The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (3) – broad parties

The third document  of the majority is entitled ‘Toward a text on Role and Tasks of the Fourth International’.  Its basic premise is the following:

“Our understanding of the role and tasks of the Fourth International at a national level is that we want to build parties that are useful in the class struggle. That is to say parties that can assemble the forces and decide on actions that have an effect and advance the class struggle on the basis of a class struggle approach and programme, the ultimate goal of such a party being obviously to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”

This is presented as a continuation of long standing policy, a policy its critics in the opposition have branded a failure, one admitted to, at least by implication, in the immediately following sentence – “This perspective commits the forces of the FI to being an integral and loyal part of building and leading these new parties, not simply aiming to recruit or wait to denounce eventual betrayals.”

It might be said that if the ultimate point of building these parties is to lead the overthrow of capitalism, but that instead it leads to eventual betrayal, an obvious objection arises – what’s the point? If these parties must lead the overthrow of capitalism, do they not have to have this objective in the first place in order for this to be so, to be revolutionary in their programme, as their opposition critics claim, and not merely “useful”?

Of course, there is no guarantee of success.  But surely, if one believes that a party can and must overthrow capitalism, then having an explicit programme of doing so is a necessary prerequisite?

I stated in the first post that small Trotskyist organisations suffer from an inability to learn from their capacity to actually implement their programme, but in this case the objective of the FI for some time has been to build large and successful anti-capitalist parties, and the experience has been one of repeated failure.

Instead of learning from this failure however the objective now appears to be so diluted as to become almost homeopathic, with an inability to actually measure the positive content of the proposal.  No balance sheet, no real evaluation and learning from experience becomes possible, partly explaining why it appears not to have been carried out.

It should be noted that the document situates this perspective within a period of “geopolitical chaos” and “crisis of class-consciousness,” and in my view states correctly that:

“The project of a socialist society offering an alternative both to capitalism and to the disastrous experiences of bureaucratic “socialism”, lacks credibility: it is severely hampered by the balance sheet of Stalinism, of social democracy, and of populist nationalism in the “third world”, as well as by the weakness of those who put it forward today.”

“In a large number of dominated countries, broad vanguard forces are now sceptical about the chances of a success of a revolutionary break with imperialism; and sceptical about the possibilities of taking power and keeping it in the new world balance of power”… “revolutionary internationalism appears as a utopia”.

This view has been criticised by the opposition within the FI as unnecessarily pessimistic and a means of ditching the historic revolutionary programme of the movement. In my view the assessment of the majority about the generally low level of class consciousness and of the working class movement across the world, with obvious national and regional variations, is broadly correct.

To deny it is to retreat into make-believe, and to do so only in order to hold tight to an historic politics, which it is believed requires the possibility of more or less short-term potential for socialist revolution. But this period of working class history has passed.  We do not live in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and do not see mass efforts to repeat it in any form in important capitalist countries.

This tide of rising working class struggle was smashed by reaction, including fascism, and world war; then solidified by a strong hegemonic US capitalism, in which genuine working class socialism, Marxism, was capped and suffocated by a mass of Stalinist and other state-socialist concrete.

When the level of class struggle rose again in more developed countries in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was defeated not by fascism but by bourgeois democratic forces, aided by the role of Stalinist and social-democratic parties. Now the latter have been severely weakened or discredited in most countries, a view has arisen that there exists some ever-present working class constituency on the left which only has to be tapped into by revolutionaries.  This, however, has been exposed as a rather naïve, marketing-type view of politics.

What the FI majority (and opposition) have failed to do is to explain how working class political consciousness has been formed in the past and how it can be reconstructed today.  The betrayals of Stalinism etc. ultimately reflect the strength of capitalism, but more importantly the relative weakness of the working class as a revolutionary subject.  In periods of defeat all sorts of confusion and misdirection takes place and the policy of the FI shows this confusion in spades.

We have a formulation of the task of Marxists that reeks of equivocation.  So, the majority FI “want to build parties that are useful in the class struggle.” But this invites questions, such as what on earth does useful mean? How useful and useful for what, to whom, and to what end?  If it is to overthrow capitalism then we are no step forward, but are invited to accept any such claim in “whatever general terms this may be expressed.”

The text says, “that is to say parties that can assemble the forces and decide on actions that have an effect and advance the class struggle on the basis of a class struggle approach and programme.”  What change in the conduct of the class struggle is intended; as a contribution to what working class organisation, strategy and raising of consciousness? What exactly is the class struggle programme proposed, or is it one useful to the class struggle as it spontaneously, or if one prefers, organically arises?

We are told that “the ultimate goal of such a party being obviously to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”  Unfortunately, the first sentence is not only imprecise but also incomplete – and replace capitalism with what and how?  “In whatever terms this may be expressed” leaves nothing excluded and nothing by which to evaluate inclusion.

