The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (1) – Capitalist globalisation and imperialism


The next series of posts will review some documents and debates arising from the most recent 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (FI), commonly referred to as the USec (United Secretariat), which is perhaps the largest of the inheritors of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International set up in 1938.  It was held in February and the documents discussed and reviewed are published on the ‘International Viewpoint’ web site here.

I will review the positions of the majority and then the minority documents, including a debate on the experience of Greece and in particular the role of Syriza.  I have attended two such meetings before and was for over 35 years a member of the organisation.  In my experience, it was the most democratic of the small Trotskyist formations although its internal life was by no means unblemished, and some minority opinions expressed in the documents reviewed criticise the democratic functioning of the organisation.  Since I have no way of verifying the claims and counter claims I am not going to make any judgement on the questions raised.

I should mention that my experience is limited and has not included membership of FI organisations in less developed countries, which are important components of the FI and its supporters, including the Philippines, Pakistan and Brazil.

During my membership, you could say and write what you wanted. Organised tendencies and factions were allowed, and the texts reviewed are testament to the continued existence of these democratic rights.  The FI also had the significant benefit that it contained people with critical faculties and different views who wanted to discuss and debate.  In most other formations the lack of debate, of discussion of real differences, lies not just in the lack of democratic functioning but in the lack of any significant divergence in views among members.  In other words, the sect-like internal life of these organisations had penetrated the membership, who in my experience often rejected charges that their organisations were undemocratic because they didn’t really have anything different to say anyway.

If this often unhappy consequence of being a member of one of the small Trotskyist organisations did not and has not infected the FI, the size and position of the organisation means that it nevertheless suffers from other shortcomings.  It is in no position to implement its programme to any real extent, and years of such inability means it has been unable to learn the lessons that such an ability would have facilitated.

This has telescoped its concerns to the one area in which it has some real and direct responsibility, which is building its own organisations. Unfortunately, this has only helped exaggerate its focus on the idea that the decisive problem currently facing Marxists and the working class more generally is building a revolutionary party; as if we were in the 1920s or 1930s with a mass working class movement ideologically under the influence of socialist politics and the various currents of that movement.  If such were the case then trying to create a mass revolutionary party from an already radicalised class would, at least on the face of it, have some plausible rationale, even if it failed in the more propitious circumstances of these years.

Today, it’s as if the question of revolutionary leadership of the working class is currently decisive even when the working class is no longer in its majority committed to the socialist project in any of its forms, whether reformist or revolutionary.  The majority of the working class may favour reforming capitalism but this is not as a result of commitment to a reforming socialism, to which a revolutionary alternative may be posed as the more or less immediate alternative.

The current series of posts are not meant to be anything more than some commentary to the texts discussed and are not comprehensive alternatives.

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The majority document on the world situation is more descriptive than analytical and tends to pithy statements and aphorisms that are unhelpful.

We are told that “the state of war is permanent”, although for much of the population in Europe, North America and other countries war is not a directly experienced phenomenon, while for others it is a daily horror.

We are told that “the social fabric is disintegrating”, where again for much of the world it is not.

“Peoples” are paying an “exorbitant price” for the new neoliberal order” but there is no definition of what this neoliberal order is, or whether the rise of populist nationalism across the globe is bringing neoliberalism to an end.  Too often the document counterposes this neolibreral order to ‘government’. i.e. state intervention, or to put it in Marxist terms, counterposes the capitalist system to the capitalist state that defends it.

This neoliberal order is supposed to lead to structural instability and “to a state of permanent crisis.”  This is repeated in terms of capitalist globalisation accommodating itself to “crisis as a permanent state of affairs”.  But, as Marx said, there is no such thing as a permanent crisis; and if the statement is meant to refer to a permanent political crisis, then unfortunately the word “crisis’ becomes so unfocused as to be rendered unhelpfully imprecise.

Reading the documents of the majority brought that old feeling back when I read these sorts of texts in the past and wondered – what is being said here?  As if aware of the problem of their view of ‘crisis’, the authors say that “if this is really the case, we must profoundly change our view of crisis as a particular moment between long periods of ‘normality’”, although this helps explain nothing.  We are left wondering what is meant by suggesting we live in a period of permanent crisis and what it implies for the working class and socialist politics?

The lack of clarity continues when the document discusses “the global justice movement’, which with “the consequences of climate change . . . also offer a new field of potentially anti-capitalist convergences. However, the lasting effects of the defeats of the workers’ movement and of neoliberal ideological hegemony, the loss of credibility of the socialist alternative, counteract these positive trends. It is difficult to situate within a longer-term perspective the sometimes considerable – success of protest movements.”

