The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (7) – a second opposition

A second opposition document has a quite different analysis than that of the text reviewed in the previous posts.  It is written by a member of the German FI section and a member of the French Anti-capitalist Party, into which the section in that country dissolved itself.

It argues that there has been a second major wave of capitalist globalisation, which amounts to a new phase of capitalist development.  It notes that “this new stage [of capitalism] results from the development of the properties and contradictions of capitalism, which it accentuates and brings to a higher level, an “epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system”, the objective conditions of which have matured and strengthened worldwide.”  Unfortunately this line of analysis is not explained or developed further.

This new phase of development has taken place “after a long period of defeats and decline of the labor movement”.  It also notes that the victory of Stalinism in the world labour movement and suppression of its revolutionary rivals “left the revolts of oppressed peoples the prisoner of nationalism in the aftermath of World War II.”

It notes that “the proletariat was unable to give it an internationalist perspective. This revolutionary wave, however, shook the world by enabling millions of oppressed people to break the yoke of colonial and imperialist oppression. But far from moving towards socialism, the new regimes sought to integrate the world capitalist market.”

“A new international division of labor is taking place through the economic development of former colonial or dominated countries, especially the emerging ones – a globalization and not a mere internationalization of production, “an integrated world economy” in Michel Husson’s words.”

It also notes that “the neoliberal offensive . . . led to the collapse of the USSR”; that “capitalism has triumphed worldwide” and that “the balance of power has changed, the combination of economic neoliberalism and imperialist militarism has destabilized the entire planet. The first world power no longer has the supremacy it enjoyed: a new rival, China, is emerging in a multipolar world. The instability of international relations can no longer be contained by a single power which, in turn, feels threatened.”

“The emergence of new powers with imperialist views or regional powers which defend their own interests increasingly undermines America’s leadership capacity and makes the international situation more chaotic. The US response is Trump’s policy “Make America great again”, to assert their economic and military supremacy through trade war, protectionism and militarism.”

“How far can the tensions and imbalances go? In the long run, nothing can be ruled out. We need to understand the possible evolution of the world situation to formulate a solution to the crisis we are being dragged into by the ruling classes. There is no reason to rule out the worst hypothesis, a globalization of local conflicts or a widespread conflagration, a new world war, or rather a globalized one. The evolution of the war in Syria is another example of that as was the war in Ukraine.”

“A more aggressive imperialist policy of China could result from its internal contradictions, from the inability of the Chinese ruling classes to address social issues, to perpetuate the social order without providing an outlet for social discontent. We are not there, but nothing allows us to rule out the possibility that a war for global leadership may be the outcome.”

This section of the text is concluded with the following summary:

“The ruling classes and countries face a crisis of hegemony which opens a revolutionary period. It creates the conditions for the birth of another world.”

The next section, “the rise of a powerful international working class”, notes that “the world working class has grown considerably within a global labor market in which workers compete, jeopardizing the gains of the “labor aristocracy” in the old imperialist countries and undermining the material basis of reformism of the last century.”

“The working class is more numerous than ever: in South Korea alone, there are more wage-earners than there were in the whole world at the time of Marx. The working class forms between 80 and 90% of the population in the most industrialized countries and almost half of the world population. Overall, the number of industrial workers rose from 490 million worldwide in 1991 to 715 million in 2012 (the data is from the International Labor Organization).”

“We must make our main concern the task of rebuilding or building a class consciousness. The labor movement is on the defensive but is engaged in a long and deep process of reorganization we want to help and contribute to its organization as a class, ‘as a party’.”

The document makes a number of points on what it believes are the implications of its analysis for the elaboration of revolutionary strategy.  This includes the view that the material basis of reformism is weakened because imperialist superprofits are eroded, and that the internationalisation of the world economy “gives internationalism a concrete expression rooted in the daily life of millions of proletarians.”

While the latter is more straightforwardly true and needs to be elaborated, the former assumes that greater hardship will generate, or at least more readily facilitate, development of class consciousness among the working class; and this is controversial and not at all obvious.

