The Fourth International

The Long March of the Trotskyists


By Brian Grogan, National Secretary, International Marxist Group (British section of the Fourth International)

The Fourth International celebrated its fortieth anniversary in September 1978. It recorded a period of unprecedented growth on a world scale in all parts of the globe. Today its programme unites Mexican peasants, Japanese workers, European youth and a new cadre of African revolutionaries. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of the growth of the Fourth International in objective terms, but the fact that it has grown, developed and intervened in national politics in France, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Argentina and Peru (to take the most obvious examples) is universally acknowledged. The Fourth International is the only revolutionary political organisation that consciously organises itself on a world scale. It is this which both marks it off from the rest of the far left in Europe and America and, at the same time, demonstrates its enormous potential.

We live in an age where everything has been internationalised. Imperialism brought in its wake world politics and world economics. This was the objective criterion for launching the Third (Communist) International. It remains the basis for our attempt to construct a mass revolutionary Fourth International. This does not mean that we deny the existence of national characteristics and peculiarities. These are vital for determining political tactics and strategy in different countries and in different continents. But we insist that these are not isolated features, but represent in every instance novel combinations of world politics and national peculiarities.

The reality of a world economy is not denied today by anyone. Concepts such as 'balance of payments', 'exchange rates', 'multinationals' and 'oil crises' are part of the everyday vocabulary of the popular press in all the capitalist countries. The imperialist rulers also understand the importance of world politics and economics. A number of summits have already taken place to discuss 'measures to curb inflation and unemployment': in other words, to discuss ways of lessening the effects of the capitalist recession. The political interventions of the International Monetary Fund (a 'control commission' of the international capitalist economy) in countries as varied as Jamaica, Britain, Sri Lanka, and Italy are no longer seriously questioned by mass currents within the workers movement.

It is these objective political and economic factors that make the fight to build an International more vital today than ever before. In 1902 Lenin wrote, while drafting the programme of Russian Social Democracy, that 'we are the Russian detachment of international social democracy'. Today it is somewhat grotesque that organisations of the far left who maintain, on occasion even rigidly, their adherence to Leninist principles should reject the idea of building an International. They should have understood that 'national communist' organisations built without programmatic coherence tend to develop deep and unbridgeable differences.

An example here would be in order. The British Socialist Workers Party has based its opposition to the Fourth International on an analogy from the building industry: 'first build the walls and then the roof'. Such an analogy is itself thoroughly misplaced, as any architect could demonstrate in a few sentences. But when architectural deviations are carried into politics the result can be catastrophic. The attempts of the SWP to link up with the Portuguese PRP(BR) and the Italian Avanguardia Operaia have ended in unmitigated disaster. The divergences between the SWP and these other organisations are deepgoing and profound. This process will continue to repeat itself unless the SWP attempts seriously to construct an international organisation on the basis of a common revolutionary programme.

The last ten years have seen important advances for the revolutionary left as a whole. But a number of qualifications have to be immediately added. In the first instance, in no country has any revolutionary organisation succeeded in transforming itself into a revolutionary party. Secondly, with very few exceptions, the overwhelming bulk of'national communist' organisations have either disappeared or developed political orientations which mark a sharp break with Leninism. When a Eurocommunist leader remarked ironically that the 'Trotskyists of the Fourth International are the only Leninists we have left, and that's what is wrong about them', he was stating an incontestable fact.

It would be both counter-productive and false to see the development of the Fourth International over the last ten years as one big triumphalist ascent. Errors were made. Many of them were corrected. Some sections suffered severe blows (the Italian case is the prime example) from which they have still to recover. For that reason we concentrate in this introduction on the developments of the last ten years.

