From International Socialism 2:6, Autumn 1979, pp. 97–112.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Thanks to Sebastien Budgen.
We welcome the opportunity to observe the eleventh World Congress of the Fourth International and to participate in the discussions leading up to it. The European revolutionary left in particular is entering an important stage in its history, undergoing a process of discussion and reappraisal to which it is crucial that all the different currents contribute.
We trust that the comrades of the FI will understand if we concentrate our remarks on the class struggle in western Europe and especially on the draft resolution The Crisis in Capitalist Europe and the Tasks of the Fourth International. Although our perspectives flow from an analysis of the situation on the world scale, we are a western European organisation and therefore can contribute most usefully to the discussion on this area.
It is necessary in the first place to outline, however briefly, what we see as the main features of the objective situation and the possibilities it opens up to, and constraints it imposes on, revolutionaries in western Europe.
First, the international capitalist economy has since the late 1960s entered a period of crisis such as it has not known since the 1930s. Recent developments, notably the developing recession in the United States and the re-acceleration of inflation internationally, confirm that none of the basic problems which precipitated the 1974–5 slump have been solved. A declining rate of profit and built-in inflationary tendencies prevent world capitalism from any speedy return to the rapid expansion which characterised the 1950s and 1960s.
At the same time, the close interpenetration of the state and private capital characteristic of capitalism in its current phase of development is likely to prevent, in the main imperialist countries at least, the catastrophic falls in production and employment levels which occurred after 1929. The 1980s will be years of economic stagnation, interrupted by brief and fragile ‘recoveries’ like that which followed the 1974–5 recession.
Second, the process of reorganisation of capital initiated by the crisis will continue, with the bourgeoisie making constant efforts to force the working class to pay the price of this reorganisation, whether through wage controls, redundancies or cuts in social expenditure.
Recent political developments in western Europe, notably the Giscard-Barre austerity policies in France, the election of the Thatcher government in Britain, and the emergence of Franz-Joseph Strauss as leader of the united conservative opposition in the Federal Republic of Germany, suggest a renewed offensive against the working class by the different national ruling classes in order to facilitate the restructuring of European capital necessary in the harsh economic climate of the 1980s.
Third, success in the implementation of these policies will, as in the past, depend upon the collaboration of the reformist parties (Communist and Social-Democratic alike) and the trade-union bureaucracies. No section of the European bourgeoisie is either willing or able to break with the reformists and attempt to destroy working-class organisation itself.
The European working class enters the 1980s with its organisations intact, having suffered no major defeat in the struggles of the past decade. However, in every case (France 1968, Italy 1969, 1975–6, Portugal 1975, Spain 1975–6, Britain 1972–4) the reformists prevented these struggles from developing into a challenge to the political power of the bourgeoisie. Moreover, they have emerged from these struggles with a secure hold upon the mass of the working class. Without exception, the far left is still largely on the margins of the workers’ movement in western Europe.
We are, therefore, faced with a situation in which the crisis of international capitalism will give rise to further clashes between the bourgeoisie and the working class, while the influence of the revolutionary left is felt by only a small minority of workers. The task facing us of winning a majority of the working class to the conquest of power, is huge.
Moreover, in Western Europe at least a general crisis of the revolutionary left has become apparent during the last three years. We have documented it at length elsewhere (Chris Harman, The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, International Socialism, no. 4). Here we will only briefly note some of its features. From tiny and largely petty bourgeois beginnings the revolutionary left grew from strength to strength in the six or seven years following. And that growth was largely regardless of political orientation – ourselves in Britain, the FI sections in France and Spain, and more than both of us combined, what you term the ‘Mao-Centrists’. Within those first spontaneous responses to the crisis, populist and ultra left ideas could flourish without their harmful effects being immediately apparent. But with the first serious set-backs to this growth produced by the recovery of reformist organisations and the caution of workers in struggle then the effects of over-high expectations and confused political orientation bore fruit, first and most dramatically in Italy with the dissolution of Lotta Continua and the prolonged crisis of Avanguardia Operaia (and then Democrazia Proletaria) and PDUP-Manifesto. But the crisis has not merely been confined to Italy, it has hit organisations as far apart as the Spanish OIC, the French OCT and the Swedish Fobundet Komunist. The general features of the crisis has been a sharp shift to the right, a collapse into ‘the movements’ or sometimes the two coupled together.
The most dramatic manifestations of this crisis have been seen in the ‘Mao-Centrist’ organisations, though that current still remains a large one, some of which (most notably Movimiento Communista in Spain) still retains its organisational coherence and a working-class base bigger than ourselves or any section of the Fourth International. Nor should we delude ourselves that some of the same factors that led to the crisis have not affected either ourselves or the Fourth International.