The document states that “the fight against the rise of reactionary, nationalist, neo-fascist, or religious fundamentalist forces generated by the social decomposition produced by the policies of the capitalist classes is now the central political issue. The solution lies in a class policy for the revolutionary transformation of society.”

Again, this is true; we only need look at the reaction in Britain to the rise of some far-right forces to see the left rush to action in order to oppose this far-right, with little more than a platform of opposition.  The blindness of some is revealed by some groups doing this while also being supporters of Brexit, which has strengthened the far right they wish to oppose.

Unfortunately, again, while it is correctly noted that “our main concern [is] the task of rebuilding or building a class consciousness”, the problem is how this is to be done and, for a workers’ party, how to assist the development of the working class movement upon a socialist basis.

The document notes that “a revolutionary party cannot be proclaimed. It is formed in the struggles and will only play a decisive role when it becomes a mass party and has the political and organizational means of putting forward a consistent revolutionary orientation, of organizing mass struggles and of leading broad sectors of the working class. ”

Its answers however, which consist of two parts, are not convincing:

The first is organisational: “Aware that this mass party cannot be the result of a linear development of any small organization whatsoever, we seek to bring together and unite the revolutionary forces, organizations and militants who fight against capital and the bourgeois order, for the abolition of the capitalist system and for socialism.”

The second is programmatic: “we should define the central elements of a transitional program for the twenty-first century and its declination according to the different regions of the world, especially at the level of Europe, and from there, the bases and the framework from which we could combine construction policy and initiatives for regrouping anti-capitalists and revolutionaries.”

The first seeks a solution in uniting revolutionary organisations around a revolutionary programme when they seek to justify their separate existence on the basis of their programme.  Upon such unity it is argued that others will then be convinced to join, begging the question why they have not joined one of the existing organisations already.

The document states that “consequently, our efforts of political and organizational regroupment can in no way allow any misunderstanding: an association of revolutionary and reformist forces can ultimately only weaken the strength of our program and our intervention.”

There is however a world of difference between weakening your politics in order to create a reformist or politically confused organisation, until you don’t know what your ‘real’ politics are, and working alongside larger numbers of workers with confused or reformist ideas in parties and movements, in the knowledge that it is only with the workers that one can move forward.

The text provides a better analysis of the development of world capitalism and also of the historic development of the working class and its movements, and a more sober assessment of their subjective weaknesses compared to the working class’s growing objective strength.  It also makes salutary points on the need to rebuild or build class consciousness, and that the labour movement is on the defensive but is engaged in a long and deep process of reorganisation.

But its perspective on how all this can happen is weak and it has nothing to replace the idea of the majority that the leap to relevance of small Marxist groups can be made by the perspective of trying to collaborate in building “broad parties”, even though its criticisms of the latter are correct.

Ultimately it suffers from the same debilitating perspective of the other opposition; that it seeks to build a separated revolutionary party that will lead the working class to state power when it must see the process from the other way round.  This is, that it is in the development of the existing working class and its existing movement from which a working class party will be created.

Working alongside reformist workers will therefore be inevitable.   The question is, on what basis do you work with them, what sort of movement do you seek to build with them and on what programme do you seek to unite in struggle with them?  Once you understand that you can build no movement without them and therefore develop no meaningful programme separate from them, the questions facing Marxists appears differently from one of numerical recruitment to organisations with revolutionary programmes that are incapable of implementation because they are divorced from the mass of the working class.

Back to part 6


The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (6) – the opposition “strategic hypothesis”

Given the circumstances as set out in the opposition document, the key question for  revolutionary politics would seem to be how working class political consciousness can be advanced. And the authors are aware; the text says “In that sense, our main task is to re-build class consciousness.”

To this question, they provide the following answer:

“The most effective way to do so is still by the struggle of the working class interest against that of the bourgeoisie. Rallies, demonstrations, occupations, assemblies, strikes; those are still the best tools for raising the consciousness of the oppressed. This does not mean that we ignore parliamentary elections. But we do subordinate them to mobilization.”

