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
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