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.”
“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