We certainly faced loss of membership and some bitter internal dissension following the advent of a Labour Government and the subsequent Social Contract. We note the same phenomenon today in the Fourth International, for instance in your French section. Such problems are nothing to be ashamed of, if they are a product of the class struggle itself. The question is how one responds to them. We believe that we on the whole responded to them in such a way as to recuperate our organisation, maintain our revolutionary politics and to have good prospects for growth in the more favourable circumstances that are now developing in Britain.
What links the rest of the comments we will now make is that we see in the political evolution that has occurred in the Fourth International since the mid-1970s a response which contains disturbingly right-wing and dogmatic tendencies.
In the immediate aftermath of 1968 and the mass student upsurge internationally the FI participated in the general trend towards ultra-leftism. This is evident from, for example, the resolutions adopted by the Ninth World Congress in 1969, with their orientation upon the ‘new youth vanguard’ and the adoption of the ‘strategy of the Red University’, reflecting a general tendency to play down the central role of the working class in the revolutionary process.
Of course, the FI has long since criticised these positions. However, the formulations put in their place have tended to represent in our view, not merely a correct abandonment of ultra-leftism, but a shift to rightist positions.
The conclusion of the factional struggle within the FI with the dissolution of the two main international tendencies in 1977 seems, to the outside observer at least, to have been more favourable to the former Leninist-Trotskyist Faction, grouped around the American Socialist Workers Party, which in our view, has long taken some distinctively rightist positions.
Particularly notable at the present time is a tendency for the FI to stress its roots in the trotskyist tradition. Now, in itself, there is nothing wrong with this. We are proud to be part of that same tradition: the tradition of Marx and Engels, of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, of the first four Congresses of the Communist International, of Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
However, the mere repetition of the letter of Trotsky’s writings, and especially of the Transitional Programme of 1938, as if they contained within them the solution to the problems of the class struggle today is as much a retreat from serious revolutionary politics as the oscillations between left reformism and spontaneism of the ‘mao-centrists’.
‘Orthodoxy’ of this type, which stresses adherence to the formulae of the classics above all else, is nothing to do with genuine Marxism. Commitment to the political heritage for which Trotsky gave his life requires a willingness to examine his writings critically. Let us take, for example, the question of the Transitional Programme:
‘It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.’
Today, when the economic crisis has removed the material basis for reforms and forced the capitalist class to attack the gains made by workers during 30 years of boom, it is essential for revolutionaries to advance transitional demands which link the defence of existing rights and living standards to the overthrow of capitalism.
However, the precise nature of these demands cannot be determined in the abstract, or, worse still, derived mechanically from the Transitional Programme. As Trotsky, writing of mass actions short of revolution, put it:
‘The participation of the communists in these fights, and above all their participation in the leadership of these struggles, requires of them not only a clear understanding of the development of the revolution as a whole, but also the capacity to put forward at the right moment sharp, specific, fighting slogans that by themselves don’t derive from the “programme” but are dictated by the circumstances of the day and lead the masses forward.’ (The Spanish Revolution, p. 143)
Unfortunately, only too often today the Fl seems to distill its demands from the Transitional Programme, rather than ‘the circumstances of the day’.
Very often, this sort of uncritical attitude to the Transitional Programme goes hand in hand with an idealist approach to politics. Possession of the correct demands is made the touchstone of revolutionary effectiveness. The job of revolutionaries is to present the Programme to the masses. The only obstacle to their adhering to this problem arises from the influence of the treacherous reformist leaders who must therefore be denounced and exposed.
The nature of this essentially propagandist approach, which reduces politics to a mere battle of ideas, was aptly described recently by Henri Weber:
‘Applied to the workers’ movement, this therapeutic postulates an opposition between a healthy, revolutionary etc base and a corrupt, em-bourgeoisie, apparatus, which openly deceives the former. It suggests a therapeutic of denunciation: if the apparatus-masses relation is of the type traitor-betrayed, it is enough to reveal the traitor to enlighten his victims.’ (Critique Communiste, No. 26, p. 40)
The traditions of the early Third International are quite alien to this politics of exposure and denunciation. As the ‘Theses on Tactics’ adopted by the third congress of the Comintern put it:
‘Communist parties can only develop in struggle. Even the smallest communist parties should not restrict themselves to mere propaganda and agitation. They must form the spearhead of all proletarian mass organisations, showing the backward and vacillating masses, by putting forward practical proposals for struggle, by urging on the struggle for all the daily needs of the proletariat, how the struggle should be waged, and thus exposing to the masses the treacherous character of all non-communist parties.’
It is this conception, that the masses will change their ideas only in the course of struggle, and that therefore revolutionary parties can only win a majority of the working class to the conquest of power by participating in their struggles, that governs the tactic of the united front.
The Fourth International conceives of the united front as central to the task of building revolutionary parties today. Yet only too often it seems to us to fall into precisely the sort of propagandist politics described above. Consider, for example, this passage in the draft resolution The Crisis in Capitalist Europe and the Tasks of the Fourth International:
‘In the present phase, applying this tactic (i.e. the united front tactic) is the means for offering our alternative of working-class unity to the policy of unity or collaboration with the bourgeoisie ...