No doubt the comrades would say that this must be combined with revolutionary propaganda and agitation and raising the demands contained within the transitional programme, but this is still a very incomplete understanding of how class consciousness is created.  It also involves an instrumental view of the working class, one that sees it coming to socialism not through well thought-out conviction, based on its experience within the forces and relations of capitalist production, but because it arises as a result  of carrying out much more limited aims that have been posed through strikes and assemblies etc.

It is assumed that more or less spontaneous and partial opposition to the harmful effects of capitalism, which by their nature can only be episodic (see below reliance on this not being the case), will be transformed into comprehensive opposition to the system itself and commitment to a socialist alternative. The missing catalyst being revolutionary propaganda, slogans and agitation; in other words, the presentation of socialist ideas.

Of course, it is always rejected that this is a rather idealist (propagandist) view, and that it is the experience of collective action and struggle, combined with socialist agitation and propaganda, that will effect the necessary changes in consciousness. But it is nevertheless the case that, in the case of the traditional Trotskyist conception of a transitional programme, that workers are led to socialist revolution through a rising set of demands that arise from more limited struggles over narrower objectives.

One problem is that such periods of heightened class struggle are necessarily brief, and the period in which the more advanced demands and slogans of the struggle are to be raised even briefer.  Yet this is not consistent with the need for the working class to be fully informed and committed to the task of owning, controlling and developing the complex society within which we live, with a more or less clear idea of what it will do as the new ruling class.  Instead such a role is to fall to it as a necessary, but initially unforeseen, requirement in order to achieve more limited objectives.[i]

This is not such a stretch if the objective is simply seen as the capture of political power, however conceived (involving governmental office, regime change, or a brand new machinery of state), but this is not what socialist revolution is primarily about.  Political power is necessary in order to defend new relations of production, not to create them, otherwise these new relations will more likely become the creation of the state itself.  We know that this has failed and has never been the definition of socialism anyway.  Socialist revolution is above all a fundamental social revolution and such nature distinguishes it from all the radical political revolutions that do not signify fundamental reorganisation of society.

The conception of how working class consciousness develops put forward in the document  is therefore a limited and partial conception, one that also ignores the economic and social circumstances of workers as lived in their everyday lives, and which has historically been the impulse behind their seeking after an alternative society, one that arose even before Marx studied this experience and developed his ideas on how the development of capitalism gives rise to its gravediggers.

Since this has been a long-standing theme of the blog I won’t go into it here, except to say that the anticipation of socialism through worker cooperatives, and the role that these can play as concrete ‘schools of socialism’, and not just strikes as “schools of class-struggle”, has not been appreciated by the opposition.

This is important because consideration of this would help the opposition grapple with some of the problems they recognise but which their overall “strategic hypothesis” blinds them to a solution:

“The strategic hypothesis we advance to end capitalism and patriarchy is a non-stop series of mobilizations that make the working class aware of the necessity of taking power for real social change. Strikes are not a fetish but an essential route to raise workers’ reliance on their own potential power. Strikes are “schools of class struggle” because they are moments in which the working class can self-organize. It is by means of conflict that workers create automatic responses and mechanisms to resist the bourgeoisie’s policies. Revolutionaries should not ignore today’s struggles, even if they are small. To the contrary, we must take part in them. Therefore, we need to find solutions to our deficiency in having a strong presence within the working class and taking part in its battles.”

It is not so much that the perspective of an ‘insurrectionary general strike’ is wrong; although with a large worker-cooperative sector and a perspective of taking state power, a simple strike is clearly inadequate if not misdirected.  It is that the “automatic response and mechanisms to resist the bourgeoisie’s policies” is also obviously inadequate since the point of revolution is to impose an alternative, not simply to resist the existing one. Why should those demanding such an alternative become the leader of the working class when the class fights simply within the existing relations of production and assumes their continuation, which is, after all, what strikes in and of themselves do?

