The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (4) – a return to Marx?

The FI majority has opened up the question of what sort of party the militants of the Fourth International should be building, and it is not the traditional answer of a ‘revolutionary party.’  Any objective evaluation of the experience of it in practice would judge it a failure, but it isn’t the practical experience that I want to review.

I want to consider the views of the leaders of the Fourth International in light of those of Marx and his understanding of the building of a workers’ party and the role of communists within it.  This was set out a long time ago in the Communist Manifesto –

“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole?”

“The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.

They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.”

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

And –

“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

“In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.”

“In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

Marx and Engels realised that achieving the aims of the Communist Manifesto would take time.  So, for example, after the revolutions of 1848, they considered that German workers would need to go through “a lengthy revolutionary development”, through a process that involved “clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are.”

In this process he would rely “for the ultimate triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto . . . solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.”

How these principles were, and are today, to be applied depends on the circumstances pertaining in a particular country and at a particular time, but it is clear that for Marx the working class was to be as united as possible and that the communists were not to separate themselves from them or from their movement on account of “any sectarian principles of their own.”

Their role included being “practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others”.  And this image of “pushes” is in some ways better than that prompted by the more often used word “leads”, since it leaves little room for believing that the party will overthrow capitalism with more or less aware workers in tow behind.

Instead communists would, with their “advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement”, help the working class in “clarifying their minds as to what their class interests are”, based “solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.”

This approach to the creation and building of a working class party may be described as one “useful” to workers, as embodying as wide a gathering of workers as possible in defence of their interests, even if yet imperfectly understood.  But if this approach of Marx is clearly not consistent with the conceptions of the FI opposition in relation to the nature of the party that must be built, it is also not the approach proposed by the majority either.

This is because the majority also does not propose to accept the working class and its movement as it exists and fight within it “In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through”, including “for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class . . .”

It may be argued that both the working class movement and the approach to building working class parties has evolved and developed since these early conceptions of Marx and Engels, and this is true.  But it is not true that these principles were discarded by them, and for all their apparent elementary, if not rudimentary, nature, they are still more developed than the formulation of the FI majority text, which may be considered consistent with Marx and the Manifesto only through some addition to the FI formulation and not through simple interpretation.

Marx and Engels made clear that their approach held good, not just by repeatedly standing by the Communist Manifesto in their later political careers, but by their intervention into the evolution of the workers’ movement subsequent to its writing.

Both argued the necessity of a separate working class party opposed to the bourgeoisie and both recognised the different circumstances and evolution that such a party might go through in each country – “our theory is not a dogma but the exposition of a process of evolution, and that process involves successive phases”, said Engels.  In France at one point, in relation to a party with roots in the working class, they believed it would be a step back to seek to scrap their more or less developed socialist programme for the sake of greater numbers.

On the other hand, in relation to America Engels stated that “a million or two of working men’s votes . . . for a bona fide working men’s party is worth more than a hundred thousand votes for a doctrinally perfect programme.” And “anything that might delay or prevent that national consolidation of the working men’s party – no matter on what platform – I should consider a mistake.”

This did not mean that the theoretical gains of Marx and he should be ‘parked’, as it would be described now.  When Marx wrote that “every step of the real movement is more important than a dozen programmes” it did not prevent him simultaneously defending the theoretical gains he had made in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme’.  He favoured unity between the two German working class parties meeting in Gotha but did not approve the programme on which it was to be based, writing that “if, therefore it was not possible  . .  to go beyond the Eisenach programme, one should simply have concluded an agreement for action against the common enemy.”

This too might seem not inconsistent with the view that the working class party must be ‘useful’, as the FI majority text puts it, except that, as I have said, this can only be the case for a party that can be considered a genuine section of the working class; not one defined solely in relation to it being an ‘advance guard’ or some unclear consideration of ‘broadness’; and what is useful is what is useful to the working class in its immediate and long-term struggle, as noted above.

Such an approach may seem closer to Marx and Engels’ collaboration in the First International and its explicit expression as an organic development out of the existing working class movements in various countries.  Such a template might seem more fitting for an international organisation.

Of course, Engels considered that the next Workers’ International would be “directly Communist and will openly proclaim our principles” (those of Marx and himself).  This proved not to be the case, although the Second International was heavily influenced, at least initially, by them.

However, it should not be expected that mass phenomenon, such as a mass workers’ movement, can escape the material basis on which it is to be built and the political weaknesses of the Second International ultimately reflected the growth and development of imperialism and nationalist division.