‘The Trotskyists do not take a wait-and-see attitude, making their initiatives dependent on a prior agreement or understanding among the big workers’ organisations. By themselves: or together with other organisations, they can and must promote mobilisations. But in formulating slogans and selecting forms of action, they have to combine two objectives. One is to broaden mobilisation as much as possible by including, if feasible, activists and sections of the traditional organisations. The other is to maintain a united-front approach to these organisations, even when the chances of achieving any unity with them are slight.’ (International Internal Discussion Bulletin, March 1979, p. 34 – italics added)
The question of the united front with the reformists becomes, then, a matter of principle, to be raised ‘even when the chances of achieving any unity with them are slight’. In rejecting this notion of the united front we are not arguing for united fronts ‘from below’ as opposed to united fronts ‘from above’. Clearly any united-front approach must be oriented towards a section at least of the reformist leadership. What we are rejecting is the transformation of the united front from, as Trotsky put it. ‘a tactical method into a supreme principle.’ (Centrism and the Fourth International, Writings 1933–34, p. 234)
The united front is a ‘tactical method’. It is applicable under certain conditions, and not in others. Trotsky spelled out these conditions as follows:
‘In cases where the Communist Party still remains an organisation of a numerically insignificant minority, the question of its conduct on the mass-struggle front does not assume a decisive organisational and practical significance. In such conditions, mass actions remain under the leadership the old organisations which by reason of their still powerful traditions continue to play the decisive role.
‘But wherever the Communist Party already constitutes a big. organised, political force, but not the decisive magnitude; wherever the party embraces organisationally, let us say. one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organised proletarian vanguard, it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness.’ (The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. 2, p. 92)
In other words, the united-front tactic was envisaged by the Comintern leadership as being applicable in situations where, as in France and Germany, splits in the traditional organisations had led to the emergence of mass Communist parties, but where the majority of workers remained loyal to the ‘old house’ of reformism. The existence of revolutionaries as ‘a big, organised, political force’ was seen as being a crucial condition of the efficacy of the tactic because it was only the wide-spread presence of Communists within the working class and their participation in workers’ struggles around partial demands which would create the pressure necessary to force the reformist leaders into united action with the CPs.
Nowhere in western Europe are revolutionaries more than a marginal influence upon the workers’ movement. Nowhere can we expect through our implantation in the workplaces to create the field of forces necessary if the reformist leaders are to take account of our calls for united action.
What then do continual united-front approaches to the reformists as a whole amount to in these circumstances? Merely making propaganda for united action from the sidelines, demanding that the reformists act without being able to exert pressure upon them to act. In countries like France, Italy, Portugal and Spain where there are two reformist parties it amounts in effort to demanding that the reformists unite and break with capitalism. In other words, it is a practical orientation little different in essence from the politics of exposure and denunciation of sects like the OCI in France and the WSL in Britain.
Let us take the example of the slogan of workers’ governments. According to the draft resolution, ‘in the present phase this slogan has a dual function. In the first place, it offers a political perspective for the partial struggles and facilitates the task of raising the demands of the masses to the political level, of politicising economic and social demands, of educating the largest numbers of workers to think politically ... Secondly, it is an instrument for speeding up the masses’ break with the reformist leaderships, to unmask the class-collaborationist policy of these leaderships’ (op. cit., p. 35).
The slogan of the workers’ government was first developed at length by Zinoviev in the Theses on Tactics adopted by the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922. The slogan was advanced to combat the possibility of coalition governments of bourgeois and reformist parties: ‘To this open or concealed bourgeois-social-democratic coalition the communists oppose the united front of all workers and a coalition of all workers’ parties in the economic and the political field for the fight against the bourgeois power and its eventual overthrow’.
The last fifty years have shown that the reformists can govern alone, without any capitalist ministers, and still ably defend the interests of the bourgeoisie. Those who argue that it is, say, the Free Democratic tail that wages the dog of German Social-Democracy are deluding themselves. The key problem lies with the politics of the reformist parties, their practical and theoretical commitment to maintaining capitalism, not any temporary alliances they may make with bourgeois parties.
Moreover, the Comintern theses do not regard the call for workers’ governments as a mere tactic for exposing the reformists. Workers’ governments ‘may become an important starting point for the fight for the (proletarian) dictatorship’:
‘The overriding tasks of the workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, to disarm bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, to introduce the control of production, to transfer the main burden of taxation to the rich and to break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. ‘Such a workers’ government is only possible if it is born out of the struggle of the masses, is supported by workers’ bodies which are capable of fighting. bodies created by the most oppressed sections of the working masses.’