What has come to fill this incomplete and inadequate conception of working class consciousness and revolution is a conception of the revolutionary party as an unduly separate agency in the revolution.  As I have noted in earlier posts on the FI debate, the working class party is often seen as arising from Marxists building their own organisations instead of it being the creation of the working class itself.

Obviously, Marxists will debate what they have to do; but what they have to do must proceed from what has to be done, in the sense of what has to happen, what has to be achieved, by the working class itself, which must itself build its own party. Otherwise it will not be its own party, but a political layer of the working class with greater potential to separate itself from it. As it has done, repeatedly, in the past.

So, the question is, how does the working class generate the class consciousness and organisation to fight capitalism and impose its alternative? This is not the same as, and is not reducible to, capitalist crises generating mass mobilisations, which a bigger or smaller party leads to overthrowing the state and introducing a different one.

The opposition seeks to replicate the experience of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but even this paradigmatic conception of the revolutionary party fails to understand that the Bolshevik Party became the party it was because the working class made it their own instrument of revolution.  The subsequent failure of that party and revolution was the failure of the Russian working class itself, its size, its own weakness, dissolution, re-composition and incorporation of its best (and worst) elements into the bureaucratisation of the state.

The perspective of building mass action to a climacteric episode reduces the goal of socialist revolution to a single event and to a single path to it, one focused on state power and destruction of the capitalist state. It is to reduce such revolution to a political process only, which is only one (crucial) aspect of a wider and deeper social transformation.

Political revolution can only also be a social revolution if it is the culmination of much deeper developments within the social and economic progress of capitalism.

If the destruction of the capitalist state is to inaugurate working class power, or rather to be a necessary step to creation of a workers state that will defend the already advancing social and economic power of the working class, the working class must already have taken major steps to economic, social and political hegemony, steps which political revolution seeks to complete.

The more common reduced focus, reflected in the opposition “strategic hypothesis”, leads to many weaknesses, some of which appear in the text. So, in promoting a “transitional programme for the 21stcentury” it is stated that:

“A primary focus of this program is the expropriation of the key sectors of the economy. The bank crisis and bail-outs provided a new opportunity to explain and popularize the need for bank nationalization.”

But expropriation is not at all the same as nationalisation and those who think ownership by the capitalist state is progressive have not, for example, considered the experience of the Irish State, in which nationalisation was the means of transferring the liabilities of the banks to the shoulders of working people.

Similarly, we are invited to have illusions in the progressiveness of the creation of new capitalist states:

“In the oppressed nations we support a balance between the democratic fight for the right to self-determination and the fight for a society without classes. It means that, according to our strategy, the struggle for national freedom can be useful for working class emancipation only when led by the working class itself.”

While, with regard to the second sentence of this extract, it may sometimes be necessary for the working class to seek to lead such struggles, it is not always the case that this assertion is true.  It is however very definitely not the case that we should seek to balance the struggle for democratic freedoms under capitalism with the struggle for socialism. If the former is not a necessary part of the struggle for the latter why would socialists and workers support it? Why should workers sacrifice any of their struggle for socialism in some balancing exercise?

This repeated deference to the state, the capitalist state, which is the only one existing, arises from the surrender of tasks that belong to the working class to this state – nationalisation rather than workers’ cooperative ownership; welfare states rather than workers control of welfare provision, previously done through friendly societies, and defence of the democratic rights of capitalist states as the default position in national conflicts rather than workers unity.  It reflects the growing power of the capitalist state over the twentieth century; the influence of social democracy and Stalinism, and the increased role of the capitalist state in the capitalist mode of production, ‘neoliberalism’ notwithstanding.