Subsequent attempts to build an International arose out of a world-wide crisis occasioned by World War and based itself on the initially successful revolution in Russia.  The subsequent Fourth International was based on a view of the irrevocable, immediately tangible decline of capitalism and a more or less proximate socialist revolution.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and the material basis for the party as envisaged by Trotsky did not exist.  The mass of the working class in Europe did not move to a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism; so the FI shifted its attention to where there were struggles that appeared to offer something comparable, in what was known as the third world and to other layers and components of the population.

For Marx and Engels however the development for a workers’ party could only be a product of the development of the working class itself. The role of Communists was to work with them at all times – “it is possible to work along with the general movement of the working class at every one of its stages without giving up or hiding our own distinct position or even organisation”.  What mattered was that any working class party was a “distinct workers’ party”, reflecting the masses “own movement – no matter in what form so long as it is their own movement.”

In the Communist Manifesto this meant that in France the Communists allied with the Social Democrats and in Switzerland they supported the Radicals.  In the First International it meant uniting Proudhonists and English trade unionists amongst others. Their judgement depended on the criteria we have just set out and at what stage of evolution they considered the working class and its movement was at, not from the criteria of a revolutionary programme in itself, divorced from where the working class had reached.

It would seem obvious today that we do not unite the most active parts of the working class and its movement by positing the unity of small revolutionary organisations, which is entirely inadequate, or of creating “broad’ parties which are broad only in their political heterogeneity and not in their mass.  It should be obvious that you do not go to the working class by first seeking new “broad” parties that do not yet have its allegiance, at least not unless it can be reasonably confidently said that this is where the working class is, or shortly will be.

Engels gave this advice to Marxists in the US:

”….It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than “durch Schaden klug tererden” [to learn by one’s own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, H.G. or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.”

Taking this into account, the sense in which being ”useful” makes most sense is being organised as part of the broader working class movement; being useful not only, or even mainly, in practical terms but also in theoretical and political terms.  But this will only be so if the working class itself finds the workers’ party a useful instrument for defending and advancing its interests.

And yes, “the ultimate goal of such a party’ would “obviously [be] to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”  These general terms to be worked out and developed by the workers’ party, with input from its “most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others.’  This advanced section has “over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

From such a vantage point the majority view makes more sense seen from the perspective of the First International, updated and modified by a clear understanding of the evolution of the working class and workers’ movement from this time.  As this series of posts has been at pains to argue, it is from the latter that any programmatic and organisational lessons must be drawn and applied.

The next post will look at the documents of the minority opposition.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

6 thoughts on “The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (4) – a return to Marx?

  1. What you say about reading more than is written on the page is no doubt a factor, I know for example that you wrote an extensive review of that large book on Lenin’s ‘what is to be done’ something not current on this site and that did possess a certain approach different from the present one.

    However I rarely ever criticise you or anyone else who writes about Marx and the Communist movement for their errors, rather I try to point to difficulties and dilemmas that I think reside deep within the works of Marx .

    The one at hand is the relationship that must exist between Marxist theory and the workers movement. Like it or not Marx can be said to know things about capitalism because of his superior mind that the great majority of the organisers of labour do not know or have only a very vague knowledge about. We have examples of this during the lifetime of Marx, there is the pamphlet ‘wages, prices and profit’. Marx is using his labour account of surplus value to school workers in the simplicity of merely demanding wage increases as the a solution to the poverty of their social condition. In short those who take the time to understand capitalism with the help of the labour theory of value are likely to arrive at conclusions not in agreement with the more common sense conclusions drawn by most workers.

    As I see it there is no obvious solution to this dilemma, it is a historical fact that a scientific finding sometimes comes up against the common sense of received wisdom. The teaching of enlightenment philosophy is that the scientific understanding must press ahead regardless of what received common sense believes, the obvious example is the constant battle over religious ideology.

    If Marxism belongs to the enlightenment philosophy then it must often battle against an ignorance passing itself as the common sense of workers. Therefore Marxism at the very least is bound to maintain a critical distance from the common sense beliefs held by most workers. However the quotes you offer from the communist manifesto seem to indicate an unwillingness of Marxism to acknowledge its intellectual superiority or if you prefer the softer sounding phrase critical distance from entrenched working class beliefs, in fact the quotes imply a tone of modesty verging on intellectual deference concerning the incoherent of the workers. Incidentally I prefer using beliefs to the one you often use, ie consciousness. This unwillingness of Marxism to admit to its own intellectual superiority in the face of workers ignorance is not a post Marx development, ie not the fault of Lenin, for it was none other than Marx who unmercifully attacked the philosophers of old for not only upholding the division between mental and manual labour, but for universally favouring the superiority of the mental specialists of labour, especially the philosophers up until his own time.