For revolutionaries in the circumstances of Western Europe today to call on the reformists to form workers’ governments so conceived is not to combat, but to reinforce illusions in their willingness to make real inroads into capitalist wealth and power. This is the effect of the propaganda on workers’ unity and a workers’ government put out, for example, by the LCR before the French legislative elections in March 1978:
‘The government which workers must impose is not a government of the Union of the Left; it is not a government of the SP and the CP applying the Common Programme: it is a government of the SP and the CP breaking all alliances with the bourgeois parties, kicking out Giscard. abrogating the Constitution of 1958. A government of the workers majority parties from whom they demand the satisfaction of their demands, not a government for the management of capital. but a government which will truly change it.’ (Pour chasser Giscard. Barre: Unite des Travailleurs. Plateforme de la Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, p. 29)
This amounts to the demand that the reformists should unite, break all links with the bourgeoisie, and initiate the transition to socialism. The LCR unfortunately lacked the means to exert pressure on the SP and CP to implement this demand, since its influence spreads only to a small minority of workers. It was therefore reduced to making propaganda about the needs for unity, propaganda which seemed to suggest, at least as a theoretical possibility, that the reformists might actually break with capitalism.
Thus Rouge’s, head-line the day after the second round of the elections, when the right romped home to victory, was The Price of Disunity, as if the reason for the defeat was simply Communist sectarianism, rather than the entrenched reformist politics of the CP and SP apparatuses.
Having said all this, we certainly do not believe that the tactic of the united front is inapplicable today. On the contrary, where revolutionaries are able to exert real pressure for united action it can and must be used. It is possible today, under certain conditions, to make united-front initiatives, with some prospects of success, towards sections of the reformists.
Simply to refer to our own experience, we are increasingly able to exert pressure for united action upon the Communist Party of Great Britain, which, although small by French or Italian standards and in decline, has significant influence on the trade-union left. On a larger scale, we have been able, through the Anti-Nazi League, to draw significant numbers of reformists (chiefly on the left wing of the Labour Party) into united action against the fascist National Front.
More generally, we believe that it is possible to relate to that minority of workers who, although they have by no means totally broken with reformism, are prepared to go further than the reformist leaders in fighting around specific demands. This raises particularly the question of how revolutionaries operate in the trade unions, to which we now turn.
The strategic foundation of our trade union work is the building of a rank-and-file organisation. The central premise for this strategy is the domination of the trade unions by a bureaucracy of full-time officials and functionaries forming a specific social layer with a corporate interest in preserving the capitalist system. This different interest necessarily brings them again and again into conflict with the rank-and-file of the unions, in even the most partial struggles, and even though the mass of these workers have a reformist consciousness, in many cases formally more ‘backward’ in many respects than some of the ‘left’ bureaucrats against whom they rebel.
From this contradiction stems rank-and-file organisation. Within such an organisation revolutionaries can organise together with those workers who want to fight, want to go further than the bureaucrats, even though they have not broken fully from reformism. The rank-and-file organisation organises this militant minority of workers: (1) To conduct the struggle independently should the bureaucrats refuse to take it up or attempt to put a brake on it; and (2) To fight within the unions for their rank-and-file control and direction.
Such struggles will often be organised on the most partial demands, but to conduct them effectively requires one thing above all – complete political and organisational independence from the bureaucracy, of course we are by no means indifferent to conflicts within the union bureaucracy. That is why in union elections we support the ‘lefts’ against the right on a second ballot or if the rank and file organisation is unable to present its own candidate. That is why, when the balance of forces permit, it is crucial for the rank-and-file organisation to initiate united action with the trade union lefts. But to make such initiatives profitably requires independent organisation willing to conduct what struggles it can on its own rather than passively waiting until the ‘lefts’ in the bureaucracy are pressured.
At the moment our building of such a rank-and-file organisation is largely at the stage of caucuses of revolutionary and militant workers in individual industries and unions intervening in what partial struggles they can through rank and file newspapers, bulletins and leaflets. But already in some cases they are able in a small way to begin to take the rank-and-file movement onto a higher plane by grouping round them in action the most militant union branches and shop stewards committees, either on a union or industrial basis, or into the very early and faltering beginnings of a national rank-and-file movement.
Of course the particular form which the rank-and-file movement takes in Britain is enormously conditioned by the particular features of British trade union and workplace organisation. But we believe the general strategy of rank-and-file organisation which we have outlined is a universally applicable one.
The FI does not talk of building a rank-and-file organisation. Instead it talks of a ‘strategy for building a class-struggle left wing’ in the unions. Are these just two different words for the same thing? The diversity of trade union practice of the FI both between and within its sections, and the vagueness and ambiguity of the ‘Work in the trade union movement’ section in the Draft Resolution on Western Europe do not make that a simple question to answer. We are convinced that there are many comrades in the FI who, by a ‘class-struggle left wing’ mean essentially what we mean by a rank-and-file organisation. But the general tone of the section and what we have observed of the trade union practise of the FI in Britain convince us that dominant’ elements in the FI see the ‘class-struggle left wing’ in a quite different light.
