. This was a position taken by Trotsky at the time of the foundation of the Fourth International and we see no reason to change it, particularly in the light of the current discussions in the Fourth International on Kampuchea and Cuba. Indeed, the Socialist Workers Party of the USA, has achieved a successful fusion with the comrades of the Revolutionary Marxist Committee, who adhered to the state-capitalist theory.

Our invitation to the SWP to observe and to make some contribution to our discussion for the 11th World Congress was issued in this light. We do not conceal our aim of developing joint work and serious discussion as a way of winning comrades of the SWP to our ideas.

But this process can and should be taken further. We propose that discussions are held to establish what obstacles exist to the SWP joining the Fourth International. Undoubtedly in the light of the differences aired in this document these discussions will be long and complicated. The comrades seem prepared for this. But also there are definite indications of convergence on some central points; permanent revolution, transitional demands, aspects of trade union work, winning a base in the industrial working class and the nature of the period in Europe which means that such discussions could be profitable and at the very least increase both national and international collaboration between our organisations.

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