Describing the last tortured decade of Trotsky's life, his biographer Isaac Deutscher wrote (paraphrasing Marx):'This was a time when .. "the idea pressed towards reality", but as reality did not tend towards the idea, a gulf was set between them, a gulf narrower and yet deeper than before.' 1968 was a year when reality and the idea met up once again, shook hands, and embraced each other, albeit for a short period. The largest general strike in the history of capitalism paralysed metropolitan France, the Vietnamese communists launched an offensive which shattered Washington, and giant strides were taken towards socialist democracy in Czechoslovakia which could only be crushed by Soviet tanks. The European working class moved once again onto the political stage after a period of passivity oiled by the long economic post-war boom. Since 1968 world politics has seen unprecedented social and national explosions. The overthrow of fascism in Portugal was the best example of the inter-relationship of world and national politics, as the guerrillas of Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique joined the Portuguese workers and soldiers to bring about the downfall of Caetano. This was followed by the defeat of the South Africans in Angola and the Soweto uprising, the de-Francoisation of Spain, the acceleration of the armed struggle in Zimbabwe, and most recently, the political crisis in Iran. Some of the far left currents believed in the euphoria of 1968 that the traditional mass organisations of the working class would be rapidly bypassed. But the 1970s have seen this thesis refuted. The workers, in their majority, remained loyal to their traditional apparatuses. A minority in most capitalist countries in Europe did, however, become attracted to the revolutionary left and responded to its initiatives. Where they were given ultra-left and over-optimistic assessments of the possibilities of the revolution, they suffered a relapse and withdrew. In other cases they remain responsive to revolutionary initiatives. Spain is the best example of the latter case.

The Fourth International has explained these developments by a creative application of the tenets of classical Marxism. It has defended the 'old' conceptions of the Third International on the united front and transitional demands. However the Fourth International. too, was not immune. In particular it underestimated the tenacious hold of bourgeois-democratic institutions over the working class -- in itself a result of the experience of decades of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. It was the political reserves of the European bourgeoisie and the political weaknesses of the workers movement which prevented the establishment of dual power in France and Portugal in 1968 and 1975.

This underestimation of the political resources still available to the bourgeoisie was never more clearly demonstrated than in the case of Spain. While the death agony of Francoism clearly raised the real possibility of a general strike and the entry of the masses into politics, the Spanish ruling class was not standing idly by. It instituted a series of reforms from above which were utilised by the Spanish Socialist and Communist parties to integrate the working class with the central project of the bourgeoisie. Thus a dogmatic insistence on the revolutionary general strike became an obstacle to evaluating the evolution of Spanish politics.

While mistakes of the above sort indicated some problems of analysis, they could not be ascribed to a 'break with Leninism', however. What is more, these mistakes were soon corrected. In 1977 the Fourth International produced its 'Theses on Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat'. These theses provide the only real synthesis of the strands in classical Marxism on this question; they represent a real theoretical gain for the revolutionary movement as a whole and the only serious rebuttal to the theoreticians of Eurocommunism who counterpose democracy to socialist revolution.

The mistakes of the Fourth International in this period in relation to Latin America were of a more serious character. The 1960s had seen the victory of the Cuban Revolution, an event which helped to generalise the crisis of the Latin American states. The scope of the social contradictions and the inherent political instability lent all mass mobilisations an explosive character. These were followed by inevitable clashes with the repressive apparatus of the state. The semi-permanent role of the army (which appeared more and more as the main political force of the bourgeoisie) excluded any prolonged periods of bourgeois democracy.

In response to this, the Latin American Trotskyists believed that it was vital to transform their organisations from propaganda groups into armed units capable of resisting the bourgeois onslaught. This response was reinforced with the emergence in every Latin American country of a vanguard which, under the inspiration and direct encouragement of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, broke with the politics of gradualism and compromise so ably defended by the Communist parties throughout the continent. These militants drew only one lesson from the Cuban Revolution: guerrilla warfare. The Fourth International thus adopted a 'strategy of armed struggle'. This was a serious mistake on a number of counts. On the level of analysis it appeared to endorse the notion that a few hundred militants with weapons could bring about a socialist revolution. This had not been the case even in Cuba, where the mass mobilisations of 1959 and 1960-61 were of crucial importance in ensuring the defeat of the Cuban bourgeoisie and its imperialist masters.

In addition, the analysis of the crisis was at too general a level. There was little specific examination of the conjuncture in each country, in sharp contrast to Trotsky's acute analysis of the respective crises in Germany, Spain and France in the 1930s. The Fourth International's Latin American tactics were more influenced by the Lukacian concept of the 'actuality of the revolution'. Thus specific democratic and transitional demands were seen as unnecessary. The FI has already paid a heavy price for these errors and made a sharp re-evaluation of its tactics.