The Draft Resolution seems to attach decisive importance to explicitly political positions: e.g. ‘To have a class struggle left wing you have to have a class-struggle orientation and programme offering an alternative to the class-collaborationist policy of the reformists ...’ Or again ‘(within opposition groups) we have to fight for the following objectives: To clarify and round out the programmatic bases of these groupings; to make it clear that a key part of fighting the bureaucratic apparatus is to outline a concrete alternative strategy for struggling against the policy of the capitalists and the government ...’ To us such an approach smacks of propagandism, of the never ending search for the ‘correct demand’ which forms the magic key to breaking workers from reformism. Of course we are not against clarity of demands in the struggle. Far from it! But the decisive question is that of organising now those groups of workers who are prepared to fight, even when – indeed specially when – they agree with only a part of our concrete alternative strategy.
The Draft Resolution says ‘there is no class struggle left wing now, not even an incipient one, in any European union ... Such a group would have to be the result of internal differentiation including in the union leaderships themselves ...’ And this point is re-emphasised later on in the resolution: ‘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.’ Now if this is meant seriously it shows an alarming blindness to the existence within the unions of a bureaucratic layer with its own interests. And if it is acted upon seriously it can only lead to a sterile propagandism which neglects the central contradiction within the unions or, more likely, to a progressive adaption to the left of the trade union bureaucracy.
We would not make so much of these points in what is after all a particularly vague section of the resolution if it were not for what we have observed in Britain in the last few years of the trade union practise of the FI. In union after union the IMG, presumably hoping for ‘internal differentiation ... in the union leaderships themselves’, have broken from the rank-and-file caucuses initiated by our own comrades, sometimes to form their own caucuses aiming to include elements in the lower ranks of the bureaucracy, more often to join the Broad Left (the electoral machine in the unions of the Communist Party and the Labour Left). Thus in practise they are increasingly presenting the ‘Class struggle left wing’ as a halfway house between the rank-and-file organisations and the Broad Left, i.e. the left (and not so very left at that!) of the bureaucracy.
One of the most important sections of the draft resolution is the concluding one, on ‘Proletarianisation and Party Building’. The crucial passage in this section is the following:
‘In many countries, the majority of comrades are members of unions. But the task of building solid union fractions in industry remains to be done. The sections must centralise and plan their work in order to make a qualitative advance in rooting themselves in these key sectors of the working class. This also requires sending into industry members recruited in the previous period.’ (op. cit., p. 44, emphasis added)
Now. while we completely agree with the objective, the solid implantation of revolutionaries in the industrial working class, we believe that the method proposed to achieve it can only lead to disaster. ‘Proletarianisation’ or ‘industrialisation’ – i.e. transplanting ex-students into industry is only a substitute, and a dangerous one at that, for the real task of building workers’ parties.
‘Industrialisation’ has certain superficial attractions. It yields quick results – it leads to significant increases in the number of manual workers among the members. These results are however achieved at a high price. The petty-bourgeois comrades sent into industry are forced to adapt to their new environment. Their first priority is to make themselves acceptable to their work-mates. The natural consequence is that they play down, or completely conceal their politics and concentrate upon making themselves effective trade unionists. A gulf opens up between their life as revolutionaries and their life as worker militants. Within the workplace their priority is not to win over other workers to revolutionary politics, to sell the party’s paper, to present a programme of struggle against the bosses, but to establish themselves as good militants pure and simple. Within the organisation they often become a conservative force, tending, for example, to take what they believe to be a ‘super-proletarian’ (i.e. reactionary) line on questions of, for instance sexual oppression, and to adopt generally economistic positions.
At the same time, ‘industrialisation’ tends to create two tiers of membership within the organisation. There are the ‘worker-Bolshevik cadres’ who have made the transition from petty bourgeois to ‘proletarian’ and who therefore tend to regard themselves as an elite, and the rest, who exist, not to build the party and rank-and-file organisations in their own workplaces, but to ‘service’ the ‘proletarians’. Work in the white-collar unions and among students, far from negligible spheres of activity, tends to : suffer severely under this sort of regime.
We are not inventing this scenario. It has happened in odd instances within our own organisation. It happened to the International Socialists in the United States, where ‘industrialisation’ created a paper which hardly mentioned politics, a bloated full-time apparatus, a conservative layer of ‘proletarianised’ students and, at the bottom, demoralised white-collar workers and students. The end result is that the organisation has dissolved itself into various rank-and-file union caucuses and a monthly propaganda magazine.
This sort of development is not accidental. It flows from the failure to understand that genuine ‘proletarianisation’ – i.e. the recruitment of workers and the creation of layers of worker-sympathisers – depends upon convincing the existing, petty-bourgeois members that their task is to relate to workers, not to substitute themselves for them. In other words, their job is to put over revolutionary socialist ideas and concrete proposals for struggle to those workers who are prepared, however hesitantly, to listen.