Building a party that is useful in these terms appears vacuous.  Not for nothing is it therefore explained that “the key idea is that we cannot generalise a model for what the FI has to do”.

The appearance is given of a leadership that is politically exhausted and has nothing much to say.

There are lessons that have been, or need to be, learned from the struggles of the working class in the last two centuries, which might be considered to be the foundation of the programme that socialists should advance, in order to make themselves “useful”.  What are they?

One of these explains a fundamental problem with the formulation, which is that it implies abrogating a task of the class and devolving it to the party, for it is the working class that must overthrow capitalism and create a new society, because that new society is precisely the expression of its own power – through the relations of production and the subordination of its own state to its social power and control.

It is no answer to such a criticism to say that what is being proposed is that the party leads the working class, because the party is itself created by the class through its struggles, and the party can only arise from a class conscious working class.  If the party is to be a mass phenomenon it can arise in no other way.

The working-class party has an important role to further the development of class consciousness in the working class, so the role of the ideology and programme of the party, as well as the quality and dedication of its members, is crucial.

The struggle for an adequate Marxist politics therefore loses none of its importance, and it is not a question of surrendering its theoretical gains to court popularity, or surrendering its politics in pursuit of alliances with those who would betray it.  But the overthrow of the system can only be accomplished by the working class itself. As I have said before, the working-class party cannot rise further than the class is aims to lead, or to make itself “useful” to.

If it is far in advance of the class consciousness of the mass of workers then it will not be a mass party and its programme can be as revolutionary as you could wish, but it will be an ideal construct on a very different material base, and will be in vain.  A working-class party can only truly be revolutionary if it represents, is part of and helps raise the political consciousness of, the mass of the working class through its theoretical and political clarity; but it is the working class which is the revolutionary subject.

This, anyway, was the view of Marx, and it will be necessary to look at his approach in the next post in order to contrast it again with the approach of the FI.  Ironically, such a comparison makes more sense of the view that the working-class party must be “useful”.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

2 thoughts on “The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (3) – broad parties

  1. What makes for food for thought in comparison is a taking of the Mandel based Fourth International with the Cannon based Fourth International that has also just posted its own assessment of world and working class politics on its web site. The Cannon based FI has presented itself as the opposition and rival to the Mandel based FI from the mid 1950s until now.

    There a many points that can be made by way of comparison but basically the Cannon based organisation is closed minded when it comes to all ideology that is not evidently present in Marx, Lenin, and above all Trotsky, the result is a high degree of close minded thought and dogmatism. The Mandel based FI behaves in an opposite way, it espouses open minded thought and a relativism that condemns intellectual dogmatism.

    The problem with open minded thought and relativism is that it easily embraces other ideologies that makes for an utter confusion and uncertainty of believe. When Karl Marx began to write and publish he first declared that religion alone was the basis of ideology, he then amended this to include the German ideology, that in essence meant the idealist philosophy of Hegel and Kant, he then widened the frame by speaking about bourgeois ideology, meaning by this the economic doctrines of the English and Scottish economists. That was about the sum of it, he hardly mentioned nationalism as an example of a dominant ideology, so it was said by historians that Marx overlooked one of the most important developments of his own time ie the rising nationalism, I. Berlin has an essay on this missing ideology, to quote just one historian.

    The study and understanding of nationalism became a theme for later Marxists and it still is in its infancy period. However we inhabit at a time when there is much more ideology to contend with than the early Marxists faced. There is now a super abundance of new ideology, third world nationalism, revived Islamic ideology, radical waves of feminism, various waves of post modernism, multi cultural ism, anti racism, political correctness, the latest I think is called inter sectionalism. And these are only the ones being pumped out of the Universities, we still have the older ideologies circulating in the mass media not to mention the social media. The neo liberalism is the least of our worries for this does not claim to be egalitarian ideology while all the others do make such a high minded claim.

    So what one can’t help noticing is how much the Marxist’ intellectual movement is infected with the germs of the newer egalitarian ideologies. The ideology of the Mandel fourth international is especially open minded about absorbing much of this new ideological content, feminism, third world anti imperialism, anti racism etc. By comparison the Cannon Fourth International is closed minded about the new ideologies. A current example is the Me Too campaign which has been comprehensively condemned as reactionary by the Cannon FI and comprehensively welcomed by the Mandel based FI.

    I can’t say that the Cannon FI is correct to maintain an orthodox ideology that is steeped in a political past that longer exists at the same time I can’t agree with the Mandel FI that amalgamates what might be called historical Marxism with just about everything else that claims to be egalitarian and progressive in our time. The other so called Marxist tendencies are even worse, the International Socialist tendency example fights for every identity rights based cause as a matter of routine and for the material interesting of workers as a mere break from the normal routine. How to get to the true ground of workers self determination in an age of ideological saturation probably cannot go through via a socialist consciousness, for consciousness is the plaything of ideology.

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