The developments in the various sectors of the world revolution in this period have confronted the International with arduous tasks on the level of analysis of political conjunctures, their likely evolution, and their inter-relationship. But they lie also at the level of the political and organisational choices confronting the International and its sections.

The accomplishment of these tasks has been rendered more difficult by the fact that from 1969 to 1977 the Fourth International was racked by an extremely sharp tendency fight which strongly influenced both its internal functioning and its capacity for internationally coordinated actions.

It was inevitable that the political developments of the last decade would give rise to different points of view, and that significant divergences would develop in an organisation undergoing expansion in new areas and compelled to respond to increasing political and practical pressures. The Fourth International has always upheld the view that the formation of tendencies is a method of concretising the democratic centralism that should characterise the functioning of a revolutionary Leninist organisation. But when a tendency struggle leads to the creation of permanent crystallised formations this entails grave dangers for the unity of the organisation. A split dynamic can become irresistible.

All these difficulties were further heightened since, at the culmination of the internal conflict at the 1974 World Congress, the political and organisational strength of the two contending tendencies was not greatly different (the majority prevailed by a close vote). Indeed, in a number of countries (Spain, Canada, Australia, etc.) splits did occur, some directly related to the international debate, others fostered by the conditions created by that debate. In some cases disciplinary measures of suspension or expulsion were taken against national minorities; these measures were variously considered, depending on the different points of view, as either legitimate defence against actions by undisciplined militants or violations of the most elementary norms of democratic centralism.

The functioning of the international leadership was seriously hampered, among other reasons because the majority most often had to choose between making decisions that would have been contested by a significant portion of the organisation or accepting delays and paralysing compromises. And it is scarcely necessary to add that such a situation made it far more difficult to effect the necessary work of assimilating groups, tendencies, and militants coming closer or adhering to the International on the basis of differing political experiences. In some cases--that of the PRT/ERP in Argentina, for example--the consequence was that the process of homogenisation simply did not occur and forces that had been won were subsequently lost.

Despite all these difficulties, and despite the many limits--of which those who held leadership responsibilities during these years are the first to be aware--the Fourth International has been able to grasp the elements and fundamental tendencies of this period and to elaborate the strategic and tactical orientations required by the workers movement to develop its struggle successfully in an anti-capitalist direction. In this regard the deep internal differences did not prevent the great majority of the Fourth International from reaching agreement on some basic orientations and conceptions clearly counterposed both to those of the reformist and neo-reformist parties and to those of the centrist or extremist formations, old and new. We do not wish to minimise the importance of the differences that arose on various occasions, in regard not only to Latin America but also to Western Europe (the most significant example was the Portuguese crisis, on which quite different, if not absolutely counterposed, assessments and orientations emerged). But there was substantial convergence on some of the basic and decisive axes.

With regard to capitalist Europe, since May 1968 the analysis of the Fourth International has emphasised the eruption of a general crisis of the system. There were no important differences on this point, nor on the fact that the dynamic of the situation has placed the problem of the struggle of the working class for power on the agenda. Further, there was general agreement that the strategy for the conquest of power must be an ever greater mobilisation of the masses within a perspective of dual power, i.e. the creation of revolutionary-democratic organs of the workers and other exploited layers, conceived as both instruments with which to break the structure of the bourgeois state and embryos of the future workers state. It is scarcely necessary to recall that the experiences in some countries--particularly Italy in 1969 and Portugal in 1975--have confirmed that here the Fourth International was pointing to real tendencies and not simply harping on the past history of the workers movement, as its detractors have often claimed.