The crucial method for doing so is through the revolutionary party’s paper. We are astonished that the draft resolution contains not one word about the question of the revolutionary paper. Selling the paper is the crucial mechanism through which the members can be organised to relate to workers. They must sell the paper in their own workplace, sell it outside other workplaces where the party has no members, sell it on the streets, persuade sympathisers to take a few copies to sell. Through systematic efforts to sell the paper to workers the revolutionary organisation can begin to create a working-class audience for its ideas which will also follow its practical lead in struggle.
This requires, however, a certain sort of paper – one that puts over revolutionary ideas in a simple, popular and accessible manner with reports by workers themselves on the struggles taking place in different parts of the country. In other words what is needed is a workers’ paper, which workers feel they can read and contribute to themselves, and therefore which they are prepared to sell and support financially.
This means breaking from the style of revolutionary paper (unfortunately too common on the far left today) with long analytical articles written in abstract theoretical terms and with a selection of features and news items which reflect more the tastes and interests of the petty-bourgeois milieu from which the revolutionary organisations have emerged rather than those of the militant workers whom they must win over. The objective must be the same as Trotsky’s when he criticised the paper of the SWP(US) for being ‘a paper for workers and not a workers’ paper’. ‘You do not hear at all how the workers live, fight, clash with the police or drink whisky ... The task is not to make a paper through the joint forces of a skilled editorial board but to encourage the workers to speak for themselves.’ (In Defence of Marxism, p. 112)
Closely linked to the question of the paper is the necessity of producing workplace bulletins, both where the party has members and where it does not, covering both general political questions and immediate workplace issues, which can again help create an audience of sympathetic militant workers within individual factories and offices. It is through steps like this, which force party members to relate politically to workers outside the organisation, that genuine revolutionary workers’ parties can be built.
Two other issues must be singled out as having played a special part in the crisis of the European revolutionary left: the women’s question and the recent developments in the self-styled ‘socialist’ countries. On the first, one only has to look at the part played by the women’s question in the crisis of the Italian ‘Mao-centrist’ organisations. On the second one only has has to survey the press of the ‘Mao-centrist’ organisations to see the terrible theoretical contortions produced by the post-Cultural Revolution developments in China, by the Cuban presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and by the ‘wars between socialist countries’ in Indochina. We have therefore studied the positions of the Fourth International on these two issues with particular interest.
In the draft resolution Socialist Revolution and the struggle for Women’s Liberation we find much that we agree with and on some of those positions over which we might have hesitation the disagreements and uncertainties probably overlap our organisations and should be the subject of future debate both within and between our organisations. However two points particularly strike us where we find a formalistic approach which (especially if taken together) could lead to just the problems which have afflicted much of the rest of the revolutionary left.
First of all there is the attitude to the existing women’s movement. The document says ‘the Fourth International supports and helps build the Women’s liberation movement.’ And by this movement you understand ‘women’s liberation groups, consciousness-raising groups, neighbourhood groups, student groups, groups organised at workplaces, trade union caucuses, organisations of women of oppressed nationalities, lesbian-feminist groups, action coalitions around specific demands.’ In short the whole heterogenous network which constitutes the existing women’s movement. Your goal is to build a ‘women’s movement which is basically working class in composition and leadership’ and you propose to do this by trying ‘to build the strongest possible wing within the women’s liberation movement of those who share our class struggle perspectives’.
‘Whether we should organise women’s liberation groups on a broad socialist programme, work through existing organisations of the women’s liberation movement, build action coalitions around specific issues, work through trade union caucuses, combine several of these activities, or work through some altogether different forms are tactical questions.’
Now of course in the most abstract sense that is right: these are tactical questions. But they are tactical questions on which we can begin to give some general answers. And this because of a development on which the document remains silent. That is that in Britain, North America, and, as far as we can judge in most of the advanced capitalist countries the organisations of the existing women’s liberation movement have for some years been in an impasse, unable to break out of their largely professional and upper white collar social base, becoming increasingly fragmented, inward looking and with the increasing dominance of ‘counter-cultural’ ideas and (in North America particularly) of organisations increasingly resembling the bourgeois feminists against whom communist feminists like Kollontai and Zetkin fought bitterly.
In these circumstances general talk of ‘supporting and helping build the womens’ liberation movement’, building ‘a class struggle tendency within it’ and defending its ‘autonomy’ (‘not subordinate to the decisions and policy needs of any political tendency’) seems to us to be dangerous.
To break out of the impasse revolutionaries must be prepared to strike out on their own. To organise themselves among working class women without making a fetish of the existing women’s movement (though of course engaging in unity in action with them wherever the opportunity presents itself.) This is what we have tried to do in a small way with our paper and organisation ‘Women’s Voice’. Unless the Fourth International is willing to look soberly at the existing women’s movement and draw similar conclusions from it we fear that it will become entangled in it in much the same way as many of the ‘Mao-centrist’ organisations have become after their initial crisis over the women’s question.