    What is more apt is that I am much more willing to expose faults that I find in Marx than you are willing to do, I appreciate that you are always trying to bring the very best out of Marx but I follow a different method. This is only a part of a wider consideration pertaining to establishing the most viable relation between intellectual theory and practical life, it was already the heart of the matter in
    ancient Athens, Plato proposed to deal with it in one way, especially in his Republic, Aristotle a pupil of Plato for 20 years disagreed with his answer and restated the problem using different terms, Aristotle’s account of the proper relationship of intellectual theory to practical affairs is arguably still the most viable one, despite what Marx thinks about it. Aristotle never doubted the superiority of theory over practice, Marx is very much the doyen of the intellectual’s dislike of intellectualism.

    • In one of your previous comments you ended by saying that “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.”

      I took this to mean that simply seeking to change workers’ ideas (beliefs, consciousness, however you want to put it) could not simply be a matter of ideological argument and debate etc., and I therefore agreed with this view.

      The posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism on the blog have (so far) concentrated on the material basis upon which it would be hoped that workers would develop a socialist consciousness i.e. the socialisation of production under capitalism and the positive negation of capitalism in this process through the role of cooperative production. Of course, there are other aspects of this as well, including class struggle involving trade unions and workers’ parties and associated strategy and tactics .

      In your comment, you seem not to agree with such a view because of the gap between Marxism as a theory and workers existing political consciousness. That Marxists do not wish to emphasise the gap between the two is obvious since they seek to understand and practice ways of attempting to remove it. They, we, therefore do not agree with you when you write that in “the relationship that must exist between Marxist theory and the workers movement” there must be such a gap, and that “here [there] is no obvious solution to this dilemma.”

      Hence the quotes by Marx and Engels on workers own “road to theoretical clearness of comprehension” and their own “intellectual development . . . as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion” explains that such a gap can only be removed by the workers themselves and not by elaboration of an entirely correct political programme.

      This does not show some unwillingness of Marxism to “acknowledge its intellectual superiority” and “modesty verging on intellectual deference concerning the incoherence of the workers.” Marx is usually portrayed as arrogant and dismissive of ordinary workers and to this day Marxists are always portrayed as middle class intellectuals divorced from the concerns of ordinary people. Usually by those who really are all these things.

      While there is indeed a tendency among some to pretend there is no gap, that workers are always angry, anti-establishment and in a latent or open state of revolt, this is not what I have argued.

      I note that in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels say that:

      “The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

      So, it is precisely the theoretical distinction of Marxists that distinguishes them from the mass of workers and it is through workers own activity and discussion that this distinction will erode and be removed.

      If there are two, or more, views on how the relationship between Marxist ideas and the working class will be resolved the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, it will not be by analysis of the ingredients in the recipe. In other words, for Marx and his ideas to be proved correct we will have to see the working class conquer social and political power, i.e. they will have to be proved in practice and not in theory.

      • I think that the weight of ideology because of the new technologies is so great today that the prospects of Left wing parties and groups winning a battle of ideas is almost zero. The British Labour party is reported to have the biggest membership and largest financial resource of any Left wing party yet this is insignificant compared with the actual and potential influence giant media corporations and tech companies maintain.

        Fortunately there is a thing that is more important than ideology and it is called human nature. There has been a strong tendency in left wing intellectual circles to oppose History to Human Nature, socialism must be a rational outcome of an historical process, to posit Human Nature as the basis of socialism is usually thought to be of no importance. Yet don’t forget that beginning with Aristotle it was thought by Nature mankind was ‘socialist’, Aristotle said only gods and philosophers ever dreamed of living outside of Society.

        It not fitting to speak about Nature as Aristotle once did, his concept of Nature is semi idealist in that it invokes teleology and the Soul. The metaphysical conception of Nature has been superseded by the naturalistic conception best attributed to Darwin and his heirs. The conception of Nature and hence of Human Nature as understood by evolutionary theory is a strong basis for a conception of socialism incompatible with much of current ideology.

        I appreciate that evolutionary theory has typically been deployed by the Ring Wing including the Far Right but this is not a essential or logical development, some of the early Marxists were very interested in evolutionary theory, especially Kautsky.