These conceptions entailed, of course, substantial differences with the conceptions of the traditional workers parties. These parties--and here there are no important differences between social-democratic or Socialist parties and Communist parties--rejected the very analysis of a general crisis of the system and hence the prospect of a struggle for the overthrow of that system. Instead they posited reformist-gradualist solutions, either in their traditional social-democratic variants or in the 'new' variants of the 'historic compromise', Union of the Left, or the Moncloa Pact. As for the centrist organisations, their analyses oscillated between catastrophic interpretations heavily permeated with spontantism (the entire problematic of a phase of pre-revolutionary or revolutionary crisis being ignored or reduced to minimum importance) and alternate interpretations not qualitatively different from those of the traditional parties. In practice, they wavered between extremist and sectarian attitudes and bureaucratic manipulation of the mass movement on the one hand, and opportunistic tailendism on the other -- sometimes combining the two.

The requirements of polemical clarification against the reformists and centrists therefore stimulated reflection by revolutionary Marxists on the problems of workers councils and organs of proletarian democracy more generally, of their relationship to the political organisations and the trade unions, and of the role of the latter in a phase of generalised crisis of the system. Here again, the most important material of elaboration was provided by the experiences of the mass movements in Italy and Portugal and, to a lesser extent up to now, Spain.

Even with respect to Latin America, the differences which bitterly divided the Fourth International were quite distinct from those which divided and still divide the Trotskyist movement as a whole from the reformist and centrist organisations. As regards the reformists, the point is rather obvious. But also in the case of the centrists--even the most politically mature of them, like the Chilean MIR and the Argentinian PRT--essential differences were expressed between their conceptions and those of the Trotskyists on problems such as the very nature of the Latin American revolution, the policy of alliances, the stance to adopt towards the traditional workers movement, and the role of the working class itself. Let us recall that in the case of the most political experience for the Latin American working class since the Cuban revolution, that of Popular Unity in Chile, the United Secretariat adopted a unanimous resolution at the end of 1971 (which contained, among other things, a criticism of the MIR, whose themes were later taken up by militants breaking with that organisation). Even with regard to the impetuous upsurge of the Bolivian masses during the first half of 1971, the basic assessments and orientations that emerged within the International were not dissimilar, apart from the persistent polemics on the orientation adopted by the FOR in 1969 and on the consequences of that orientation.

Finally, the differences which persist in the Fourth International in regard to the analysis of the situation and trends in the workers states, particularly China and Vietnam, are now of a more methodological and historical than directly political character. Although no formal decision has yet been made, there is a virtually unanimous consensus that the great struggle of the Vietnamese people has concluded with the establishment of a workers state on a national scale. No less important, the Fourth International has unanimously rejected the widespread illusions and mystifications about the so-called cultural revolution and about Maoism more generally. In particular, the events which have occurred since the early 1970s have furnished unequivocal confirmation of the validity of the basic analysis of the Chinese crisis adopted by the Fourth International back in 1967 and more systematically refined at the 1969 World Congress.

Since 1968 a range of organisations and movements have arisen to the left of the traditional workers parties. Many of these organisations accepted the conceptions and orientations of Maoism, while in Latin America the Castroist or Guevarist influence prevailed. In some countries organisations arose which acquired a relative theoretical and even greater political autonomy, giving rise to new variants of centrism. The most substantial formations of this sort arose in Italy after 1969, in Portugal in 1974 and 1975, and in Spain particularly during the death agony of Francoism. In Latin America a similar role was played by the Chilean MIR and the Argentine PRT (the latter after its break with the Fourth International).

Some people hastily drew the conclusion that others were achieving what the Fourth International had failed to realise in decades of effort -- the construction of revolutionary organisations capable of challenging the traditional workers parties with some success. This conclusion seemed reinforced by the fact that some of these organisations (notably Lotta Continua and Avanguardia Operaia in Italy) had begun to establish international links and even to set up organs to concretise them (such as the Junta Coordinadora established by several Latin American organisations). Ten years on, however, after the tragic experiences in Latin America (from the failure of Che's campaign in Bolivia to the Uruguayan, Chilean, and Argentinian events), and after the events in Portugal in 1975 and in Italy in 1976-77, the balance-sheet is radically different. The Castroite organisations in Latin America have almost completely disappeared and the Junta Coordinadora is no longer.

In Britain the changes have been less dramatic. The class struggle has not reached the same level as in Southern Europe; and the largest far left organisation, the Socialist Workers Party (formerly International Socialists), has maintained far greater elements of classical Marxism in its politics.