Socialism has thus become synonymous with statification for many, and this error is not corrected by thinking a workers’ government or a workers’ state carrying out the task of social transformation solves the problem.  The workers’ state is a transitional concept in which the latter part of the term suffocates the former to the extent that it predominates.  This is because the state, even a workers’ state, is a body separate from society and standing over and apart from it. Socialism involves the withering away of the state and this can only be so if working class rule is based outside the state and reflects its role in the new relations of production, which the state is called upon to defend but not be the substance of.

In summary, the opposition is caught between defending what it considers the historic programme of the Fourth International in a different historical period and attempting to square this with the decline of working class consciousness that has occurred since that programme was first promulgated.  The answer is not to stake a claim to false optimism, which foresees a future rapid radicalisation sweeping all before it in rather short order, but understand why it didn’t work before and what the lessons are of the much longer and wider experience of the vastly larger working class has been since 1938.

The majority appear to have a more sober appreciation of the political situation but no way of not capitulating to it, while the opposition seeks not to capitulate but unable to come to terms adequately with the demands placed on revolutionaries arising from it.

[i]This is not to deny that socialists should not seek to radicalise such struggles and the working class itself in the process; but it is to deny that this is the highway to socialist revolution, considered in its totality.

Back to part 5

Forward to part 7

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (5) – the opposition need for a revolutionary party

The documents of the opposition to the leadership of the Fourth International have the benefit a greater clarity of exposition. In their document ‘Let’s seize the opportunities, and build an international for revolution and communism’ the opposition criticises the majority line of building broad parties “without clear programmatic and strategic boundaries”, leading to betrayal of the traditional revolutionary programme of the International.

Thus, they point out that in Italy for example the “FI comrades supported in Parliament the formation of a Prodi government and voted for the war budget.”  Furthermore –

“Our ability to defend either the principle of class independence or to maximize the ability of our social class to act independently from the bourgeoisie and its State, is undermined when support is given to a politician linked to a bourgeois party, like Bernie Sanders, or to a personality with no ties to the labour movement, like Pablo Iglesias.”

Through this mistaken policy of the FI, the opposition argues that the majority “implicitly gave up on the relevance of revolution, seeing it as something to be accomplished in the distant future.”

It is not however clear to me that the opposition document makes any more convincing case that (their conception of) revolution is more relevant today, or in the short term, than that of the majority.  Small organisations without the participation or support of the mass of the working class bring the reality of revolution no nearer if they have no means of making their revolutionary programme the activity of the working class itself.

As Marxists, and therefore laying claim to a theoretical understanding superior to that of the mass of reformist (at best) workers, the opposition text should set out what the preconditions for socialist revolution are, and how Marxists might contribute to the working class accomplishing such a revolution.  But these preconditions appear to be assumed rather than explained.

Assertion of working class independence is fine and many of the criticisms of the experience of carrying out the majority perspective are true, but the traditional programme put forward by the opposition is presented in abstract terms and for Trotsky a programme must be concrete and have practical relevance.  I have addressed this problem before – here, here and here – so I will not repeat the arguments there.

The document fails to explain what independent working class politics means in a period like today, which is decidedly not a revolutionary one, or to be more specific, not one in which the working class in its majority seeks to conquer political power.

The problem that I pose is not one that the opposition would probably recognise, for they see the working class coming rapidly to political consciousness out of capitalist crises and the mass action prompted by such crises.  In the document they explain their conceptions, which are the traditional ones of many Marxists.  So, let’s look at what these are.

The opposition states that “We do not share the current FI leadership’s appreciation of the current situation. While it does feature an increasingly violent onslaught by the bourgeoisie, it is nonetheless contradictory and holds possibilities for revolutionary communists to be heard and to gain strength.”

It must be said that the last part of this involves a weak claim and one rather solipsistic.  No explanation is given as to how the mass of workers will come to socialist political consciousness, although it might be inferred this is a result of “revolutionary communists” being heard and gaining strength, that is, mainly through propaganda.

The epochal task of transforming the capitalist mode of production to socialism is however reduced to building an organisation that is currently without significant influence.  How this might be expected is unexplained.