        There is a blog that I read that has nothing to do with Marxism called Darwinian Conservatism by Larry Arnhart. Despite the unappealing sounding title it is a very good blog dealing with contemporary political questions set within the most evident theory of evolution. Larry Arnhart is not in fact a conservative, he spends a good deal of the time criticising American conservatism, he is more like a liberal in the mode of Adam Smith, as I am sure you know he thought about capitalism on the basis of an acquisitive conception of Human Nature, what C.B. Macpherson once called possessive individualism The point is that I don’t think that his effort to associate the theory of evolution with Adam Smith works as well as he thinks it does. All of the classical liberals possessed what Leo Strauss once called an ‘anti social conception of Human Nature’, beginning with Hobbes and including Locke and Smith, they all share the same asocial political philosophy. Leo Strauss outlined the beginning of this common programme in one of my favourite books ‘the Political Philosophy of Hobbes.’ Larrry Arnhart spends a good deal of time arguing with various Straussian authors which is interesting in itself.

        What will be of some interest to you is to read the material Arnhart has assembled dealing with evolution and progress, one of the things he does well is demonstrating with evidence how life for most people really is getting better. From my point of view his blog has taught me that there is a possible ground for socialism not dependent on waging a bad tempered battle of ideas concerned with ideology, hegemony and consciousness, after all did Marx not once say that Being determines consciousness, not consciousnesses Being. I can’t help laughing over the fact that so much of current ideology proceeds as if there is no Natural Limits to what they are quarrelling about. I suppose you could say that there is a conservative bias contained within every account of the political which makes use of Nature,I do agree with those like Aristotle that any theory of Human Nature is also a theory about Human Limits, there are many radicals and revolutionaries who don’t like the very idea of Human Limits.

  2. I am surprised you do not point out the obvious inconsistency in what Marx writes in the communist manifesto. On the one side there is a outlook of deference in respect of the proletarian movement, not having any will to shape and mould the movement, and then we have the outlook of superiority over the broad movement, communists possess a ‘theoretical’ perspective concerning, the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate ends of the proletariat movement, not always something the living organisers of the proletarian do not possess.

    This inconsistency is repeated over and over again by Marx and others. It comes out of the problem of relating theory and practice in all matters including the political. For the most part marxists have always been keen to play up the practical side of life and downplay the theoretical side of life, so we have the oft quoted philosophers so far have only interpreted the world the point however is to change it. This quote is still used as a jibe against philosophy and even as a bard directed at any sort of intellectualism, when the circumstance is deemed to be ripe for it to be deployed against critics. It is disingenuous to pretend that Marx had no theory of his own to import into the workers movement, in fact his fame and lasting influence is based on the fact that his ‘theories’ are thought to be required reading for the proletarian movement to make a socialist revolution, without some knowledge of his theories workers are lost in a world of bourgeois ideology.
    We know that workers do participate in revolution, they participated in the French revolution and numerous since, the problem being of course they were often not acting in their own class interest but in the interest or an alien class. With this being the case Communists have been forced to try and shape and mould the proletarian movement despite what Marx said in the communist manifesto. Marx is not so different from any other political philosopher, he had to find a practical basis for his thought or be content with being a pure philosopher like Socrates who did not even write down his thoughts out of fear of being misunderstood. Marx thought his theories would burn into the proletarian movement and out flame all of the other theories on offer, like anarchism for example, he was only half right about this.

    • I really don’t understand why you think I “pretend that Marx had no theory of his own to import into the workers movement” as such a view would conflict with everything written on the blog.

      In this particular post I note Marx’s critique of the Gotha programme and that Engels believed the next international would be explicitly communist, i.e. adopt the general views of Marx. I noted that Engels said of the American workers that they must go along a “road to theoretical clearness of comprehension” and finally I note the need for Marxists to be “useful not only, or even mainly, in practical terms but also in theoretical and political terms.”

      You seem to be confusing the need for workers to come to political consciousness with the means and mechanisms by which they will do so, including the role of the working class party, which is what the post was mostly about, including learning from their own mistakes and through their own “intellectual development . . . as it necessarily had to ensue from united action and discussion.”

      I noted that Marxists must work within the working class and workers movement to assist this process of action and discussion.

      What is striking about the phrase that “communists possess a ‘theoretical’ perspective concerning, “the line of march, the conditions and the ultimate ends of the proletariat movement” is not how expansive it is but how limited it is compared to programmes which purport to provide ready-made slogans for concrete every-day struggles written over 80 years ago but sometimes repeated as in a catechism.

      I think you may be reading the post through lenses coloured by previous debates and conceptions and not what is on the screen?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.