Nevertheless, the evolution of the SWP also reflects the processes we have just noted. From 1969-74 it was completely dominant to the left of the Labour Party and Communist Party. However, while in some respects it seemed to be developing towards Trotskyist positions, its politics remained marred by residual syndicalism. By 1974-5 this was leading it to a line with many similarities to that of Avanguardia Operaia in Italy, the PRP-BR in Portugal, the OCT in France, etc. The SWP recognised this by starting to develop organisational links with these groups on alternative positions to those of the Fourth International.

The result was a profound transformation of the SWP. It was unable to draw the lessons of the events in Portugal or of the Labour government's success in imposing its austerity measures on the working class in Britain. It also went through a series of purges and splits with the loss of a large section of its mature political cadres, profoundly altering the composition of the organisation. The SWP's policy of 'steering left' led to a wild ultra-left lurch which saw a sharp contraction in the number of its trade union militants with influence in industry, despite an overall numerical growth of the organisation. New currents have now developed outside the SWP so that, while it is still the largest organisation on the far left, it has lost much of the influence it enjoyed immediately after 1968.

In general, therefore, the last ten years have seen the collapse of attempts to avoid drawing the experiences of the decades of revolutionary activity of the Fourth International. The latter, meanwhile, has continued to grow and develop a genuinely effective presence and influence in the mass movements and trade unions, as the sole alternative to reformism and Euro-centrism, the sole revolutionary pole of international dimensions. It appears, especially in certain countries, as the only organisation capable of offering a response to the increasingly pressing questions being raised by workers and militants who have so far followed the traditional organisations and remain under their influence.

As we have already mentioned, the Fourth International, in the spirit of Leninist democratic centralism, considers tendencies and even factions legitimate instruments of struggle to convince members of orientations and methods considered correct, to impose corrections or changes of line, and to renovate or change leading groups. Nevertheless, tendencies--and factions even more--also entail dangers of degeneration. If they crystallise, and perpetuate themselves, they threaten to assume functions objectively opposite to those for which they were conceived. They can become obstacles to the internal dialectic of the organisation as a whole, preventing rather than ensuring open approaches to new problems that arise, and potentially undermining the normal, statutory bodies. Regardless of subjective intentions, tendency struggles entail a potential split dynamic.

These dangers were not at all imaginary during the long internal struggle in the Fourth International in the 1970s. The consequences of the chronic persistence of divisions were becoming ever greater. Hence the process of reflection which led to the decision of the two major tendencies to dissolve. The premise for this dissolution was not the assumption that there were no longer differences, and still less that none could develop in the future. But in the existing state of affairs the actual differences could be discussed directly through the normal bodies of the organisation without recourse to the instrument of tendency or faction. Certain important convergences had already occurred (on the document on the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialist democracy, for example) and possible future differences--even in view of the coming World Congress--would not necessarily occur along the lines of the previous divisions.

This episode was of considerable significance. To begin with, it was important to establish criteria and modes of functioning, particularly since we are bound to see the formation of other tendencies and factions in the future. Second, it was necessary to refute in practice the argument of our opponents that tendencies and factions cannot be permitted because they paralyse the organisation and inevitably end in splits.

If we make a comparison, for instance, between the practice of the Fourth International and that of nearly all the Maoist organisations-resolute opponents of tendencies and supporters of a mythical conception of unity derived, in reality, from Stalinist bureaucratism--the balance-sheet is clear. The Maoist organisations have proved incapable of confronting the slightest internal differences without bitter clashes and resounding splits (with the usual accusations of betrayal, capitulation to the class enemy, and sell-outs to the various imperialist or 'social-imperialist' spy networks). The Fourth International, on the other hand, has passed the severe test of an internal struggle lasting almost a decade while simultaneously maintaining its united international structure, re-establishing it in the various countries in which splits did occur (Spain, Canada, Australia, Mexico), and strengthening its own leadership.