One is left with an impression similar to that of listening to bold and incredible religious claims – the more enormous the claim the more requirement there is to provide equivalent justification for it.

The main opposition text asserts that the tendency for the rate of profit to fall is at the root of the capitalist crisis but this is neither proved, nor is it necessary.  In the document, it is implied that the capitalist crisis will not be escaped from spontaneously but through a historic defeat of the working class. The assessment is therefore incapable of understanding the massive growth of capitalism over the last period, which is reflected in the document’s own acknowledgement that:

“In fact, the working class is globally more numerous today than ever. In South Korea alone there are as many wage-earners today than there were in the whole world at the time of Karl Marx. The working class, which in our view is composed of wage workers who do not exercise management power, today constitutes between 80 and 90 per cent of the population in the most industrialized countries, and almost half of the total global population.”

“Globally, the number of industrial workers worldwide went from 490 million in 1991 to 715 million in 2012 (ILO data). Industry even grew faster than services between 2004 and 2012! The industrial sector did not shrink, but the agricultural sector did, from 44 to 32 per cent of the global workforce.”

But this incredible growth could only happen through rapid accumulation of capital, which makes a nonsense of any claim that capitalism has been in more or less permanent crisis during this period.  How could such accumulation have occurred with a declining rate of profit?  Either it did not fall or a fall does not reduce massive accumulation of capital.  Neither of which is a comfortable view for those making the argument.

A large number of the authors are Greek and it is understandable that the crisis conditions in that country may have coloured conceptions of the world capitalist system. But Greece is not the world and the world is not Greece.

What the authors have confused is the ever-present contradictions of capitalism, with its exploitation, oppression and inequality, and its tendency to war and violence, with capitalist crisis.  The former exist, even when capitalism is booming, in fact such things as exploitation must increase in such circumstances, but this does not mean capitalism is in crisis, as if a non-crisis capitalism entailed peace, equality, and humane and genial progress.

The problem with capitalism is that even when it achieves progress it does so through brutal oppression and exploitation, and yes, through recurrent crisis, which is how the system resolves temporarily some of its contradictions, only to create the basis for further crises in the process.  But this isn’t the same as crisis as understood by the document, which is one that calls into question the reproduction of the system.

The authors of the document note that:

“By reorganizing industry worldwide, capitalist globalization created new working classes in the southern countries, whose potential was shown by the recent mobilizations: the wave of strikes happening in China since 2010, the 2015 massive strikes in Bursa, Turkey, the formation of mass militant unions in Indonesia, the role of the union movement and of mass strikes demanding the resignation of South Korea’s Prime Minister in late 2016.”

They note that:

“we also see the renewed interest in socialism illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s double leadership victory in the British Labour Party, and the renewed interest in socialist ideas in the United States. All these signs indicate that the elements for anti-capitalist awareness are present. It is, nonetheless, a very uneven and limited process. Currents hostile to socialism are reaping the fruits of the deep discontent. The electoral audience of the FIT in Argentina, the recomposition of the union movement in South Africa, despite the limitations of both experiences, and above all, the renewed interest in “socialism” in the United States indicate that anti-capitalist ideas can acquire a mass audience.”

The document notes that they need to build the labour movement independent of the official union leaderships, and so capable of self-organisation.  But they state that the “elements for anti-capitalist awareness” that are present are “very uneven and limited’, that anti-capitalist ideas “do not yet have “a mass audience” and the type of labour movement they seek has yet to be built.

So, we have recurrent capitalist crises.  We have huge growth in the size of the working class and the creation of new working classes across the globe with enormous potential. We are told that the elements for anti-capitalist awareness are present (but not what they are), while anti-capitalist ideas “do not yet have “a mass audience” and the type of labour movement sought has yet to be built.

We are also told that there is “an increasingly violent onslaught by the bourgeoisie”, and one that is usually considered to have gone on for years, with more than a little success.  Yet one other, it would seem, is that the current, more or less immediate, relevance of socialist revolution has not diminished.

To be continued.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6