But alongside this we are frankly amazed to see the pronouncements in the draft resolution (1) that ‘It is not the responsibility of the party to organise child care for comrades as a general policy, nor can the party impose child-care duties on any comrades’ and (2) ‘... the organisation of women-only caucuses stands in contradiction to the political character of the party and our democratic-centralist organizational principles, which flow from our programme.’
In response to these pronouncements we can do no better than to agree with comrade Marlene of the United Secretariat when in her dissenting note to the draft resolution she says, regarding (1): ‘Obviously the party shouldn’t take care of children in place of society and it must stimulate mass struggles for the necessary social services. But the party must take steps that facilitate its struggle by enabling male and female workers who have children to participate in its external meetings, cadre schools, etc. ... To affirm in a resolution of the International that the taking care of children is not the concern of the party is de facto to ratify either the impossibility of working women with children being in the leadership or the tacit obligation not to have children ... This is an attitude which can only go against the proletarianisation necessary in many sections.’
And on (2): ‘On women’s caucuses. They are neither good or normal. But neither is the situation of women in the organisation. The question is not one of beginning from a completely theoretical equality of members of the party to conclude that women’s caucuses introduce inequality. The problem is the reverse: women’s caucuses are an abnormal affair, but result from the inequality that exists in practice between men and women, even in a revolutionary organisation.’
Two of the sharper disputes in the discussions leading up to the World Congress concern the analysis of the so-called ‘socialist’ countries, the first concerned with Cuba, the second with Kampuchea.
To us, the fact that these two sharp disputes have arisen suggests that the theory that (in Ernest Mandel’s words) ‘has been the unchanged majority position in the Fourth International on this subject for at least a quarter of a century’ may not be quite the last word on the subject which most of its adherents would have considered it to be until recently. Having said that the fact that these matters are being discussed at length can only be welcomed.
In particular we welcome the fact that at long last the virtually uncritical approach taken to the Cuban regime by the American SWP is being challenged from within the International (even though, of course, we do not think the challenge goes far enough).
On the question of Kampuchea the position is more complicated but potentially of more profound significance. Again, as Mandel puts it, it has ‘obvious implications with regard to our assessment of the class nature of many other workers states, and even with regard to our basic positions towards the class nature of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.’
For us two things stand out in the debate. Firstly the recognition by the American SWP of Pol Pot’s Kampuchea as at one and the same time both capitalist and with a completely nationalised economy – thus in effect recognising it as state capitalist. Secondly, Ernest Mandel’s recognition that with regard to the creation of the nationalised economies in Eastern Europe ‘by no stretch of the imagination, could these expropriations be interpreted as having been carried out by the workers themselves.’
Unfortunately the debate seems now to be taking the course of an increasingly Talmudic discussion of what exactly the ‘unchanged position of the Fourth International for more than a quarter of a century’ is. And that we think will be incapable of resolution in its own terms. For, on the one hand, the American SWP takes its stand on the revolutionary role of the working class in the creation of ‘workers states’ and then has to tortuously distort the reality of history to fit this (apart from on Kampuchea). While, on the other hand, Mandel has a more realistic appraisal of the history of the creation of the ‘workers states’ but draws from this the quite un-Marxist conclusion that workers states can be created independently of the action of the working class.
As we see it the debate has exposed some crucial inconsistencies in the ‘orthodoxy’ and can only be resolved when that ‘orthodoxy’ is examined more openly. Given the insights already made by both sides in the debate, it seems sensible to suggest that that openness should extend to a new look at the theory of state capitalism rather than using it simply as a bogie to frighten children with as has been done up to now.
The draft resolutions on Western Europe and on the World Political situation both end on the note of regroupment. That is as should be and, as outsiders observing your congress it seems a suitable note for us to conclude on. First of all we will make a few comments on the FI’s position on regroupment and then we will outline our own position.
(1) ‘In our estimation it is extremely unlikely that in the foreseeable future there will be possibilities of regroupment of revolutionaries with significant tendencies arising within the mass reformist parties. We therefore think the draft resolution on Western Europe is making a major error to consider the serious possibility of ‘fraction work ... in these parties or in their youth organisations.’ and in particular we think it is absolutely misjudging the situation when it says that ‘in Great Britain the nature of the Labour Party dictates doing long-term fraction work ...’
(2) While both the draft resolutions put on an equal plane ‘groups that accept the programme of Trotskyism in general’ and ‘groupings that do not claim to be Trotskyist’ it seems to us that in the past year or two the emphasis has increasingly shifted to ‘Trotskyist regroupment’ and away from the non-Trotskyist groupings. The FI’s approach to these groupings seems to be increasingly tinged with denunciations of ‘centrism’. At a time when, in Western Europe at least, much of the non-Trotskyist left is going through a period of reappraisal such a dogmatic and triumphalist approach seems to us singularly unproductive.
In this light the approach of the British section of the FI to us (the most ‘Trotskyist’ of the ‘non-Trotskyist’ groups!) seems to us a copy-book example of dogmatic insensitivity. To begin a letter proposing negotiations on fusion, as the IMG did, with the sentence, ‘The SWP’s politics represent a syndicalist break from revolutionary Marxism, i.e. Trotskyism’ does not seem to us an approach which can be seriously expected to elicit a positive response.