But to leave the picture here would be one-sided and, in the final analysis, triumphalist. To begin with, the reformist and neo-reformist parties continue to maintain their hegemony over the working class despite the creation of situations objectively favourable to the development of revolutionary struggles, and despite the severe blows for their conceptions and orientations in various countries. No organisation of the Fourth International has succeeded in challenging this hegemony, even in cases where we have made striking progress and have won important positions in the mass movements and organisations.

Secondly, in some important countries of capitalist Europe itself (notably Italy and West Germany), the Fourth International still commands very limited forces and is therefore threatened by recurrent crises. In others, even though we have increased our forces significantly, we still have to deal with organisations that are larger--sometimes much larger--than our own (this is the case in Britain and Portugal, and even in Spain the LCR must reckon with Mao-centrist formations of significant dimensions).

The Fourth International also continues to be absent, or present with only very meagre forces, in a whole series of decisive countries of Asia (India, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.). Even in Sri Lanka, the leading role of Trotskyist militants in one of the major trade union organisations of the country--the Ceylon Mercantile Union--has not had the necessary extension in the construction of a firmly-grounded section.

In the workers states there is undoubtedly more interest than ever in Trotskyist conceptions and in the Fourth International, to which some nuclei of militants have courageously referred directly (and even publicly, as in the case of Petr Uhl in Czechoslovakia). But we remain well below the threshold of the minimum primitive accumulation of forces required for any effective action in the context of the perspective of an anti-bureaucratic political revolution.

Finally, although the great majority of those claiming allegiance to Trotskyism accept the organisational framework of the United Secretariat, some important organisations with significant influence in both Europe and Latin America remain outside that structure. The case of France is particularly significant. The LCR is probably the organisation with the greatest weight and political prestige, but Lutte Ouvriere and the OCI command significant forces which show no sign of erosion for the moment. This situation, however one evaluates the conceptions and methods of LO and the OCI, constitutes an obstacle to the construction of the revolutionary party which obviously cannot be overcome simply by ignoring it. For the rest, it is not for nothing that there have been repeated attempts to promote a process of unification or convergence between the LCR and LO and that it was decided last year to open a public discussion between the Fourth International and the organisations which, around the OCI, constitute the so-called 'Organising Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International' (OCRFI). The first round of this will be a discussion on Eurocommunism.

On the other hand, one must not overlook other problems which, although they appear to be primarily organisational, are in substance political -- and decisive in the final analysis. For instance, there remain serious delays in the formation of an international leadership team broad enough to reflect the full reality of the organisation on a world scale and to deal with tasks which are mounting geometrically (while our forces are rising only arithmetically). There are similar lags in the construction of homogeneous and stable national leaderships commanding the necessary continuity (this problem has not been resolved even by the stronger sections, and constitutes a substantial handicap not only for the qualitative leaps that are now required but also for the very consolidation of what has already been achieved).

If all these elements are kept in mind, there are certainly no grounds for triumphalist optimism, particularly since the workers movement in this phase of the general crisis of the system faces enormous tasks in many countries. Their accomplishment cannot be postponed indefinitely without provoking extremely serious threats and consequences.

Despite all this, however, it remains true that in the past ten years the Fourth International has made the greatest progress of its entire history. On 27 May 1978 Rouge, the paper of the LCR in France, organised a public meeting, attended by more than 10,000 people, which provided an occasion for a broad discussion on crucial problems among militants and representatives of various tendencies of the workers movement in France and other countries of Western Europe. After months of bitter polemics, members of the Communist and Socialist parties came together on the same platforms for a democratic debate, initiated by an organisation of the Fourth International which intended in this manner to implement the Leninist conception of workers democracy and united front in practice. The Communist Party of Spain was also present. Even more significant was the participation in the discussion -- received by a warm ovation -- of the Soviet 'dissident' Leonid Plyushch, who, despite some of his opinions and attitudes on particular points, genuinely represents the courageous militants struggling against bureaucratic oppression in the degenerated workers states.

The intrinsic importance of the episode need not be emphasised. But the symbolic value was even greater. The Paris gathering synthesised the profound changes that have occurred in the workers movement in recent years and indicated the great potential of the conceptions and methods that constitute the heritage of the Fourth International.

20 December 1978.

Last updated on: 13.2.2005