The search for ‘resistance and ‘struggles’ (partly a product of the usually marginal character of Trotskyist organisations) means they don’t have a clear perspective on the nature of protest movements or what sort of perspective they could possibly have without a class-conscious workers’ movement.

So the document starts not from the latter in order to assess the former, and thus gets the focus the wrong way round, like looking through a telescope from the wrong end.  No amount of success for protest movements will achieve socialism and the key question facing Marxists is the reason for, and what can be done about, the defeats of the working class and its current low level of socialist consciousness.

Later we are told that “we have well and truly entered a world of permanent wars (plural)” and stands for internationalism, but situates the difficulties for it within a general “humanitarian crisis”. Internationalism is posited as the task of “militant left currents and social movements in particular”.

We are told that “After a period when the very concept of internationalism was often disparaged, the global justice wave, then the multiplication of “occupations” of public squares or districts, have restored it to its full importance. Now it is necessary for this revived internationalism to find more permanent forms of action.”

It leaves largely ignored that it is the internationalisation of production and the political forms which grow upon it that forms the material basis for the working class to develop its organisation and class consciousness, the only class that can present itself as the bearer of these international relations in a progressive form and that can form the basis of “more permanent forms of action.”  No protest movement can do this, and running after the next one that comes along without situating it within a perspective of working class organisation is the perpetual short cut that small organisations excel in, and which are a short cut to ever diminishing circles.

As a framework of analysis that would allow Marxists to understand the world capitalist system, in all its variety and complexity, the document fails.  Good points within it are simply only that.  Its lack of clarity is exhibited in many ways including the questions it poses at the end, which include – “are we in a period of long stagnation?”

The first majority document ends by informing readers that “the analysis of the dynamics of popular resistance is the subject of the second text presented for discussion at the next World Congress; and the conditions of construction of militant parties that of the third.”

In its content the first document partially anticipates both of these because it has so little to say on how the capitalist system is working today and what this means for the working class, in its composition, organisation and potential class consciousness.  The second and third majority documents will be the subject of the next posts.

Forward to part 2

1 thought on “The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (1) – Capitalist globalisation and imperialism

  1. The left-wing criticism of the ‘Mandel’ International is that it has not been international both in its organisation and its ideology, meaning it is a nation state based international, every party to it is autonomous and free to direct its own national decision making. The criticism of the ‘Mandel’ international from the right is that it had an international perspective that was premature for the time it was proposed by Trotsky, this was originally voiced by Deutcher and became the leading idea preached by the British socialists workers party, they proposed an international that was supposedly informal and national as an alternative.

    Every socialist international has been broken in some way or other by the power of national consciousness and the centrality of the nation State. The same can be said for the international of the capitalist class. So while capital diverts to all parts of the globe in search of the best profit, the capitalist class consciousness stays within national political borders, a foreign investor in Russia does nor become a pro Russian patriot and a Russian investor in London does not become a pro British patriot. As things stand today the nation State consciousness of both investors and workers is reasserting itself against globalism in America and not just in America, for it has never really gone away in most places. The one irony that I get the most is that the campaign of the right leaning national populists against globalisation was proceeded by the anti-globalist campaign of the ‘international left’. Hardly more than ten years ago the main propaganda of all of the far left groups was directed against capitalist globalisation, there were tso many global conferences and anti free trade demonstrations to begin to describe, and all of the left currents produced anti-global manifestos. The fourth international of the year 2000 was heavily committed to being an organiser against globalisation.

    The right wing populism of today have for the most part borrowed the points made by the left wing critics of global capital, just as the right wing populists now target George Soros for vitriol , so did the left some years back , wasn’t he the evil capitalist who almost broke the bank of England. The main difference is that the right wing populists of today target the free movement of people for close down and the international far left of the recent past left that door wide open. The international far left was in favour of closing down the free movement of capital, especially of something it called finance capital, placing restrictions on free trade and attacking the global corporations generally, in the same propaganda it was for the free movement of people and supportive of migrant labour, in short it wanted closed borders for capital and open borders for labour. The history of modern politics is certainly rich in ironies, the international left now in urgent opposition to the populist and nationalist right wing is having to bury what it was so passionate about only ten years ago. When is the first economic pro-globalisation world conference be staged by the international far left?

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