(3) But it is the increased emphasis by certain elements within the FI on ‘Trotskyist regroupment’ that most alarms us. Of course any regroupment involving Lutte Ouvriere (France) would be a welcome development, although with LO’s attachment to its own unique methods of organisation we must doubt whether this is a serious possibility in the foreseeable future. But in practice ‘Trotskyist regroupment’ means fusion with the OCI and its international affiliates. The OCI has long been an organisation characterised by extreme sectarianism, a gangster-like internal regime, with, above all an extremely right wing and purely propagandistic politics. We find it incredible that some elements in the FI are now deluding themselves that the leopard has changed its spots.
Fusion with the OCI would result in a faction fight of the greatest bitterness, resolved by bureaucratic means, where the OCI had the upper hand. (One only has to think of the situation of Australia, where the infinitely less ill-omened merger of the organisations representing the former Leninist-Trotskyist Faction and the International Majority Tendency has been followed by the systematic bureaucratic exclusion and demoralisation of the IMT comrades by the LTF majority, to see for example what a merger between the OCI and the LCR in France could mean.) But, even more important, fusion with the OCI would mean a qualitative leap in the adoption of dogmatic right-wing ‘Trotskyism’ which we have criticised as a tendency in our previous comments.
So how then do we see the question of international revolutionary regroupment?
As you know our party originated in the late 1940s out of the Trotskyist movement. We broke with what we saw to be a ‘Trotskyist orthodoxy’ which in our view became ossified in the years after the second World War particularly in relation to the analysis of the ‘socialist’ countries but with regard to many other issues as well. Underlying many of the detailed criticisms we have made above of certain current trends in the Fourth International is our criticism of that ‘orthodoxy’.
We do not generally call ourselves Trotskyists because formal justification of much of this ‘orthodoxy’ can be found in the latter of Trotsky’s work. However, at the same time we share with you the firm belief that Trotsky’s analysis of and fight against the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, his theory of permanent revolution and fight against the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, and his virtually lone defence of Leninist politics against the distortions of Stalinism constitute an indispensable part of the heritage of revolutionaries today.
We also share with you the firm belief in the necessity of building a revolutionary international. And if we do not see the Fourth International as a real International, that is not primarily because of our political disagreements with you, but because first of all even its biggest sections lack the real mass roots in the working class which make international discipline a living reality rather than a formalistic pretence. Secondly it embraces only a minority of what, on even the strictest definition, constitutes the revolutionary left today.
Unlike some of the other organisations present at the World Congress we do not believe there has ever been a ‘golden age’ of the FI when it has been a real international. Talk of ‘reconstructuring the Fourth International’ we therefore believe to be sophistry. Since the Stalinisation of the Comintern a real revolutionary international remains to be built.
In our view a real revolutionary international will only be built by a long and complex process of discussion, co-operation and above all by the testing out of different political lines in mass struggle as the revolutionary left builds real roots in the workers’ movement.
Such a process must start from the reality of the revolutionary left today. And by the revolutionary left today we do not of course mean degenerated sects (however large) like the Mao-Stalinists (PTE, ORT for example) or the Healeyites and Lambertistes. We mean those who, with whatever failings, demonstrate in practice today their commitment to the class struggle and their openness to serious debate.
That includes organisations with a largely national base, like ourselves and Lutte Ouvriere. It also includes two major international currents. The bigger although the far less homogeneous is what you term the ‘Mao-centrists’. The other is yourselves, the Fourth International.
Whatever our differences (and they are numerous) we have been able to find many areas for useful cooperation and discussion with many of the organisations which you term ‘Mao-centrist’. And we hope to develop them.
We have the same approach to the Fourth International. That is why we welcome your openness in inviting us to observe and make some participation in the World Congress of the Fourth International. That is why, despite many of our underlying political differences and the sharpness of some of the specific criticisms we have just made, we have carefully avoided simply denouncing you for some ‘original sin’.
We see our participation in the congress as a continuation of the fruitful discussions and cooperation we have had with some of your sections and individual comrades in the FI in the past. And, with your co-operation, we hope to extend and develop these in the future.
The results will not be dramatic. Because the revolutionary left today is weak and quite correctly must devote the overwhelming bulk of its resources to building roots in the workers’ movement of its own country.
We see our participation in the congress as a continuation of the fruitful discussions and cooperation we have had with some of your sections and individual comrades in the FI in the past. And, with your co-operation, we hope to extend and develop these in the future.
The results will not be dramatic. Because the revolutionary left today is weak and quite correctly must devote the overwhelming bulk of its resources to building roots in the workers’ movement of its own country. Such discussions and cooperation, however modest, are nonetheless a necessary part of the long, complicated and sometimes painful process of building a new revolutionary international.
Last updated: 4.5.2013